I’ve started assembling my wardrobe for an upcoming trip to Myanmar so it’s got me thinking about dressing for the tropics. I visited Myanmar 9 years ago and even though November/December is considered “winter” there, highs of 90F are common and the sun beating down on the open-air temples is incredibly, skin searingly strong. Most people think about going to the tropics and get started packing their very thin, very small pieces of clothing. For lots of southeast Asia though, this is not the right way to go.
Southeast Asian countries are surprisingly conservative. For all the beaches in Pattaya filled with bikinied Europeans, most places you visit expect you to be fully clothed unless you are actually on the beach. You must have your shoulders and knees covered to enter temples. A couple of sarongs can be deployed in these instances, but if your trip is not based at the beach, it’s easier to avoid the stares and dress a bit more modestly.
Additionally, if you’re pale like me, visiting the tropics actually requires a well-thought-out sun-avoidance strategy in order to return home unburned.
Mosquitos can be an issue as well, and need to be considered especially if you’re forgoing anti-malaria medication. Malaria is not a problem in lots of southeast Asia but in Myanmar the deadly kind is common, so better safe than sorry.
So the basics of my tropical wardrobe consists of:
Thin, nylon capris: preferably stretchy for long days of travel, not too tight because no one wants to wear too-tight clothes when its 90F and 80% humidity. These are from Title Nine.
Trousers similar to the capris above. I cannot bring myself to have anything to do with convertible pants but some folks love ’em. I have some linen trousers I got for my India trip a couple of years ago but frankly I find nylon ones more comfortable and much easier to launder. They also wrinkle less.
Shorts for lounging around in. Whatever you have at home is probably okay, as long is it’s mid-thigh or longer.
Tank tops or t-shirts, preferably wicking so sweat is less of an issue.
A key piece of my sun avoidance strategy is long-sleeved overshirts to cover arms and shoulders. Ex Officio makes some good ones, but be careful on sizing; their stuff tends to run small. I wear them unbuttoned so they are more about sun protection than anything else, but this one has permethrin in the fabric to thwart mozzies as well.
Very comfortable walking sandals. You’ll be taking them off and putting them on a lot when going into temples so it makes sense to have something very easy to get on and off. The very last thing you want is lace-up shoes as you’ll spend all your time fussing with them.
Flip flops which are the standard footwear for locals, but aren’t great for lots of walking if your feet are not used to it.
Sun hat -anything from a booney to a gardening hat will work, but I suggest getting something crushable so you don’t have to worry about getting it on the plane like you would with a standard straw hat.
And my tried-and-true so very special element: the “clean clothes”. I stumbled on this accidentally the very first time I went to the tropics on a hiking trip. All day hiking in the jungle in 90% humidity left me absolutely deflated and feeling incredibly sticky and gross. After a quick shower it occurred to me that that last thing I wanted to do was put these sweaty clothes back on. But I did have one tshirt and one pair of stretchy loose trousers that I hadn’t worn yet. So on went the “clean clothes” and I went to dinner feeling great. I isolated those clothes from the jungle funk of the rest of my suitcase in a ziploc bag and wore them every evening for dinner. It felt so wonderful to have this set of clean clothes to put on every night. I’ve been repeating this trick ever since.
Of course, this is not the most fashion-forward set of clothes, but frankly no one cares what you’re wearing, unless you plan to hit up all the fancy clubs in Bangkok or something like that. And if you are going to be doing that, just toss a dress in the mix. The most important criteria is to be comfortable, be careful of sun and bugs and then when you get home pack them all up in a box of “jungle clothes” and start planning the next trip where you can wear them.
One important note: if you are a North American or European with big feet and broad shoulders, don’t expect to be able to land and pick up local clothing that fits. On my last trip my guide and I looked around for some of the nice velvet flip flops the locals wear and they were all laughably small for my (women’s) size 8 feet.