Expat

How I dress + pack for SE Asia

Looks like someone is going to be taken for a ride...
Okay, a skirt on the bamboo train perhaps wasn’t one of my best choices… [Battambang, 2015]
When I was doing my TEFL training in Bangkok in 2009, I noticed one of my classmates, Kim always wore jeans.

“Why do you always wear jeans? Aren’t you burning up?”

“No, I’m used to it. When I lived in the Philippines all the teenagers wore jeans. I don’t even think about it now. They’re comfortable.”

I nodded. Kim was the first third culture kid I met and I found her upbringing endlessly fascinating. And she’s right, the youth in Asia, not just in the Philippines, like to wear jeans despite living in a tropical, muggy hot climate.

Most expats and travelers think they are dressing “local” then they wear elephant pants because they are cool, loose and ubiquitous at the markets. But if they took a look around they’d see that not one local person is wearing them (okay, maybe one). So I can spot an Asian tourist based on their dress. And I can certainly spot an Asian tourist from a Western country by the amount of skin she is showing.

I do like how travelers who come to Siem Reap pack a nice dress. I’m not sure if this is a thing these days or how the word got out, but it’s nice to see folks dressing up at night. It’s a refreshing change from the ultra-casual wear you see in touristic places. Sometimes it’s shameful what tourists chose to wear, but I have to remind myself that this is a perfect example of a clash in cultures.

Elephant pants sandwich. [Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, 2016]
Elephant pants sandwich. [Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, 2016]
It’s funny, you’d think a hot country would equal short shorts and tank tops, but SE Asians are fairly conservative. Of course, this is changing, and ladies of the night dress like ladies of the night and city dwellers are much more revealing than their countryside counterparts, but overall, it’s rare to see a midriff, cleavage and a whole-lotta-legs.

If there was a body part to show off, it would be legs. Thai girls are showing off more legs, but in Cambodia, not so much. I’m rather shocked by the amount of sweaters and long sleeves here, but there you have it.

I’m also surprised by how much Cambodian teens like the color black. What a hot color! Have you ever worn a black tee shirt on a summer day? My god, it’s like having the sun sit on your back. So, if you want to look cool wear black. Yes, yes. I realize this is the exact opposite of what you’d chose to bring, but I’m telling you, leave those whites at home. SE Asia is not as clean as back home, if you bring whites prepare for it to get stained.

So when I travel within the region, I bring/pack/wear jeans. You quickly learn that buses, malls and airports are freezing. They can be worn multiple times and if you really need to have your jeans cleaned, a laundry shop is not far away. You’ll look fashionable and when you sit on that tuk tuk or plastic restaurant chair your thighs won’t have to peel away from your seat with sticky sweat.

Yes, a skirt or dress at the right length will do, too.

Me, JP and Toh holding his pottery. Purchased by JP and to be donated to Nepal earthquake victims. [Art Bridge, Chiang Rai,2015]
Jeans work. [Art Bridge, Chiang Rai,2015]
I get it though. Most travelers are probably coming from a cold climate and can’t wait to wear summer clothing! I do wear shorts, but I’m very conscious of length and style. I’m just saying, because I’ve seen many mosquito bitten and sunburnt legs, jeans don’t get you in trouble at temples either.

But what if you want to pack really light? Well, I’ve got these amazing yoga pants made of 100% nylon that can look casual or expensive, but best of all, they are a bit rain proof and dry super quick. They are capris so I’m sure they do nothing to make me look taller, but you don’t want pants that skim the ground in Asia. Especially in public toilets or squat toilets or on a motorbike, yeah, skip the long and loose look here.

lani-at-gt
Okay, these are not the yoga pants, but they are very similar in length and style. You get the idea… [Golden Triangle, 2010]
Thin tees are also great to have because they are easy to wash and dry. If you look for something with 70% polyester this also makes for wrinkle-free packing. And they take up no space, another bonus.

Which brings me to sportswear – a lot sport clothing is perfect for traveling. Nobody expects you to iron sportswear and when you are in SE Asia, the last thing you want to do is iron. It already feels like hair dryer is on your face…and really no matter how well you pack, I hate pulling out a wrinkled dress or tee and hoping it will come out in a hot shower.

Everything else, you can get here. Seriously. I always forget something when I pack. I do lists, but it doesn’t matter. I remember the important stuff, but I’ll forget a toothbrush or phone or something or other. It’s a great excuse to go shopping though.

Hanging clothes
Making-it-work-clothesline. [Battambang, 2015]
What do you pack? Got any snazzy tips?

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40 thoughts on “How I dress + pack for SE Asia

  1. Love this, and I’m going to share with some friends who are coming to visit Thailand. It’s only in the last few weeks of 108F heat that I’ve been wearing shorts a lot. I grew up in places like Pakistan, so I got used to wearing jeans and slacks in the heat and it doesn’t really bother me … except in this last few weeks of high heat. I have some slacks from REI that are super lightweight, not prone to wrinkling, and look nice – I could wear them to work if I was working here. And REI and Eddie Bauer have a lot of lightweight clothing that packs easily, doesn’t wrinkle, AND has built in SPF protection. Like you, I’m sometimes appalled at what people wear, especially going into temples. I tell people that if they do want to wear shorts or spaghetti straps to bring or buy a scarf to cover shoulders if they plan to visit temples. Almost anything is available here, but not necessarily in bigger US sizes. If you’re over a size 10 or 12, it is very difficult to find clothing to fit in Thailand. I’ve found 1 shop in my community that has western sizes, and even there a size 16 is more like a size 10.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew I was forgetting something. A SCARF. OMG. The essential. I love how easy they are to pack and how they save me on the airplane or on a bus when the a/c suddenly is on artic blast.

      Yes, REI and such are great outlets for quality wrinkle-free clothes. The trick though is to not look like a walking billboard for them – or like you are going on safari. I’ve see a lot of safari hunters and huntresses out there and it’s kind of funny. Khaki from head to toe! Where are your binoculars? 555+

      Oh, gawd. The HEAT is insane. Global warming – no shit. As if there is any doubt now…I hate how we are in a drought (scary!) and how everyone is still watering their sidewalks!!!

      We just came back from buying another fan (b/c one of them broke down)! No hesitation there. Has to be done, ASAP.

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      1. Hahaha! Oh, yes. I have seen plenty of people on safari as well. It always makes me laugh.

        The heat, the fans. We nearly broke down and bought another fan the other day too, and this is with the aircon going. I still know people who are in denial about climate change, and it astounds me. Can’t wait for the rain, and I think next year we’ll head somewhere cool for the month of April …

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, many expats take off for March and April. Why not? If you can afford to, I’d do it! Hot and polluted – it’s just horrible. Can’t wait for the rain, too. *rain dance*

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a great article, Lani. Even in Singapore and Malaysia, people wear jeans all the time. When you speak of jeans in SEA, what sort of jeans are you mainly referring to? The skinny jeans? Flare jeans? Straight cut? I find that the skinnys are always popular there. I like wearing jeans, and have one too many pairs of them. In the past, I was a fan of the stiff jeans but these days prefer the softer ones as I can bend more easily when taking photos 😀

    It is interesting you point out elephant pants are usually worn by tourists over there. Here in Australia, hippies or think those who are into the boho kind of lifestyle tend to wear them. I’m not a huge fan of them – too wide for my skinny legs, making me look like I’m wearing garbage bags around my two legs.

    Generally, I will pack one pair of jeans (wearing one pair on the plane) if I’m going for a week. I can wear the same pair of jeans for a whole week and I’d be fine. I like to pack leggings for sleeping at night. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find leggings to be super comfy clothes to sleep in (but not the too tight variety) 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahahaha. I didn’t even think about the type of jeans. Such a girl, Mabel. 😛 So, yes, you are right! Skinny jeans rein supreme. Even during Songkran (the water festival), teens are wearing jeans! I hate trying to peel off wet jeans, I don’t know why its so fashion here, even with its not practical!

      I never thought about tourists bringing the elephant pants home and wearing them – they seem so paijama wear. I’m sure if I got a pair I’d fall in love with the comfort, but they are so ubitiqous I’d be ashamed to be such trend follower. Plus, if I may be so bold, I don’t find it to be such a classy look 0.0

      I just wear the same pair of jeans for the whole week as well. This just makes sense. Thanks for the love 🙂

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      1. Well, I’m very observant by nature 😉 To be honest, I have problems peeling off my skinny jeans. I’ve been trying to find a pair of jeans that isn’t too fitting over the past month but I’ve had no success. It’s frustrating, having jeans on the brain.

        I’ve seen some of the elephant pants coming in gaudy tie-dye colours. That can be quite a piece of clothing to wear. Perhaps they care called elephant pants because the legs are wide as an elephants leg…

        I decided to Google elephant pants, and supposedly some of these pants save elephants and are called harem pants:

        https://www.theelephantpants.com/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I thought they were called elephant pants because they had elepants on them! I never thought about having legs like elephants – ha! I think you are right.

        Harem pants sound nice, too. I remember when fisherman pants were all the rage..but they are too hard to put on and off, esp. if you have to go to the bathroom.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The older I get and the more I travel, the worse I pack. And the more I lose things. It’s weird. But anyway, I agree with your assessment of jeans – they work everywhere and I wear them 90% of the time. Great tips!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know if I’ve gotten worse or better as I’ve gotten older. Hmmm. I think I’ve gotten smarter about what I will use, but maybe I’m just fooling myself 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love that you talked about elephant pants – they drive me crazy! (But to each their own I guess!) Personally I have a fave pair of black pants I always in of SE Asia (or did until I left them behind a few months ago.) I’ll pair them with a tank top in bigger cities/touristy areas or a t-shirt in rural areas. I was in northern Thailand for a month earlier this year and wore this same outfit (or a slight variation) almost every single day > https://www.instagram.com/p/9kUCjiHHzJ/?taken-by=simplyfiercely

    I completely agree that locals just suck it up and wear jeans, but I can’t – I’m too wimpy about the heat!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your outfit looks very chic. I’m afraid I don’t look so good with a tank top so I never wear them! I think I’m also too self-conscious about wearing them here…as a teacher I’ve been brain-washed into not showing/ revealing shoulders. Can you imagine! So, 18th cent. Europe. Hahahahhaa.

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    1. I think everyone makes that mistake. I hate carrying things so I have a tendency to pack light and forgo variety. I’m such a wimp. I don’t know how others carry so much stuff on their back! Or wheel it around! But I always bring a book and I end up never reading it! Grrrr.

      Will check out your post! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great article Lani (yet again!). I think what you say applies to most Asian countries. Everyone in Asia is quite conservative so wearing shorts of a tank top is quite scandalous. In Japan, even in the dead of summer, people would wear long sleeves and pants… it was startling to me at first. I think they also wear long sleeves to shield themselves from the sun. Even here in the USA, Chinese tourists will wear black gloves and a mask at the grand canyon in the dead of summer to protect their fair skin. Ridiculous!

    Strangely enough, I could NEVER wear long sleeves here in the dry California summer. I’m pretty sure I would get heat stroke and die (I almost did last week). I feel like the sun here is more wilting, and maybe not sweating as much with humidity makes you more… miserable? I used to go out in long sleeves in 80% humidity in China and Shanghai, but I’d just sweat it off and be miserable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I have been pointing out to the b/f what locals are wearing in this gawd-forsaken heat (105+). Hoodies, flannels, layers (!!!), scarves, jackets and sweaters. After a while we got to wondering if they wish they lived in a cold climate and decided to just wear cold weather clothing anyway?

      The sun is nastier in SE Asia. It’s the humidity for sure. California is more mediterranean, it seems. It’s so funny to think about how in the West, when it’s hot, you wear as little as possible!

      I remember my friend Marisa (Japanese American) told me about traveling to Japan in the summer. She wore a tank top and she said everyone stared at her (whore). I wonder why Asia is so conservative when it comes to clothes?

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  6. Loved this post, Lani. I guess one of the biggest challenges a traveller faces is to fit in. Most of us don’t want to be the odd one out. And we try to wear something that looks local. Strangely, that’s also one of the most common mistakes we make. I’ve not escaped it either! 🙂 You make some valid points here. Be comfortable, whilst bearing in mind local culture and mindsets. That’s great advice! That works! And it’s my rule for what I wear – wherever I go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You bring up a good point. We want to blend in (as much as we can). It’s actually easy to tell who is a tourist vs an expat (at least it was in Thaliand) based on how they dress. But I quickly learned that wearing short shorts made me look (cheap?) and feel like I didn’t want to wear short shorts again – times have changed though and I probably can get away with shorty shorts now, but 5-7 years ago – not so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think people that were born there or have lived there for a long time are used to the heat, so they can wear longsleeve tops, black, etc. Parts of Nigeria are hot and humid too. I find that jeans (from light cotton) works very well. Btw, I saw some one wearing knee-high boots once! The desire to look ‘western’ can throw good sense out the window sometimes.

    I enjoyed reading this. Chuckled all the way. Thanks for the tips Lani.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like they would be used to it, but they’re sweating. So, why would you wear something that makes you feel hotter? I should clarify that I saw a woman wearing a hoodie, sweating profusely. Many of my students come in smelly and sweating, too!

      Knee-high boots! OMG. Soooo toasty!

      Glad you liked it, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I am a big fan of jeans but in the last years I tuck them away in the “winter closet” around May and don’t wear them until October. Too hot! So I go for skirts and not too short shorts (I don’t have pretty legs haha, but I don’t care much). I agree that when going to hot and humid places, it is better to wear long but thin pants and sleeves, to avoid mosquito bites and sunburnt!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny, I’ve never been a big fan of jeans. I rememeber reading once how, on average, women have 5-7 pairs in their closet and I was shocked!

      In fact, I only have one pair now. I guess I believe in investing in a good pair and that’s good enough for me.

      Like

  9. It’s hard to be fashionable when it’s too hot. For fifteen year in the Philippines I never wore jeans. I almost always wore a cotton dress and sandals. For fancy evening parties I sometimes wore a silk dress, but silk was hotter than cotton. My husband brought fabric back for me and the girls from his “missions” around Asia. I loved the batik from Indonesia and Malaysia. I did have one pair of jeans to wear when we went to Baguio in the mountains. I never understood how the teenagers in Manila could stand to wear jeans.

    I guess one has to consider the culture of the place you visit, but since travel can be difficult, I think comfort comes first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, definitely. I pack with comfort in mind. Ever since I was a teenager (when I learned that shoes or clothes could be uncomfortable), I decided that I’d rather be unfashionable than wearing something that was killing me.

      I’ve been learning in this extreme heat how much my synthetic (fabric) dresses stick to me.Cotton is really king. Yes, silk would be tortureous.

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  10. Yes to jeans. It’s funny, when I moved to Bahrain I knew i wouldn’t be able to pack everything I needed in that first 30kg luggage and whatever I could sneak on in hand luggage. So what did I leave behind? My jeans! And I regretted it for the first few months that I lived without them. When you’re in a hot country, you spend so much time hopping from one places with AC to the next, jeans just make sense. And yes, a lot of it is about modesty here. While in Bahrain I could walk around in a tank and shorts, it’s just not kosher, you know?

    Funny you mention those elephant pants, they were EVERYWHERE in Vietnam. Though, I never got tempted to buy them. Spent a lot of my time in jeans there – especially in Hue and Da Nang. Saigon and Hoi An were hot, and i got the tank and shorts out. Though, there was a lot less conservative dressing than I was expecting in Saigon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think bigger/big cities are less conservative in general. It’s like jaded. Hahahahaha.

      But I feel your packing pain. When we were doing the short hop from Thailand to Cambo, it was all about getting everything we owned under-weight. I got rid of sooooo much. Took one pair of jeans though and that’s all I still got 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Interesting. I would fit in real well with the local Asian gals there: even when it’s 35 degrees C and humid in Ontario or in Hawai’i, I don’t wear midriff tops, tank tops. I don’t wear that even when I’m cycling for 4 hrs. straight in hot glaring sun. I wear short sleeved cycling jerseys and zip up my front with collar. And I’ve been cycling for over last 25 yrs. I’m pretty fit and probably could wear tight tank tops but I save that for occasional dinner meal on a hot summer night. For once, being pretty small busted has advantages: no one gives a damn how you look because there’s nothing to impress. 😀

    I do like wearing shorts. So it sounds like I should at least wear longer walking shorts in Asia. I’m not thrilled to sweat it out in tight jeans but I suppose I’ll get used it …if it’s to avoid mosquitoes which my bites swell up double the size. 😦

    When I pack for vacation either bike or non-bike, I rarely pack a dress/casual skirt. It’s a skort that is more athletic. If it’s cycling trip, I can’t stand the weight of heavy jeans in a bike pannier and prefer a 2nd pair of dark tights. Will include a nice t-shirt sometimes short sleeved or long sleeved, depending on winter or summer. To save carrying weight, I will wear jeans onboard plane flight. I won’t pack dress shoes nor a dressier outfit unless I’m attending a wedding or ..funeral.

    I haven’t gotten in capris nor elephant pants yet. Maybe it’s because am just over 5′ tall.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahhahaa. Yeah, tights. Good option and so much kinder in the weight department.

      I actually don’t care for tank tops either and I wonder if its because I don’t have much of anything up top…it’s like, ‘why bother?’ So I guess I haven’t felt comfortable with them because I don’t have anything to look at!

      But I have great legs. It’s a shame they can’t come out to play more often in Asia…maybe its time for a change 😉

      Thanks, Jean!

      Like

  12. I’m from the Philippines, Lani, and I completely agree with your friend Kim about wearing jeans a lot. And yes, you rarely see anyone in elephant pants here (and only solid ones, if that). Cleavage is rare too unless people are at parties. Even then, it’s balanced out by less skin at the bottom or vice-versa. The tourists ARE very easy to pick out in the crowd lol!

    With that said, packing tips… I could go on and on but my main rule is that all my clothes must fit the other stuff I’m bringing in at least 4 combos. If it doesn’t match everything, I generally don’t bring it. Hope you’re having fun in Cambodia!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, great point. I usually pack a color palate because I want to mix and match.Black ususally ends up being my color of choice – not because I love it but because it’s a practical color and I’ve somehow ended up with a lot of them. 😛

      Cheers ^^

      Like

    1. Hahahhaa. Yeah. I have one with a little pocket for a key, but it makes me nervous. As in, I’d never put anything in it without checking on it 20x.

      Liked by 1 person

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