What should you wear in Southeast Asia?
Well, obviously it depends on where exactly you’re going, when you’ll be there, and what you’ll be doing.
For me, I will be in Cambodia during the rainy season (still very hot!), and will be working. During the days I’ll be traveling to various villages to survey rice farmers. At night I’ll be in town, staying close to the hotel. I’ll be doing a little bit of touring in my free time, going to markets and visiting temples, and perhaps beaches. So overall, I will need to be respectful of the culture, stay cool, and protect myself from mosquitos especially when I’m out in rural areas. Fortunately, everything can be pretty casual in Cambodia.
Most important things to keep in mind:
- Cover your shoulders
- Cover your knees
- Wear breathable fabrics (linen, cotton, rayon)
- Lighter colors are better protection against sun and bugs
- Staying cool
Packing for about a week and planning to re-wash clothes, I have four tank tops and four tees. I wanted to stick to a jungle-style color palette with lots of neutrals (forest green, black, white, yellow, and red), making sure that everything can be mixed and matched. All of the tanks I am bringing are fairly loose and have wide-ish sleeves (no spaghetti straps). One of them is a workout tank made of sweat-wicking material. I love v-necks because they’re so versatile and comfortable, so I have two of those. The other two short-sleeve shirts are more modest; one is an interesting boxy shape that reminds me of Asian style, and the other is a comfortable t-shirt that makes me feel like I’m at home.
For bottoms, I have two pairs of linen pants that I will wear when I’m in rural areas, to guard against bugs, and to be respectful in people’s homes. Since it will be so hot, I also have two pairs of shorter and breezier, yet still modest articles – a pair of gauchos and an athletic skirt. I actually didn’t originally choose the gauchos and skirt, so they don’t match the color scheme I had going quite as well, but I will be so thankful to have something cooler to wear on those unbearably hot days!
Two dresses will offer more dressy outfits when you are tired of being so casual every day. They will also keep you cool on those days that are so hot you need to be able to fan a cool breeze over your entire body. Keep them modest, trying to find something that will cover your shoulders and your knees if possible. Finding completely modest dresses was difficult for me, so I ended up with two options that are slightly above the knees, and with wide sleeves but not entirely covering my shoulders. A little less modesty on super hot days will be acceptable, in my opinion, and hopefully won’t show disrespect to the locals, who expect foreigners to be a little less modest.
Because it is not respectful to show your shoulders, I am bringing a kimono to wear over tank tops. I also have a long-sleeve blouse made of thin material that I could put on if needed. For cold airplanes, I like to be very cozy, but to save room I found a thin athletic hoodie (that’s still very comfy) that will not take up much space. Lastly, the only other long-sleeve item I’m bringing is a waterproof rain jacket – a MUST for the rainy season!!
Of course you also need pajamas – one set will do (cotton shorts and a comfy tank is what I’ll be taking), and some lounge or work out clothes (I’m bringing one pair of athletic shorts that I can wear to exercise or to lounge around the hotel). Don’t forget bathing suits (a bikini that can double as a bra if needed, and a one-piece for modesty when required). You can wear shorts and a tee to cover up over your swimsuit, so don’t bother bringing something additional for that. A sports bra is essential, and you can wear it on hot days to help wick sweat. Don’t forget your normal bra though, because you will want something that you feel comfortable in.
One pair of sturdy hiking sandals will take you everywhere you need to go, but it will be nice to have another pair of (sturdy, waterproof) flip flops that you can slip on and off (or wear in the shower, hose off when they get dirty, wear to the beach, etc.).
You really don’t need too much, so don’t overdo it! If you pack these basic essentials you’ll be very well off! Just make sure to stay away from heavy fabrics and revealing clothing.