I can’t for the life of me figure out what goes through the minds of most tourists in Thailand as they stand in the mirror dressing themselves in the morning. In any area with more than a few foreigners around, it’s a sure thing to see men and women in baggy yoga pants with the crotch sagging around their ankles. The elephant patterned version are super popular on the backpacker trail, but laughed at anywhere else. And I get that it’s hot, and I certainly rock the board shorts/tank top/flip flops look sometimes, but if that’s what you’re wearing to restaurants, temples, and nights out, you’re doing Thailand all wrong.
Thais are very fashion conscious, taking their trend cues from Japan, Korea, Europe, the US, and increasingly, from their domestic designers. There’s no one correct way to dress, but everyone tries to look good. I advise anyone coming here to try to do the same. Of course in the end you should wear what you want, but if you want to make friends and be taken seriously in Thailand, you’ve got to make a reasonable effort to dress well. Here are a few guidelines that you’ll find useful if you want to be dressed well in Thailand. For customs and etiquette info, see our post Must-know etiquette tips for Thailand travel and living.
Shorts or trousers
When you’re out and about at midday in the tropics, obviously shorts are slightly more comfortable than long pants. Wearing them is fine, especially when you have a stylish pair. For a night out, a pair of nice jeans is much preferred. Shorts are pretty common in most bars catering towards Westerners, and they’re fine in many casual Thai nightspots too. For nightclubs in Bangkok and some other areas, men won’t be allowed in without pants. Women can pretty much wear the right pair of shorts anywhere.
Shoes or flip flops
Nightclubs away from beach areas usually require shoes but flip flops are okay in most other areas. I wear flip flops pretty often, but for me the difference in temperature between them and shoes is minimal. If I’m out and about in a city, I usually opt for shoes just to keep my feet from getting filthy.
Tank tops, singlets, vests, or whatever else you want to call them
Nobody should wear tank tops to temples, and men won’t get into nightclubs in them. I know they’re comfortable, but please don’t be that foreigner that wears nothing else. They’re definitely fine for the islands, and around Bangkok you’ll see plenty of Thais rocking them too. But for nights out, guys’ll do much better keeping the guns away (Khao San Road excepted).
Avoiding the tourist cliches
Sometimes it seems like there’s a standard uniform for travelers in Thailand, since they all seem to wear the same gear. The primary culprits are the Singha or Chang beer tank top, the Thai fisherman pants, and the numerous variations on yoga pants you see everywhere tourists go. These last ones are the most inexplicable to me since I don’t think those people wear them in their home country, nor are the something that Thais wear. Anyway, I avoid these cliches at all costs and I recommend you do the same.
Not being offensive
Occasionally I see foreigners whose fashion choices are extremely inappropriate in Thailand. The worst of these is topless sunbathing by women, which in addition to being offensive here is also illegal. Overly-skimpy bottoms aren’t really appropriate either, but are common on Western women (and unfortunately, men) anyway. Revealing swimwear is okay at the beach, but not away from it. On the streets, and in the shops and restaurants off of the beach, you should cover up; Thailand is a very conservative country in many ways.
A few packing essentials
For any trip I take in Thailand, even just a short weekend, there are a few things I almost always take along. A pair of decent jeans and a collared shirt are a must; you’d be surprised how often in Thailand you find yourself spontaneously invited to a wedding (and those are fun here!). If you score a date with anyone you’ll be glad you brought them too. A pair of reasonably fashionable shorts are always in my bag as well. And I’m a big fan of the plain black or white T-shirt, so at least one of each always comes along. Everything else you can play by ear, but these are the things I swear by.
This is all my personal opinion and you should wear what you want to wear, as long as it isn’t offensive here. But if you are looking for something more than just a touristy experience or the same trip down the backpacker trail everyone else takes, then dressing well is a good first step towards that. Dress reasonably fashionable, and ALWAYS in clean clothes, and you’ll set yourself apart from the other tourists and find yourself treated differently by Thais. Oh and guys, if you’re looking for a hookup of the variety you don’t have to pay for, then this all goes doubly so.