What to wear in Thailand?
Find out what to wear in Bangkok, at temples, on the beach, and beyond. Plus, get tips for ideal fabrics, the best shoes and more.
What to Wear in Thailand
What to wear in Thailand’ is answered with two quick questions. What’s appropriate in a modest country? And, what clothes suit Thailand’s hot, humid climate? It’s easy! Use this What to Wear in Thailand guide and the Thai dress code won't be a problem.
Thailand’s dress code: What to know?
Let’s start with the culture and climate. Bar girls and lady-boys shows aside, Thailand is a modest country. Think of a PG-13 corner of Utah on a hot day. While there are no actual rules (Thailand is used to under-dressed foreigners), staying ‘more covered than not’ will be appreciated. Bonus? You'll likely enjoy better service. Below, discover exactly what to wear in Thailand – from Bangkok to the beach.
Sun safety and avoiding mosquitoes
Let’s start, straight out of the shower, with what to wear on your skin: sunscreen and mosquito repellent are daily non-negotiables in Thailand.
What sunscreen to wear in Thailand?
Sun safety? Thailand is mere degrees from the equator and its UV rating is off the charts year-round. Even if you “never burn” at home, respect Thailand’s sun. Pale people, you don't need convincing but those of you in the blasé "I-never-burn-I-just-tan" camp ... how about you just humour me on this. Meet me at SPF 30 (minimum) and you, me and your mummy can all be happy. You’ll find lots more sun safety tips throughout this post (and the entire blog) but start with a quality sunscreen on your face and body.
Last year, sunscreens containing coral-damaging ingredients were banned in Thai national parks (including Angthong National Marine Park near Koh Samui). I can’t speak to the law’s enforcement, but fines up to 100,000 baht are mentioned (nearly US$3000). To err with caution, you’ll want to look for sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium oxide rather than oxybenzone, octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor butylparaben.
There’s no regulation of the term “reef-safe” so you’ll have to double-check the ingredients yourself (or see my favourites below). Reef-friendly tends to mean that the product excludes the ingredients above, whereas reef-safe will be a mineral formula.
Can you buy sunscreen in Thailand?
Yes – but note that imported Western brands can cost as much as 300% as on Amazon and you’ll have far fewer options – on Koh Samui, it’s often Banana Boat and that’s it. Want a specific brand, a high SPF or sensitive skin/cruelty-free options? Unless you hit the jackpot at a Bangkok expat grocery or a high-end hotel gift shop, you’ll want to bring your sunscreen with you from home.
What sunscreen is best for Thailand? First of all, start at SPF 30 but ideally choose SPF 50 or 70 if you’re planning to lie in the sun for hours or will be on the water. Then, make sure it has water resistance. All of the following sunscreens are cruelty-free, water-resistant for at least 80 minutes and meet the reef-safe ingredients criteria mentioned above.
For your face: Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen
I’ve used this stuff every day for a few years and it’s the only face sunscreen I can stand to wear in Thailand’s humidity. Everything else I've tried feels hot, heavy and sticky. Instead, this is like a weightless gel rather than a sloppy white lotion.
For your body:
- Lotion: Sun Bum Original SPF 50
- Lotion: Supergoop! Everyday Play SPF 50
- Mineral: Sun Bum Mineral SPF 30
- Mineral: Blue Lizard SPF 50
What mosquito repellent to wear in Thailand?
For top to bottom (really, don’t forget your bottom) tips, see how to avoid mosquitoes in Thailand. You’ll learn your choices for natural vs DEET repellents, plus discover dozens of clever repellent accessories and travel products.
As a quick summary, this is my favourite repellent for Thailand and the only spray I’ll use (however it’s currently only available in the UK so this option is a decent U.S. alternative). For extra success, adding mosquito-repelling bracelets gives you protection even if you forget your spray.
How to apply sunscreen and mosquito repellent together?
First, your sunscreen goes on clean skin. Then wait at least 10 minutes (ideally 20) before applying your mosquito repellent. In my experience in Thailand's high humidity, it's best to do this when you're cool and comfortable in an air-conditioned environment (so it will sink in rather than sweat straight off) and before getting dressed. Here’s World Nomads on the subject:
- Sunscreen or Insect Repellent: Which Goes On First?
- Get your travel insurance for Thailand
- What's covered / what's not covered
What fabric is best in Thailand?
The climate determines what you should wear in Thailand – a fine line between respecting local culture, and not melting into a puddle. Despite Thailand’s typical temperatures – mid-30s (over 90°F) – and high humidity, your fabric choices can win the game. You’re not coming on vacation to play “sweaty bush pig”, are you?
Linen, linen, linen. All the linen. Head to toe linen. This is perhaps my best suggestion for what to wear in Thailand: linen (ideally 100% linen not a blend, so check the tags). With few exceptions, explained below, I pack nothing but linen. As an extra benefit, linen shirts tend to be cut slightly oversized ('boyfriend' fit for women) – hot days are so much more comfortable when you have breathing room.While your closet is probably full of light cotton and its weight might make it seem comparable, try packing at least one linen shirt. You'll live in it for your entire trip. (Why? Linen is both wicking and more breathable than cotton – crucial in a tropical climate).
Pack a travel steamer
Of course, linen does crease but a travel steamer fixes that in 10 seconds flat. I have this dual-voltage travel steamer: it plugs straight into Thai plugs (no adapter needed) – just fill it up in the bathroom sink, let it heat up for a minute and steam any crease to oblivion (it gets addictive). For crinkled linen or just refreshing things for another wear, I use my steamer every day in Thailand. (See my full review – including its victories against microscopic mites).
Tip: As mentioned, Thailand is a modest country but its dress code is also very sun-smart. The more you add sun protection with your clothing, the better you’ll meet Thai cultural norms. Choose long-sleeved linen shirts over short-sleeves as well as longer lengths in shorts, skirts and dresses. As well, this is not the time for tight clothing – it’s way too hot. Add breathing room in size choices whenever possible. Luckily, Gen Z’s decimation of Millennial fashion plays into your hand – oversized linen shirts are perfect.
2. Quick-dry, wicking and performance fabric
These recommendations come with a few caveats based on where and when you’ll be in Thailand.
Lightweight merino wool
Wool?! Yes – in some situations it’s ideal, but only if it’s lightweight (look for ≤ 150g/m²). Merino’s magic is a combination of properties: it’s wicking and breathable, it offers UPF protection, it dries quickly, it doesn’t wrinkle and it won’t smell when it gets sweaty.
Where would lightweight merino help you in Thailand? For starters, on the plane. If you always get cold on the plane, try layering a merino tank top or a T-shirt underneath. (As an “always cold” person, I wear both).
While I’d never want to wear a merino top during Koh Samui’s most humid months (linen for that), I love it (A) during rainy season when it’s cooler and breezy and (B) if I’m going to be in air-conditioned places in Bangkok, like malls or the freezing rapid transit.
For women, merino dresses are a nice option for dinners (when it’s either cooler or you're indoors) as you can roll them up and squash them to death in your suitcase and they still won’t wrinkle.
Brand of choice? Woolx. You’ve probably heard of Icebreaker and Smartwool, but I’ve rabidly loved this upstate NY family business since discovering their cold-weather options (including tall leggings). I now live in their clothing year-round – you name the temperature, I’ll show up in Woolx. For Thailand, consider their lightweight options in a regular or a relaxed fit (avoid anything tight in any fabric). New customers get $20 off.
Wicking and quick-dry fabrics
Think of a pair of running shorts or anything you’d buy from Patagonia to go hiking. Wicking and quick-dry fabrics can be ideal in Thailand if you're doing 'adventurous things’. In these cases, you need your skin covered and protected without any fabric weight to cook you. For wicking fabric, as you'll often find in polo shirts, bring only the thinner varieties.
If you're in doubt, try my 'Thailand test': run a hot shower in your bathroom to create a hot and steamy environment – then try your wickables. Are they going to cooperate in the tropics? As with lightweight merino, you’ll enjoy greater comfort if you avoid anything tight.
3. Skin-protecting UPF fabrics
In addition to sunscreen, discussed above, there’s a real genius to packing some UPF clothing for Thailand. Its magic? It retains its UPF protection even when wet. If you’re on a snorkelling trip, for example, you’ll be in and out of the water too often to successfully reapply sunscreen. (Imagine trying to moisturise a sea lion). Instead, UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing like rash-guards and sun-shirts can literally save your hide.
As mentioned, merino clothing has UPF (Woolx’s lightweight clothes have UPF 25) and many of the wicking/quick-dry options from Columbia/Patagonia and the like offer similar. If the finished effect is "Nicole Kidman goes to Mars", you've done enough.
Tip: Looking for a swim shirt or rash guard? Choose one with a higher neck, long sleeves and ideally one that’s not skin-tight. It will be too hot to wear this sitting around the pool in Thailand's humidity (choose a linen cover-up instead) but you’ll depend on its protection whenever you’re spending extended periods in or on the water.
If you’re shopping for a UPF sun hat, make sure it floats and has a drawstring (or it will fly off your head the second you get on a boat). I have this sun hat (pictured above) and can report that it stays attached to your head in near gale-force winds. (It's machine washable, too).
4. Cotton? Rayon? Polyester? Denim?
While linen is my favourite fabric to wear in Thailand, you’ll expand your clothing options if you include thin cotton (like cotton voile) or light-weight viscose or rayon. None of these is wicking, though, so perhaps pack them only if they fill a particular packing void. Rayon, while not as cool as linen, has a great drape for ‘instant dressy’. It's not wrinkle-proof, but a quick blast with your travel steamer is an immediate fix.
What fabric to avoid in Thailand
Anything lined with polyester
It will melt and so will you. If you’re packing skirts or dresses, double-check that any lining isn’t polyester. If so, leave it behind. In Thailand, it’s as good as wearing a Ziplock bag.
Jeans or denim
Thais can wear jeans thanks to a lifetime of heat-acclimation. You? You’ll combust. Jean shorts or cut-offs aren’t suitable either: they’re too short culturally and too thick for the climate. (See the 10 mistakes I made on my first trip to Thailand – #1 included jean shorts).
What to wear in Bangkok?
“You’re a very nice man. But you have such ugly shoes.”This was the helpful goodbye from the receptionist, as a family member left an upscale Bangkok hotel ... wearing Crocs. Lesson? Consider Bangkok the shiny metropolitan city that it is – and dress accordingly.
Tip: Want to enjoy better service in Bangkok? Dress nicer than the unwashed masses tourist fray.
What should men wear in Bangkok?
Collared shirts or polos are recommended (instead of T-shirts or – Australia! – singlets) and … not Crocs. Pants or trousers are culturally preferable to shorts. For shoes, choose loafers or boat shoes over flip-flops or running shoes (really – stand back and watch service levels improve), but ensure they're slip-on rather than laced.
Tip: Before you start packing, don’t miss the best shoes to wear in Thailand. You’ll want to know in advance why I’m telling you to avoid shoe laces.
What should women wear in Bangkok?
Rather than baring all your bits, conjure Reese Witherspoon on an August day in Georgia. Thai women (bar girls notwithstanding) don’t really ‘do’ cleavage.
What to wear at night in Bangkok?
While the above suggestions are ideal for daytime sightseeing and shopping in Bangkok, you'll want to note a different dress code for dressier destinations at night – worth noting if you're headed to a glitzy Bangkok rooftop bar or a nice restaurant. Embrace you inner Serena van der Woodsen: Thailand edition.
What to wear in Phuket or Koh Samui?
What should you wear at the beach or pool in Thailand?
Bikinis, trunks and typical resort wear are de facto at the beach and pool on Koh Samui, Phuket and similar beach destinations in Thailand. However, note the Thai modesty difference: Unlike in other island destinations, you should cover up with some shorts and a shirt (or similar) when you leave the beach or pool (e.g to have lunch at a beach restaurant) or explore the town.
Swimsuits for Thailand
Women: Ideally, choose a swimsuit for Thailand that's on the more modest end of the spectrum (so, like, the opposite of Love Island). Of course, if you're staying somewhere private like a pool villa or an Airbnb then wear any swimsuit you like – but at a resort pool or on a Thai beach, your bits are best left to the imagination.
Always wear your bikini top. Topless sunbathing is a total taboo. No one’s going to lock you up, but it will make locals nearby very uncomfortable.
Men: Easy – Any swim trunks are fine. Your standard-issue ‘man shorts’ mean your modesty never need be a problem (just put your shirt back on when you leave the beach).
Pop quiz – you're grabbing a hotel lunch or heading to a beach bar, what do you do? Answer: Grab your cover-up. Any of these beach cover-ups are perfectly suitable for walking along a touristy beach or around your resort in Thailand. However, when you head into the real world (for beach-town shopping or other excursions), real clothes (shorts/t-shirt) are more suitable.
Stick with natural fabrics for cover-ups and – generally – fairly modest coverage. Here, I give some superb cover-up options that are suitable for Thailand’s humid climate and offer great sun protection.
Tip: When shopping, you’ll probably see a lot of robe-style cover-ups that are 100% polyester. Laugh, say “nope”, and shut the tab.
Beach shoes and sandals for Thailand
Flip-flops are a perennial favourite, but if you want to come to Thailand with just one pair of shoes – any of the following will be versatile enough to take you 'wear-ever' you want to go. Choose leather-style sandals for a dressier trip, sandals for supreme comfort and Tevas for adventurous Thailand itineraries.
Tip: If your hotel has a rocky beach (or you want to explore all the shorelines you can find), consider a pair of aqua socks or water shoes as well. (Note that many hotels realise that a rocky beach isn’t a sales feature and leave this for you to discover on arrival).
What to do with your stuff at the beach? I was excited to 'discover' SPIbelts because it finally answered the "what do you do with your stuff" situation when you want to do something at the beach. You don't want to leave your valuables on your beach towel, nor do you want to drag a bag along.
One of these pocket belts keeps your cash/phone/keys literally on your person at all times – leaving both hands free for beach tennis. I've tried one – worn under my shirt in Koh Samui's hottest month – it works perfectly. If it gets too hot, just adjust it a little looser around your waist. If you want to wear it swimming or kayaking, just tuck your phone inside a waterproof case. First-world problems, solved!
What to wear in Thai beach towns?
It couldn't be easier: Grab your favourite pair of mid-length shorts, add a comfortable pair of flip-flops, a stack of thin t-shirts and some linen shirts or polos. To dress properly in Thailand's beach towns is no great mystery – just a matter of basic observation and respect.
Do Thai men go to the supermarket shirtless and barefoot? No. Do Thai women ride scooters in bikinis? Nope. It’s just like at home: beach stuff stays on the beach. Other than that – it’s hot, and you’re on vacation. How to stay as comfortable as possible? It’s all in your fabric choice: linen, and more linen. Don't forget your bug spray.
Tip: Koh Samui is a casual place so don’t worry about the dress code beyond cultural requirements. At the fanciest brunch, a pressed linen shirt and linen trousers (men) and a casual ‘resort-wear’ day dress (women) are as dressy as you’ll need to be. For everywhere else, shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops are the island uniform.
What to wear at Thai temples?
Pay particular attention to the dress code for Thai temples as it’s where you’re most likely to offend. Most temples with tourist traffic have signs asking visitors to cover up, yet you’ll see many oblivious souls who still manage to miss this final memo.
What's appropriate clothing for Thai temples?
The basic rule is to cover your shoulders and knees (both sexes), and ideally, you’d cover your ankles too. On the bottom, wear longer shorts, capris, pants/trousers or a knee-length-or-longer skirt. On top, choose any shirt that fully covers your shoulders and has zero cleavage.
A T-shirt, blouse or polo is fine, while a tank top is not. However, a pashmina or scarf worn around the shoulders over a tank top is acceptable (or used as a makeshift long skirt), so it’s easy to get ‘temple worthy’ quite quickly. Note that, as in many tourist hot-spots, there's an increased chance of encountering pickpockets at Bangkok's busiest temples. I've recommended an anti-theft bag here as a total precaution – not necessary but prudent if you do a lot of sightseeing.
Shoes for Thai temples?
You’ll politely take your shoes off and leave them at the temple gate (or, at smaller temples like Koh Samui’s Big Buddha, at the stairs to the Buddha). Don’t wear laced shoes; tying and untying shoe laces? No thanks. A slip-on shoe is ideal. Closed-toe shoes are more appropriate than sandals or flip-flops, whether loafers or flats.
Tip: For all your shoe questions, see the best shoes to wear in Thailand.
Socks for Thai temples?
You'll leave your shoes outside and enter temples barefoot. However, the tiled floors at many temples get extremely hot in the Thai sun – painfully so. You might want to bring a pair of ankle socks with you, to put on at the temple entrance. Be careful in socks, though, as the floors can be slippery – so a pair of “grippy socks” or “barre socks” is ideal.
Socks aren't necessary for temples, just nice to have (but if you’ve read this far then you’re OCD enough to want all bases covered). Other than perhaps using the hotel gym, this would be the only occasion you'd ever consider wearing socks in Thailand.
Generally – go 'more modest than not'. Choose clothes that hit closer to your knees than anatomy in the opposite direction. Consider this more/less bendy, depending on your destination.Snorkelling on Samui? Be really careful of the sun.
Browsing Bangkok’s malls? You’re in tropical Manhattan – no flip-flops.
Hiking with hill tribes? Cover up.
Remember 'no shoes/no shirt/no service' (even at the beach) and choose your most lightweight fabrics. You can never go wrong with 100% linen. Easy. With these tips, you can easily enjoy total comfort in Thailand’s culture and climate, no matter what you have planned.
What to Wear in Thailand?
Now that the dress code is no problem, what about the rest of your perfect preparation?
- Mosquitoes: How to Avoid Mosquitoes in Thailand
- My favourite: A Steamy Love Letter (to My Travel Steamer)
- Bangkok: The 25 Best Books About Bangkok