What (and What NOT) to Wear in Rural Thailand

So you have bought your ticket, evoked envy in your friends and family with your travel plans,  it’s the night before your early morning flight (oh wait, no that’s just me) and you are now staring into your closet wondering what to pack for Thailand. Well, that kind of depends on where in the country you are heading!

For the most part Thailand is a rather conservatively dressed country. You may find yourself feeling completely comfortable strolling the chaos of Koh San Road in Bangkok or the seaside streets of Koh Phi Phi, Krabi, or Pattaya in a tank top and shorts, but the same may not ring true in rural Thailand!

Thais are- overall- very forgiving of foreigners dressing like foreigners, but keep in mind just because nothing is said to you does not mean that what you are doing is necessarily culturally appropriate! Thais are very “greng jai”, a save face attitude that means they will often go out of their way to save another from embarrassment. Calling you out on breaking a social norm would be causing you embarrassment, so unless you are with a friend who is comfortable enough around you, they will simply smile and say nothing at all. Let this serve as a quick guide to fashion do’s and dont’s when you find your self in the more rural, less touristy destinations.

Leave that bikini (or speedo) at home!
Thais enjoying a waterfall

While lounging on the beach and swimming in your bikini may be accepted in the tourist heavy beaches of Thailand, you will feel naked and over-exposed in places such as the rural Issan region of Thailand (hotel pools you can probably get away with it, although you will feel more comfortable with a pair of shorts or a one piece). Head out to a lake or waterfall and you will be quite surprised to find that most locals hit the water wearing shorts or even jeans and a t-shirt! When hiking to or visiting a waterfall, many Thais will simply swim in the clothes they have on and bring a change of clothes for when they are done. I have lived in Buengkan for three years now and I have yet to see an adult female or male wearing a swimsuit while swimming in nature.

 

The best thing you can do is bring a t-shirt and a pair of shorts that you wouldn’t mind getting wet or dirty. Ladies remember to wear a sports bra and gentlemen keep those shirts on!

Think comfort over style when it comes to foot wear.
Sure, you should pack a pair of nice shoes for work and nights out when you are in the city, but for the most part think comfort! A nice pair of sandals or flats for ladies and a good pair of leather shoes or at least clean and new looking trainers for men would do just fine. Most of Issan nightlife is pretty laid back and they are lax on the dress code.

display shoes, edge of rock
Trainers. A traveler’s best friend

I cannot stress enough the importance of having comfortable shoes! Trainers are excellent as you will most likely be doing a lot of walking and exploring, and the ground is not always flat or even. I find flip flops to be essential, or any pair of sandals that require minimal effort to slip on and off. In Thailand, it is polite to take off your shoes when entering someone’s home. Some small, local convenience shops expect you to remove your shoes as well. Trust that whatever shoes you wear you will be removing them often, so it’s important (mostly for your sanity) to wear something that is easy and quick!

Unless you are stopping in Bangkok first and you know you will have a night out in a fancy restaurant, bar, or nightclub, I suggest leaving those heels, boots, and other nicer shoes at home. Your feet will only hurt or get too hot, and I’m afraid that fancy footwear will leave you feeling overdressed and might get ruined by the climate and weather. (Think rain, mud, humidity, and a whole lot of heat!)

If you are coming to Thailand to teach in a school, no matter where you are the rules are pretty universal when it comes to dress code. Both men and women should wear close toed shoes! Men, bring some smart looking dress shoes and leave the trainers at home. Ladies, flats or low heeled shoes are fine, but no high heels and no sandals!

Comfort, comfort, comfort! Trainers for big walking days and flip flops or other easy slip on sandals are best for rural Thailand. Don’t forget to have a decent pair of dress shoes on hand if you plan on teaching!

Skirts, shorts, or trousers?

thai style skirt
staying cool in a locally made skirt!

I used to hate skirts, but let me tell you two weeks in Southeast Asia converted me into the skirt’s biggest fan! It is so so very hot and while shorts are ok, skirts are just more airy and leave you feeling cooler and less, ahem, sweaty. You can find a great, cheap knee length or full length skirt at almost any market, and they are not only cooler but also acceptable to wear in temples (as long as they cover the knees) when most shorts are not. Guys obviously we don’t recommend buying a skirt for yourselves, but if you feel like rocking the shorts in Issan make sure they are cargo shorts or nicer material and about knee length.

English and Thai teachers in formal wear
teaching at government run high school

As a general rule if you are coming to teach English ladies you must wear a knee length or longer skirt, generally black. It  kills me to say this but women, unless in a senior position, cannot wear dress pants to teach. Men must wear dress pants, no shorts allowed!

foreign teachers Thailand professional attire
foreign teachers dressing the part at the high school!

As skirts are pretty easily available don’t worry about going out and buying one to bring if you don’t already own one, they are probably going to be cheaper to buy in Thailand anyway! Boys bring along a nice looking pair of shorts or pants. Unless you are on the shorter side it might be a bit difficult for both men and women to find shorts or trousers that fit properly, so plan ahead there!

Leave behind the low cut tops and muscle tanks.
Showing cleavage is generally frowned upon, especially in rural Thailand. As a general rule of thumb ladies try to watch the tops and steer clear of spaghetti straps, tank tops, crop tops, and anything low cut. As I said earlier, Thais are very forgiving and will not say anything to you about it, but once you start to notice people staring at you, you will start to feel a little bit uncomfortable.

woman with scarf, covered shoulders, mountain temple in Thailand
Perfect use of a scarf

Scarves are a great accessory! If you do want to wear a tank top, I suggest draping a scarf over your shoulders. Scarves are lightweight, easy to carry, and you can quickly throw one over your  shoulders before entering a temple!

volunteers on a mountain
Adventure attire

Guys, those low slung muscle tanks need to stay at home. Keeping those shoulders covered is a good general rule of thumb to follow.  Again if you plan on teaching in Thailand, ladies wear blouses that cover your shoulders and hide your cleavage, gentlemen wear nice, long sleeved shirts. most schools will not make you wear a tie but it is a good idea to start with one to make a good first impression!

Err on the side of conservative for both men and women. Make t-shirts your biggest travel outfit focus!

Just to recap a teachers ensemble…
Ladies wear higher cut blouses, at least a knee length skirt, and a nice pair of close toed low heels or flats.
Gentlemen wear cuffed, long sleeved shirts, a nice pair of dress pants, and smart dress shoes.
*IF you are a volunteer teaching in rural village schools, the dress code usually ends up being a bit more relaxed and less formal! However, still try to make a good impression.

And temple wear….

volunteers wear white, temple visit
dressed for the temple


If you have time to prepare before a temple visit, or if you are going for an extended period of time or special occasion, wear white or white colored clothing. Ladies keep your knees, shoulders and cleavage covered.

There is no hard and fast rule on what you must wear, but these are some guidelines on how to dress to be culturally appropriate.

foreigners and Thai pose for a photo

Now go enjoy Thailand! 😀

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