Opinion: When in Rome (Or Bangkok) – Dress the Part

Image: World Traveler / Facebook
Image: World Traveler / Facebook

It’s hot. Very hot. One’s just come from Helsinki or Petersburg after a winter equally long, cold and miserable. The first day in Bangkok is to be spent discovering the city, so that means shorts, a wife-beater, flip-flops and the mandatory money-belt. It’s a holiday, so the daily shaving routine is out the window. Sweat that glorious sweat, all dripping down as you step onto the air-conditioned BTS Skytrain. It’s packed with immaculately dressed Thais. Why have the smiles have suddenly become unreal?

Unaware of the stares, dismissive disregard and derogatory remarks, one wonders why welcoming arms suddenly don’t feel so open.

Now to turn the tables.

It is bracing, it is cold – the dial says 10C or lower. Spot them in Knightsbridge or St. Germain-des-Prés by their unfamiliarity with winter wear. In cold climates good footwear is essential, but instead of boots, colorful sneakers are the tell-tale signs of oriental visitors. Wearing bought or borrowed apparel they think will keep them warm, they pose for Instagram karma in the odd scarves and ill-fitting coats from which colorful jumpers hang. They are in hats or, even worse, beanies which accentuate their round Thai faces. Completing the look are “must-have” gloves of made-in-Taiwan fake leather, way too small for their hands.


They give the impression of being unrefined refugees.

Ouch, have I stepped on a few toes?Tuptim Malakul Lane

Whether it is half-dressed foreigners being mocked by Thais in the city or overdressed Thais derided as refined refugees, the shame cuts both ways and is easily avoided with a little thought to dressing appropriately for weather, social norms and self-respect.

For our visiting friends puzzled by or indifferent to this, allow me to voice some Thai sentiments. Outward appearance for a Thai is extremely important. This is how Thais think when confronted with such low-end tourists dressing disrespectfully. It’s acceptable to dress as described when you are in Pattaya or Koh Samui, complete with a beer cooler in one hand and a holiday partner in the other. But city life is another matter.

We are highly concerned about our appearance. It defines who we are in our class hierarchy. Observe the 7am public transport scene on either a local bus or the BTS: office workers dressed immaculately, both men and women equally fashionable. In the evening time, inside low-end street bars, local restaurants or high-end fancy hotels find much the same: We are a nation proud of our style and fashion.

Just count the number of hairdressers and dressmakers on the block. Marvel at either ready-to-wear French couture in the shopping mall where nothing is under USD$2000 to pile-high sexy numbers at Platinum for less than $20. Whatever your pocket can stand, there’s no excuse for looking unstylish, unkempt, and ungroomed. In Thailand, dress correctly and be afforded respect.

Given the effort we put in, it’s disappointment mixed with disgust to be confronted by sweaty, hairy, peek-a-boo beer bellies. The ensuing derisory comments would make the hardened shameful – if only they could understood them.

The same advice goes for my friends and fellow countrymen. Now is the time when many well-to-do Thais take their holiday abroad – and the farther they go, the more “face” they get.

This divides them between the semi hi-so, pretend hi-so or the genuine unhi-so hi-so. If you happen to find Thais on ski slopes, they are usually well-suited for the occasion. Their bank balance allows online ordering from Bogner or Moncler for their ski and après-ski attire. Often having skied since their teens, these unhi-so hi-so blend in with the St. Moritz crowd, often switching easily between Thai, French, English and Italian.


Unlike Thais, most Europeans do not make rude comments, even if they would comfortably go uncomprehended. Their conclusions are quietly made and any disdain carefully hidden.

So why would we be so rude to the visitors who make the Thai economy go round? If they wear shorts, crop-tops or flip-flops, it is for the solar rays to nourish a much-needed tan. Just please remember there are people living here, and they are particular about things.

As for our homegrown hi-so and the not-so hi-so, consider a little less Instagram-taking and brand name-shopping. Be in the moment rather than glued to the viewfinder. Absorb some history; know a little bit about what’s in the background of your selfie. Soon that unrefined refugee look will be replaced by the mien of a cultured traveler, seeking adventure.