What to Wear in Thailand Without Looking Like a Backpacker

What to Pack for Thailand

Let me first say that I wear Thai fisherman’s pants on a daily basis. I always have a nice sheen going because I’m always sweating to some degree, I never try and fix my hair because I’m just going to put a helmet over it anyway, my clothes now often have white dog hair clinging to them (especially because I wear a lot of black) and my light skin/blue eyes/blonde hair combo make it more than obvious that I’m not from here.

When I moved to Thailand, I immediately started working in Thai schools and was always extra aware of what I was wearing both at my job and outside of work. Appearance here means a lot. Sometimes it’s hard to tell just quite the rules are – I haven’t figured out why girls won’t wear tank tops, but they’ll wear the shortest shorts ever – but here people’s appearances say a lot about who they are and, for better or for worse, really affect how others see you.

While I have been known to rock the baggy harem pants and flip flops, over the years I’ve found different clothes and styles that work in the humid heat while still appearing a little bit more respectable and not sticking out like a blatant tourist. I also have started sticking to the same color palette, mainly white, grey, denim blue, army green, light pink and black, so everything goes together. I don’t think too much about what I wear in the morning and almost all my clothes travel well too. Essentially, I’ve been working the “capsule” wardrobe for a while now without even trying, simply because it makes sense – I don’t like spending money on clothing, and it’s easier to pack and travel, or move halfway around the world for a few months, with less stuff.

If you’re just passing through Thailand on a short holiday, then really – except for in temples – you can wear pretty much whatever you want. However, if you’re sticking around for longer or starting to work here you can’t be relying on the backpacker basics.

Here are my go to’s for what to wear in Thailand:

  • 2 pairs of loose pants (plus a couple pairs of cheap fisherman pants)
  • 2 pairs of shorts
  • 3 dresses
  • 3 button up blouses
  • 1 button up chambray
  • 2 scarves
  • Several basic t-shirts and tank tops
  • 1 light sweater, 1 light jacket, 1 waterproof jacket
  • 3 pairs of shoes/sandals, 1 pair of flip flops, 1 pair of running shoes, 1 pair of boots, 1 pair of high heels (that I’ve worn once in the past year…)

95% of my clothes can be mixed and matched together and I can wear them here in Thailand, or back in Seattle, or even Europe (though I would need a better coat for winter).

I’ve also found several items of clothing that I wear almost daily and quickly replace when they wear out along with several Do’s and Don’ts that I stick to.

DO

How to Pack for Thailand
My shoulders are covered, yet I’m still not hot

Use lacy and sheer fabrics to your advantage! The dress above, thanks to Zalora, is a great example of staying relatively covered up but not too hot…it has sleeves and a high collar, but not really since it’s lacy. I also have several shirts and blouses in sheer fabrics, but not too sheer, that I can wear over camisoles but still be covered. Mesh and lace underwear is also the way to go and quickly dries when you’re doing your own laundry.

Always have a chambray – I have a slightly-too-big-for me chambray button up shirt that I quickly throw on when I go out on my motorbike. It goes with just about everything else in my closet, thanks to my tendency to stick to a few neutral colors, and is a great cover up when driving. Driving around in a tank top is a sure tourist giveaway and covering up will protect you from the sun while actually keeping cooler.

Sweat-wicking yoga pants – I wear a pair of black, cropped sweat-wicking yoga pants about every other day. Lots of women wear leggings here, so they fit in well plus are comfortable and don’t show that, sometimes, you’re literally sweating your ass off. Tight pants and a loose shirt is a great combination.

Ankle-length pants – It may be all in my head, but I’m more cool and comfortable if I’m wearing cropped ankle-length skinnies rather than full length pants. (I do wear denim sometimes but wouldn’t recommend bringing jeans if you’re just traveling through!)

Tone down the harem pants – Harem or “Aladdin” pants are great – they cover up your knees, which is important when visiting temples, yet are plenty cool and comfortable. I like wearing loose pants especially on flights or overnight bus rides because they always seem to be super air-conditioned but I still want to be able to move around easily. However the harem pants you can buy in Thailand tend to be really loud and really loose. Fortunately, these types of pants are in style other places too now though and are more tailored while not quite as intense as some of the bright, baggy elephant print pants you can buy at the night markets.

Bring clothes from home – Yes, you can find almost anything here and there are a lot of cheap options, but many things don’t fit properly or wear out quickly. Most of my clothes, and all of my shoes, are from the U.S.

Invest in solid sandals – I don’t usually wear flip flops because I don’t like to drive in them. Instead I have several pairs of strappy sandals that I know will stay on feet and also look a little nicer than rubber flip flops. Before I came back to Thailand this time around I bought a pair of the Teva Cabrillo Wedge Sandals because they are supportive with good traction, yet light and don’t look like Tevas – you can easily wear them with a dress!

Sharp-looking flats – I travel with one pair of nice flats that are black patent leather and a pair of worn-out, faded Toms. The black ones work with pants, shorts or dresses and can be dressed up or down depending on what I’m wearing; the Toms are for everyday wear and tear. Both protect my feet a bit more and both are easy to slip on and off when going into temples or someone’s home.

Remember that baby powder and dry shampoo are your friend – Between the heat and wearing a helmet for part of the day, I go through a lot of baby powder and dry shampoo (to try) to stay looking fresh.

DON’T

What not to wear in Thailand
No shoes at a temple = good, no shoes driving = bad

Go shoeless – Yes, you’ll be asked to take your shoes off when entering a temple, massage shop, yoga studio, and even some small stores and guesthouses, but walking around outside or, worse, driving a motorbike without wearing any shoes is just plain stupid. I get that you’re a world-traipsing, free spirit who doesn’t have the time or material needs to be bothered with something like shoes, but in a country where shoes are often worn until they fall apart and the foot is considered the dirtiest part of the body, not wearing shoes when you’re expected to just seems plain bizarre and rude. Plus, if you’re walking or driving along the street with nothing to protect your feet, you’re practically begging to get a cut or infection.

Go topless – There are several parts to this rule including: Don’t go topless on the beaches or at a pool. It is in no way okay. You’ll see Thais going into the water in shorts and T-shirts, they’ll tolerate bikinis in touristy areas, but being topless is highly rude and inappropriate. Also don’t wear shirts, like those super loose or sheer tank tops, where you can see your bra. No one wants to see that, especially not here. As a foreigner you’re not expected to completely cover up as much as most of the Thais do, but it makes people uncomfortable if you cross the line with what you’re showing off. (And, guys, unless you’re on the beach, keep your shirt on! You look ridiculous walking down the street or thinking you’re cool riding your automatic scooter without it.)

Wear shorts with your butt cheeks sticking out – I can’t believe I even have to write this, but I regularly see girls walking around Chiang Mai with shorts so short that their ass is hanging out. I don’t see how that’d be appropriate anywhere, but it certainly isn’t here.

Always wear Chang, Singha, Same Same, or elephant t-shirts and tanks tops – Yes, it’s nice that you can grab a cheap shirt at the markets, but they kind of look silly when you always see people wearing the exact same ones.

Wear shorts, tank tops or low cut shorts when you’re doing something important – If you’re volunteering, meeting someone about a job, going to Thai lessons or something else where you’re interacting with people on a less touristy level try to look a little more put together.

It may sound like there are a lot of rules for how to dress, but there aren’t really. It’s just that many Westerners equate being in a hot place with showing off as much skin as possible and, if you want to try and respect the people and culture here more or are spending a significant amount of time in the country, it just doesn’t fly here.

What other recommendations would you add to my list? What do you usually wear in Thailand?

If you’re planning on moving over to Thailand, you may want to check out my past post about what to pack when you’re moving to Southeast Asia.

Photos by: Kimberly Lauren Bryant // kimberlylbryant.com

42 Comments

  • Posted July 20, 2015
    by Maria from Nerd Nomads

    Great tips on how to dress in Thailand Alana! I totally agree with you that is is nice being well-dressed also on travels and vacations, and not look like a backpacker all the time. Especially in Thailand and Asia in general it is important not to show too much skin. The worst thing is western tourists wearing Chang or Singha tank tops, hehe. That black dress from Zalora is beautiful. Even though I love shopping at markets in Thailand, especially Chatuchak weekend market, I rarely find my size and the quality of the fabrics in the clothes and shoes are not the best. So I do most of my shopping for clothes and shoes back home in Europe. Ah, I really miss Thailand!

    • Posted July 21, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      I rarely buy clothes here and never have bought shoes, though the Zalora site is becoming a new option to me! Hope you guys are well!

  • Posted July 21, 2015
    by Erica

    Love the tips – I think the general gist of them apply to a lot of Asian countries. I found the same thing with high necklines and high hemlines in Japan!

    • Posted July 21, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      So high…on both accounts…I don’t get it!

  • Posted July 21, 2015
    by Justine

    Great tips! I’m currently doing some shopping in the states in preparation for my move to Cambodia in a couple weeks. And I always find it tough to find clothes that are cute, multipurpose and that will keep me cool. So this post was perfect timing :)

    • Posted July 21, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      Hope it helped a little, I seriously live in my cropped yogi capris from Lululemon normally with a tank top and loose button up shirt over it!

  • Posted July 22, 2015
    by Bethany

    I’m moving to Bangkok in three weeks, and this makes me nervous! I’m not one to show a lot of skin, but there is no way I’m tossing all of my cute sundresses! I’ve always been a long skirt or pants on bottom, tank top on top girl, and I don’t see this changing any time soon- it works better with my body shape. Walking around in yoga pants and a tank is a Southern California uniform. While I don’t want to offend people, I don’t really care if I look like a tourist as long as I’m happy and comfortable in what I’m wearing. I’ll be attending college with a bunch of “kids” in their teens/early twenties- do you think I can get away with more, since I’ve heard they dress pretty provocatively/flamboyantly at school?

    • Posted July 22, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      Don’t worry – you’ll be just fine! And at school you’ll be required to wear a uniform anyway.

      • Posted July 28, 2015
        by Bethany

        Thank you! Phew…

      • Posted August 28, 2015
        by Bethany

        So my worries were unfounded. I attend an American university, so I could probably get away with the logo tees and cutoffs that some of the people wear. It’s a more business casual setting, so I’ve bought some more conservative skirts/tops/dresses at the market and I’m good to go. I see A LOT of skin being shown in Bangkok- everywhere, in broad daylight- not just by ladyboys and bar girls. So I’m not worried about offending anyone with a bra strap or a strappy sundress. But I DO feel uncomfortable if I look sloppy or too casual- the Thais seem to put effort into getting dressed, for the most part- the ladies look cute and put together!

        • Posted August 30, 2015
          by Alana Morgan

          Yes, I feel like you can get away with showing some skin as long as you don’t look sloppy and simply be aware of the type of situation/location/people you’ll be around. I’m fully covered if I go to a temple or meet with clients, but running errands around town I feel find wearing shorts, etc. Hope you’re enjoying it!

  • Posted July 22, 2015
    by Ruth

    Great post! I live in central Thailand and work as a teacher so I know it to be a conservative culture. The paradoxes can definitely be confusing but I can’t be seen to wear things that are too short or show of my shoulders and looking smart is very important.

    So many people seem to think that ‘anything goes’ in Thailand and it makes me cringe to see what some people where. Obviously it’s up to them but they shouldn’t then be surprised when they don’t get the respect of the locals.

    • Posted July 22, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      In a way it is ‘anything goes’ – I’ve seen people out to dinner or the movies in a short dress, heels and fake eyelashes as well pajamas, but when it comes to baring it all, it’s just not okay! I cringe when I see guys driving or walking around Chiang Mai without their shirts on – there’s no beach around and no one else is doing it…don’t they realize that!?

  • Posted July 26, 2015
    by Charlotte

    Living is Laos, I guess I’ve been lucky to not have to worry about what I’ll wear on the bottom part of my body. The sinh is just so comfortable and beautiful and easy to match any top with. I also buy tops when I’m abroad, as the fit is much better for my shape.
    Great advice on what to wear other than my sinh!

    • Posted July 27, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      The sinhs are pretty – are they hard to move around in though?

  • Posted August 4, 2015
    by Kristen

    Great post! I’ve found that buying accessories at the markets is the way to go. Scarves, bracelets and necklaces are a great way to update your limited wardrobe when abroad and avoid wearing the Farang uniform i.e. elephant pants and a Chang tank *cringe*. My go to piece is a light weight chambray button up that I can throw on over a tank so I don’t feel naked when walking/driving around. P.s I brought a push up bra with me from the states and haven’t worn it once in the last 9 months.

    • Posted August 4, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      That’s a good tip, Kristin! And it sounds like we’re definitely on the same page about chambrays and bras!

  • Posted August 16, 2015
    by Nikki

    I had no idea! I adhere to most of those rules but I would have never known about the bare shoulders thing and now I do. Great post!

  • Posted August 26, 2015
    by Travel-Ling

    Great tips! I remember Thailand being so hot too, so the lace sleeves to be modest and still cool are a good idea!

    • Posted August 30, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      So hot…it’s better, and keeps you cooler, if you can cover up a bit but it feels so unnatural at first to do so!

  • Posted August 28, 2015
    by Bethany

    What kind of dry shampoo do you like? :)

    • Posted August 30, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      I switch back and forth between using baby powder and, ideally, the Batiste brand of dry shampoo. I have some from Pantene Pro-V right now that smells great, but doesn’t seem to work as well for me as Batiste.

  • Posted September 3, 2015
    by Emily La Porte

    Hello Alana & fellow travelers,
    Thanks for the great article. I also think it’s an art to be able to have a mixable and matchable wardrobe that is culturally appropriate, sensible for the climate and looks cute without carrying around 3 suitcases. I accept your challenge! I go for neutral pieces that can be dressed up or down with accessories. I also try to carry a cute bag in place of a day backpack and wear comfy flats in place of tennis shoes. I do a lot of hiking and trekking on my adventures, so I have backpacks and tennis shoes but i try to limit my use when not in the hills.

    • Posted September 4, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      I definitely wear flats over tennis shoes!

  • Posted December 27, 2015
    by Nadja

    Great blog. I will be going to Thailand in 10 days so I have a question. I have to wear special shoes because I get pain walking very quickly if I don’t. As they were custom made for my feet, they were really expensive, but look just like nice leather shoes for women with small feet. Now do I have to be worried if I leave them somewhere, outside a temple e.g. ? Don’t get me wrong, people here often just take umbrellas outside the stores, so I wouldn’t recommend leaving a $1000 worth one. Should I bring some bag where I can put them in and take with me, or what do you think? Thanks for your help. Greets from Switzerland!

    • Posted December 28, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      Absolutely everyone leaves their shoes outside a temple and I’ve never heard of any problems. I’ve left my keys in my motorbike parked in the street overnight and it was still there…I can’t imagine anyone stealing shoes, especially while they’re at a temple – that would be horrible, horrible karma!

  • Posted January 10, 2016
    by Sarah

    Hi! I am planning a trip to Thailand and one of my major reasons for going is to get my very first Sak Yantra tattoo at Wat Bang Phra… :) I know that it is important to keep the shoulders covered at the temple and to remove your shoes before going inside. But my question is such: Are women required to wear PANTS specifically to the temple? I just need to know what will be considered the most respectful and acknowledging to their spirituality.

    • Posted January 11, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      Hey Sarah – how cool! Do you have it figured out how you’re going to get to the temple, etc. yet? My friends at WSE Travel are experts in sak yant and can help organize your experience, you can find info here http://wheresidewalksend.com/shop/travel/freestyle/bangkok-sak-yant-elite/?connect=2.

      As for attire, you’re not required to specifically wear pants, you can wear whatever you’d like as long as your knees are covered. Pants, capris, long skirts, etc. are fine!

  • Posted February 27, 2016
    by Jenny

    Love everything on this blog! I’ll be studying in Khon Kaen this summer, but am planning on traveling around to other places in Thailand. Is there any specifics you would recommend for the summer months rainy season (may, june, july)? I’m from the midwest, so I am not used to hot, humid, and rain!

  • Posted April 18, 2016
    by Kevin ucan

    Thanks for the tips, which I happened to stumble from nowhere. I’ll let my wife read this and she’s good to go to Thailand, next month.

  • Posted March 29, 2017
    by sarah c

    I am coming to Bangkok to teach, starting at the end of August, I would be interested to know what type of thing you wore whilst you were teaching. Great blog btw!

    • Posted April 9, 2017
      by Alana Morgan

      For one of my teaching jobs I had set things I needed to wear every day and bought everything in Thailand. For the gigs that were a little more relaxed I wore loose trousers or long skirts and a loose blouse – it’s hot! I was really concerned about clothes before I came, but you’ll be able to get stuff once you get here and see what others are wearing.

  • Posted October 23, 2017
    by an

    Thank you great help off to Bangkok this week for only 5days, Staying at double tree Any tips at where to eat Vegan clean and healthy

    • Posted November 2, 2017
      by Alana Morgan

      Check out http://bk.asia-city.com for their restaurant reviews! Bangkok is MASSIVE and it takes quite a bit of time to get places so it’s hard for me to give specific food recommendations :)

  • Posted November 21, 2017
    by Matt @ Pickleball

    Very useful and practical list. It’s hard to come up with stuff that doesn’t make you look like a backpacker and still travel light but you have some good recommendations.

  • Posted December 4, 2017
    by Bridgette Jordaan

    Thank you so much for this information. We maybe moving to Thailand sometime early spring 2018. My husband would need to be close to an airport but I would like to live near the beach. I don’t to well in large cities ; Dallas ,Houston but I’m not one to live in a place like New York . Do you have any suggestions on where to live that’s not too expensive ,safe and a good school for a 4 yr.old?
    Thank you so much
    B

    • Posted December 5, 2017
      by Alana Morgan

      There are several areas near the beach that are also close to an airport, like Phuket, Krabi or Hua Hin. Hua in would probably be the most family-friendly and cheapest. Really the only large city in Thailand in Bangkok.

  • Posted March 1, 2018
    by Brendah

    Really enjoyed this article, thank you! Great tips :)

  • Posted July 5, 2018
    by Thaisnook

    Thanks for the tips! Will definitely keep these things in my head. My go to outfit is shorts and a white tee but since I already moved here in Thailand for a couple of months ago, I should totally wear pjs or pants more.

  • Posted November 7, 2019
    by Womens Clothing

    This is a very informative post. I will always remember your suggestions during my Thailand trip and try to wear according to your suggestions.

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