Choosing what clothing to pack for Southeast Asia is easy enough, but there are some special considerations. Weather is pretty well consistently warm with only a few exceptions.
Although Southeast Asia is hot, travelers learn early on that air conditioning is celebrated with zealous enthusiasm. Bus crews can regularly be seen wearing hoodies and winter attire while passengers' teeth chatter. Malls and transportation hubs are usually chilled well below comfort thresholds.
Less is certainly more when packing for a trip to Thailand or other parts of Southeast Asia. You'll have access to plenty of fun shopping and will inevitably pick up some unique wearables. Leave room for new purchases when packing at home.
The only thing worse than forgetting to pack something is bringing too much along and having to give stuff away to make additional space. It happens. Traveling with an overloaded suitcase will detract from the enjoyment of your trip. It may even discourage you from seeing interesting places and enjoying some activities (e.g., taking speedboats to island destinations).
What Clothing to Pack
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 want to change tops before going out in the evenings.
Jeans or Shorts?
Jeans are stylish in Southeast Asia, but they are also hot, heavy, and dry slowly. Opt for thinner materials instead.
Tourists usually default to wearing shorts because of the temperatures, although most locals prefer to wear long pants. You will need at least one garment that covers the knees for visiting temples or taking care of business in government buildings.
Because of their weight, jeans will also increase your laundry bills.
Doing Laundry Along the Way
Fortunately, laundry service is affordable and easy to find in Southeast Asia. Prices are usually based on weight, although the norm in some places (Bali is one) is to charge by the piece.
Because electricity prices can be high, clothing is typically line dried unless you pay extra for expedited service or "machine drying." Plan to wait at least a day — or longer if there’s rain — to get your laundry back. Jeans may not be completely dry after a humid day on the line.
Prices for laundry service are low, but sometimes so is treatment. Items frequently get lost or damaged; always keep track of what you sent and take inventory at pickup before walking away. Sending off your laundry the day before taking transportation to somewhere else is a risky endeavor. Allow a buffer day for unexpected delays. Your hotel may or may not do the laundry on site; they may send it to a center.
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 colorful markets and boutique shops. Not only will doing so help the local economy, you’ll end up with some fun souvenirs that can't be found at home.
Fashion designers in places such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Bali crank out fun, quirky products that will definitely have people at home asking, "Hey! Where'd you get that?" Hoi An in Vietnam is a popular place to have custom clothing made, however, you'll find skilled tailors throughout Southeast Asia.
A few of the great wearables available 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 spectacle — and target — than others. If unsure about local customs, opt for neutral-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. Places such as the Grand Palace in Bangkok enforce a conservative dress code, although they will rent sarongs at the entrance.
Some of the T-shirts for sale to tourists in Asia depict images of Buddha or Ganesha, 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. Even tattoos depicting images of Buddha are discouraged in Thailand and should be covered if possible.
Tip: Wearing expensive jewelry and sunglasses may hurt your chances of negotiating better rates, or worse, get the attention of thieves.
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.
As in many cultures, black is often viewed as a funerary color and is not suitable for every occasion.
Take One Warm Item
Given Southeast Asia's proximity to the Equator, packing a warm item seems like a waste of space. But expert travelers in Southeast Asia can attest: the air conditioning on public transportation and enclosed spaces such as malls 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 if you take any night buses where the blankets provided are often of questionable cleanliness.
Any reasonable swimwear (bikini or one-piece) will work in Southeast Asia no matter the locale provided that you don't wear it off of the beach. When leaving the beach to go to the road or inside of businesses, cover up!
You'll want some sort of beach cover up for protection from the sun. It also comes in handy on the beaches of Malaysia and Indonesia where you may be doing transactions with people who are fully covered. The same applies when walking through the "locals" area on beaches.
Beachwear is fine on tourist beaches, but it has its place: on the beach! When leaving the immediate beach area to eat, grab a drink, or run back to your hotel, cover up.
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, shops, and others businesses ask that you leave your shoes at the entrance. Doing so not only keeps dirt and sand out, it has cultural significance. When visiting someone's home, you should always remove your shoes before going inside. The same applies when entering the prayer hall of a temple or mosque.
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.
If you plan to do any trekking or serious adventures, you'll want some sort of lightweight adventure sandal that offers toe protection.
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 lightweight ponchos for sale everywhere — no need to pack them.
When to Cover Up
Most people wouldn’t wear skimpy or sexy/revealing clothing to church or a formal dinner at home; the same rules of etiquette apply in Southeast Asia. If you intend to visit the picturesque temples and mosques — 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 themselves in a sarong. Most temples offer sarongs that can be borrowed or rented for a small fee at the entrance.
Popular attractions such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia are still actively used for worship. Don’t join the disrespectful masses who wear shorts anyway — get some lightweight cotton pants to wear.