Clothing for Southeast Asia: What to Pack

Shoes, Outfits, and What to Wear in Southeast Asia

Clothing for Southeast Asia
••• Choose clothing to pack for Southeast Asia that is thin and lightweight. Maskot / Getty Images

Choosing what clothing to pack for Southeast Asia is actually easier than it seems. Weather is fairly consistent and dress is mostly casual. Plus, you'll have access to great shopping opportunities anyway for picking up items you need.

Less is certainly more when packing for a trip to Thailand or other parts of Southeast Asia. The only thing worse than forgetting to pack something is bringing too much along.

Traveling with an overloaded suitcase will detract from the enjoyment of your trip daily.

What Clothing to Pack

Aside from a few places at higher elevations, you’ll inevitably be warm throughout Southeast Asia. The humidity trapped in cities and rainforests can be sweltering at times. Bring lightweight, cotton clothing and plan to sweat! After sweating all day in Southeast Asia's sticky humidity, you’ll most likely need to change tops before going out in the evenings.

Jeans are hot, heavy, and dry too slowly; opt for thinner materials instead. Tourists often default to wearing shorts because of the temperatures, although most locals will nearly always be wearing long pants.

Fortunately, laundry service is affordable and easy to find. Prices are usually based on weight, although the norm in some places (Bali is one) is to charge by the piece. Clothing is typically line dried, unless you pay extra for expedited drier service.

Plan to wait at least a day — or longer if there’s rain — to get your laundry back.

Tip: Sending off your laundry the day before you have transportation booked is a risky endeavor. Allow a buffer day for unexpected delays.

Plan to Purchase Clothing Locally

Why risk your good stuff from home when you can buy quality, cheap clothing in Southeast Asia?

Leave enough room in your suitcase, and consider purchasing items locally from the many local markets and boutique shops. Not only will doing so help the local economy, you’ll end up with some fun souvenirs from that can't be found at home.

A few of the great wearables you’ll find for cheap in Southeast Asia include T-shirts, sarongs, sunglasses, hats, beach coverups, and thin skirts.

Choose Conservative Clothing

Some clothing may make you more of a target than others.  If unsure about local customs, opt for light-colored shirts without sexual, political, or religious themes. You're supposed to have shoulders covered when entering temples or religious monuments, but many tourists don't abide by the dress code.

Some of the T-shirts for sale to tourists in Asia depict images of Buddha or Ganesh, both of which may not be respectful to wear in certain settings. Yes, you'll see plenty of travelers wearing the items but very few locals.

Red and yellow/gold shirts once held political meanings in Thailand, although tourists are mostly exempt and aren’t considered to be choosing a political allegiance.

Tip: Wearing expensive jewelry and sunglasses may hurt your chances of negotiating better rates, or worse, get the attention of thieves.

Take One Warm Item

Given Southeast Asia's proximity to the Equator, packing a warm item seems like a waste of space. Expert travelers in Southeast Asia can attest, the air conditioning on public transportation and in some common areas is often cranked cold enough to cause windows to frost over! You’ll be glad to have a light jacket or long-sleeved top, particularly on night buses where the blankets provided are often of questionable cleanliness.

Shoes for Southeast Asia

The default footwear of choice in Southeast Asia is the all-purpose pair of flip-flops. Whatever style sandals you choose to wear, you’ll need to be able to remove them often before you enter certain establishments — the less straps and buckles, the better. Some guesthouses, restaurants, bars, and businesses ask that you leave your shoes at the entrance.

When visiting someone's home, you should always remove your shoes before going inside. The same applies when visiting a temple.

Avoid taking an expensive pair of sandals that could “walk away” after you leave them outside. Cheap flip-flops can be purchased nearly everywhere in Southeast Asia.

Some upscale clubs and restaurants require shoes with a closed toe; some of the skybars in Bangkok maintain a dress code. Take along a light pair of proper shoes if you plan to hit nicer places in the evenings.

Packing for the Rainy Season

If you’ll be visiting Southeast Asia during the monsoon season, plan to get wet unexpectedly at some point. Pop-up storms are often quick and intense. Many businesses are open-air and have outside seating that ends up drenched. You’ll find cheap umbrellas and throwaway ponchos for sale everywhere — no need to pack them.

Special Considerations

Most people wouldn’t wear skimpy or revealing clothing to church at home; the same rules of etiquette apply in Southeast Asia. If you intend to visit the picturesque temples and mosques — and there are plenty — you’ll need to cover your legs and shoulders to show respect.

Most of the Hindu temples in Bali require that men wrap in a sarong; they can often be borrowed or rented for a small fee at the entrance of temples. Popular attractions such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia are still actively used for worship. Don’t join the disrespectful masses who wear shorts anyway — cover up!

Beachwear is fine, but it has it's place: on the beach. When leaving the beach to eat, grab a drink, or run back to your hotel, cover up.