What to Wear in Thailand: Peeling Off the Layers
It is a truth universally acknowledged (exempting some close-minded xenophobes) that travel broadens your cultural understandings of the world. The more people, sights, and ideas one is exposed to, the more fuel to ignite curiosity and the stronger the desire to make sense of it all. Travel inherently requires one to ask questions, think out of the box, and reach conclusions that would be impossible if one was securely planted in her comfort zone.
I have been in Thailand now for one week. I traveled to Asia once before for a three-month volunteer stint in southern India, and as a result, I felt adequately prepared for what to pack, what to expect, and what to look out for. It’s an easy, if not naive mistake to make in assuming that countries are similar because they are located in the same region of the world. The truth is that certain characteristics are oftentimes drastically different.
While living in India, I sometimes felt that even my long skirts and conservative tops weren’t enough to prevent the prowling eyes and uncomfortable advances.
Fortunately, I erred on the safe side, and my stay in Thailand has thus far been entirely pleasant and relatively problem free. Granted, I have only been here for one week, and have had the soft cushion of traveling to mainly touristy, backpacker areas, but nonetheless I have been surprised about the differences between Thailand and India.
First and foremost, there’s Thailand’s lax dress code. While living in India, I sometimes felt that even my long skirts and conservative tops weren’t enough to prevent the prowling eyes and uncomfortable advances. I did my best to blend in with my environment, but the simple, easily visible reality of my white skin was enough to attract loads of unwanted attention, and sometimes some frightening encounters. This is why covering myself with ample clothing was of utmost importance. While planning for my trip to Thailand, I assumed I would have to take the same precautions, so I packed longer skirts and dresses, t-shirts, and light cover-ups to hide my shoulders when wearing a tank top.
So far, my awareness and sensitivity to this issue have been totally unnecessary. Between the backpacker mecca of Bangkok, Kao Sahn Road, and the touristy, beachy paradise of Koh Tao, a small island in southern Thailand, I have seen all sorts of skimpy attire. Sure, both of these places are infiltrated with white westerners, so the Thai people have to somewhat adjust their standards in order to reap the benefits of travelers who want to spend their money. But, I was still caught off guard by the crop tops, cut off shorts, and scandalous dresses with low necklines and open backs.
Thinking maybe the rules were so lax solely because of the tourists, I asked a new travel mate, currently living in a predominantly Thai section of Bangkok, what she thought. She claims that although Kao Sahn is not a top travel destination, she can still wear just about anything she wants. Shorts and dresses can be as short as they go, but she has noticed that women tend to cover their chests. Of course, she always dresses on the safe side to avoid any uncomfortable or offensive situations.
Although there are a variety of sects, moral codes, and practices, sexual repression is an important aspect and is most enthusiastically practiced.
The different attitudes towards apparel in two geographically similar countries of course piqued my curiosity, stimulated some thoughtful discussions, and finally led me to the good old faithful internet to research the reasons behind these contrasting realities. My theory is that the difference in dress codes stems from the presence and tolerance of sex, which in turn, stems from a difference of religion. Buddhism was ironically born in India, but has been virtually extinct there since the 19th century. Now Hinduism is the main religion, practiced by around 80% of the population. Although there are a variety of sects, moral codes, and practices, sexual repression is an important aspect and is most enthusiastically practiced.
While sex is not necessarily view as “sinful” in Hinduism, premarital sex, especially for women, is a huge offense, and prone to severe punishment. According to Access to Insight, Buddhism believes in a Middle Way for everything and “the Buddha with his profound understanding of human nature knew well what demands to make of people in this respect. Thus we find the following formulation of what a man should avoid:
He avoids unlawful sexual intercourse, abstains from it. He has no intercourse with girls who are still under the protection of father or mother, brother, sister, or relative; nor with married women, nor female convicts; nor lastly with betrothed girls.”
Since arriving in Thailand, I have not once felt sexually threatened. A possible reason, or cause, of Thailand’s more relaxed sexual mores are the easily accessible prostitutes.
In Buddhism, extremes are considered evil, so as long as you’re not being totally abstinent (except for monks), or totally promiscuous, you’re doing great!
So how does this correlate to modern day norms in these two countries? Sadly, recent news stories have shown the negative effects of sexual repression in India. Rape, molestation, and sexual attacks are frequent. Having lived in India, I experienced firsthand the idea that western women are considered sexual objects. Since our cultures are not nearly as strict on sexual matters, some men assume we are okay with being stared at, touched, and fondled. Because premarital sex is strictly prohibited, some Indian men are desperate enough to take matters into their own hands, no matter how harmful their actions may be to others.
Since arriving in Thailand, I have not once felt sexually threatened. A possible reason, or cause, of Thailand’s more relaxed sexual mores are the easily accessible prostitutes. Men have an outlet for their sexual desires, so they don’t have to make unwanted advances or worse. The presence of the lady boys, cross dressers, and prostitutes in Thailand are proof enough that sex is treated much more casually than India.
My conclusions about this topic are far from being reached. I have another two months of traveling around all parts of Thailand, and I intend to take special notice of this issue. The more I see of this land, the more information I can catalog, and the wider cultural understanding I can gain. And, to me, that is much more interesting than living in a comfort zone.
What to Wear in Thailand: Peeling Off the Layers