What Not To Wear…..

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Thailand is hot and humid, especially in May and June.  The monsoon season is just beginning, and the air feels saturated with moisture.  It may not be quite as hot as August in Salt Lake City, but the humidity leaves you soaking after just walking a city block.  It’s tempting to wear a t-shirt and shorts all the time. And if we were in the US, we would. But we’re not in the US.

In most of Asia, academics are considered at the highest level of achievement.  Becoming a professor is highly respected, and there is a lot of status in being a university student.  Undergraduate students are expected to wear uniforms. Luckily, we will be doing service work, so we won’t need to dress up as much. But be aware that appearances are important in Asia, and as Americans we really do dress casually (dare I say slovenly) compared to the rest of the world. American tourists in particular seem to go out of their way to dress like….well…like tourists. There’s no other description. You can always tell who the American tourists are, and usually from a distance. We seem to insist on extreme casualness when on vacation. Maybe we want to escape the workplace so much, that we dress in completely opposite fashion. Granted, you will never completely pass as a native African or Asian, regardless of your clothing, but you can show respect and courtesy towards your host culture by dressing as they do, and putting as much emphasis to appearances as they do.

For women, it means erring on the side of modesty. Thai women are usually pretty covered up, even in the heat. Thai women avoid the sun, so they tend to wear long sleeves and long pants or dresses, and usually a hat. Even in the city, women typically dress modestly, with very few tank tops and short shorts.

For men, it’s usually long pants and a button down shirt, usually short sleeves, usually untucked. T-shirts are fine, as long as they aren’t too loud or gaudy. Men usually don’t wear shorts in the city…

A word about shorts, especially for men. In much of Asia, men do not wear shorts after a certain age (usually the ‘tween years). Shorts are often associated with schoolboy uniforms, thus associated with being boys, not men. In Africa and Asia, where I have traveled extensively, men almost never wear shorts in public, unless they are at the beach, on the farms, or participating in some sort of recreational activity. Even in the hottest weather, men often wear long pants. This is changing as dress codes are liberalizing, but in general, men tend to wear long pants in the city.

While in the villages, we can wear casual t-shirts and pants, since we’ll be working. You can wear shorts, but with some of the work, you may want long pants. Plus, in areas with mosquitoes, it isn’t a bad idea to cover your legs.

During the visits to the ruins and historical sites, it is appropriate to wear shorts. Be aware some of these ruins are ancient Buddhist temples, and therefore religiously significant. So wearing appropriate clothing would show much respect. That means long pants and nicer shirts for men, and longer shorts or skirts and nicer blouses for women, making sure you cover your shoulders and not be too revealing. We’ll let you know if you need to abide by dress codes, if there are any, the day before.

While the weather outside is very hot and humid, most large buildings in Thailand will be air-conditioned, sometimes to Arctic levels.  So you get nice and sweaty outside, then go inside and it’s 25 degrees cooler.  If you get cold easily, you may want to have a LIGHTWEIGHT sweater or LIGHTWEIGHT shawl with you.  You will definitely not need anything heavy while we’re there, even in the evenings.  But bringing a lightweight sweater isn’t a bad idea.

Specifically, here is what I recommend for clothing:

  • Pants:

For men, bring a combination of long and short pants.  Jeans are okay, and since we’ll be working, they can be very useful. Just make sure you bring presentable jeans, with no rips, tears, or weird acid washing. Many Thai men wear jeans. Be aware, however, that jeans take forever to dry. Keep that in mind, since we’re going to a country that doesn’t have many clothes dryers. Light cotton or synthetic slacks and khakis are a good bet. Specialty travel pants (from Ex-Oficio, REI or Royal Robbins) are very good, since they don’t wrinkle, are typically stain-resistant and cool, but can be expensive. Remember to bring one or two pairs of “nicer” pants; these can be khakis or chinos. We will have occasion to dress nicer for certain activities.

Longer cargo shorts are appropriate. Leave the short shorts at home for all of our sakes. And don’t forget your bathing suit for the beach. You can bring board shorts; Speedos are optional.

For women, bring a combination of shorts, long pants, capris, skirts and dresses. Pants that are suitable for working outdoors are appropriate. Capri pants are also very versatile.  Jeans are fine, but the same caveats that I mentioned in the mens section apply. In discussing this topic with my wife, she raves about the versatility of longer skirts. You can work in them (in fact, in most of the world, women work in skirts), they are appropriate for more formal settings, they are cool, they are easy to care for, and are fashionable. Skirts shouldn’t be too short. When in doubt, be conservative. Also, make sure you bring one or two nicer pants/skirts, for those occasions where we may need to be dressier.

Definitely bring shorts as well. Even though shorts are typically not worn by grown men in Asia, many women wear them in casual settings. Leave the really short shorts at home. Also, bathing suits are a must for the beach. They can be one piece or two piece, it’s up to you. Either is appropriate for the beach.

  • Shirts: A note on tops: you WILL sweat when you’re outside, so be aware.  Light colors and patterns hide sweat better than dark colors, so keep that in mind.

For women, for the villages, t-shirts are fine, as long as they are presentable and not too revealing. You should cover your shoulders. You can bring tank tops for working, but please, while at the schools, wear something that is more modest. Remember, we are going to be staying at a K-8 school. If you do wear tank tops, make sure the straps are thicker; avoid spaghetti straps. The safer choice would be t shirts with sleeves. For your “nice” outfits, bring low maintenance blouses or shirts that would be considered “business casual” here. You may want to bring one nice outfit, since there will be a few times we may go out to dinner at a nicer place. When we’re being tourists, you have more leeway in what you wear. And on the island, you can wear typical clothing that one would wear at a tropical beach resort.

For men, for the villages, t shirts, tank tops, or polo shirts are fine. For other times, lightweight, collared button down shirts or polo/golf shirts are great. The button down shirts can be short sleeve. These are comfortable, cool, and versatile (you can work in them, and you can wear them to nicer occasions). They can be short sleeve (in fact, they are much more comfortable).  Patterned short sleeve shirts are okay, as long as the pattern is subdued (leave the loud Hawaiian shirts for the weekend). Also, men usually don’t tuck their short sleeve shirts in, which is great, because it’ll be so much cooler. You can leave the ties at home, although it’s a good idea for faculty to have one just in case.

  • Shoes: Shoes should be comfortable but rugged, as we’re going to walk and work in them. Lightweight hiking or trail shoes are very versatile. Again, you can wear them working in the villages, but you can also wear them to nicer settings. Also, it is Asian custom to remove one’s shoes prior to entering a home or a wat, so something that you can slip on and off easily is better than something with laces. Definitely either get flip-flops there or bring your own.

A note about visiting wats and other holy place: You need to dress conservatively, which means long pants for men, and long pants or dresses (to ankles) and covered shoulders for women. A good idea for women is to purchase a sarong (a wraparound long skirt) and carry it with you, so you can use it as a shawl or a skirt. Plus, a Thai silk sarong is something you’ll probably want to buy anyways. Please refer to the picture below. Notice they are wearing shirts with sleeves, not too revealing, and either longer capri pants or a sarong. In fact, those sarongs were rented at the temple because their pants were too short.

For days relaxing on the beach or doing “touristy” stuff, you can wear what you typically wear to such things. Just keep in mind everything I wrote about above.

Here are some photos that show some of the variety of things we will be doing, and the clothing that students brought last year. Notice that we do everything from going out to nicer restaurants to digging in the mud.

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As for how much clothing to bring, count on bringing about a weeks worth of clothes. A couple of pairs of shoes is fine. Bring a bathing suit. You can get flip-flops or sandals cheap over there, or bring your own (large sizes tend to be more difficult to find). A lightweight sweater will be useful, particularly in the second village, where it can be chilly at night. Remember, you’ll have laundry services at the hotels we stay at, but we may not in the villages. Also, consider that clothing is very inexpensive there, so you can always buy locally.

During the course, you will find a small backpack or courier bag very useful, to carry notes, cameras, extra clothing, so on. Use whatever you feel comfortable with. This can also be your carry-on baggage.

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