Would you wear a bikini to a church?
If I was to share one Thailand travel tip, it would be, dress appropriately. The Internet and popular guide books will let you know that when entering a temple or wat, you need to cover your shoulders and (women) legs. But for some reason they don’t tell you that even Thais don’t wear bikinis when they go to the beach. They wear shorts and tee shirts or a one piece.
Despite Thailand’s sexpat and sex industry reputation, Thailand is overall, a conservative country. Yes, I’ve seen shorter hemlines since a few years ago, but(!) that doesn’t mean you can look like you are sauntering down sandy beaches everywhere you go.
I grew up in Hawaii, and went to college in the tourist town of Durango, Colorado, so I’m used to seeing tourists dress in a variety of motley ways. But when you are living on the other side of the world, in a culture very different than Americana, a variety of motley ways can leave a trail of tears.
I live and work in the Old City (or touristic center) of Chiang Mai which is located in Northern Thailand. Even in a city such as Chiang Mai where there are no beaches, it’s not unusual to see bare chested men and women in bikinis under breezy shifts. But I was stunned when I saw a shirtless man wearing an Akha Ama head dress.
He was with two female friends. I don’t remember what they were wearing. He was the obvious center of buffoonery. If a Caucasian man was bare chested wearing a Native American head dress in the US of A, walking down the street, I think it would be considered highly disrespectful. But for some reason, folks travel to another country and act differently (?) possibly in the name of, “I’m on holiday!”
I shared what I saw with a colleague since I was walking back to work, and she said that our friend Lee who runs Akha Ama coffee, and is Akha, gets really upset when he sees tourists wearing hill tribe clothing. He won’t even decorate the coffee shop with hill tribe textiles.
I was curious then, what would other Thais say, if asked, “If you could change one thing about tourists who come to Thailand, what would it be? What would you like to tell them?”
“The way they dress shows a lack of respect.”
“Put your shirt on. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Don’t expect things here to be the same as back home. Foreigners always ask me, why do Thais do this? Why do they do that? They get so mad about the way Thais drive. And I want to say, that is just the way they are. Expect things to be different here.”
“Keep an open mind.” I added. “It’s Thai culture!”
When I was a Waldorf teacher, teaching the second grade, at one of those dreaded parent meetings, I remember a parent said, “Sadie is such a polite child. How did you get her to be like that? What did you do? Tell me your secret!”
Sadie’s parents laughed.
Her father Kenneth leaned back, and then forward, “Well, I told Sadie to get my passport and bring it back to me. After she did this, I asked her, do you know what this is? She shook her head, and I explained that this little book lets you travel the world. I let her hold it, and then I said, good manners are like a passport, with it, you can go anywhere, and you can travel the world.”
Thailand is overall a safe and wonderful country, and yes, it’s hot. I understand why tourists wear tank tops and shorty shorts. However, if you dress a certain way, expect to be stared at, and for women, possibly even grabbed. Thailand is rapidly changing and more migrant workers are living here. Thai men are “old fashioned” and I don’t mean that in a good way. They think if you reveal a lot of skin, then you are easy or slutty, etc. Dressing a certain way means different things, especially in country that highly values appearances.