This post was updated on Nov. 26, 2018
Boobs, Buddha and Thailand. Let’s discuss.
Thailand Is Boobland…right???
A casual observer of Thai society could easily think that the country has a laissez-faire attitude about how women dress in public. Boobs are pretty harmless in the Land of Smiles, right?
After all, as soon as you step off the plane at Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok’s international airport) you’ll quickly see some Thai woman wearing short-shorts, camis, tube tops, short tight skirts (school girls included), stiletto heals, backless halters and assorted form-fitting dresses with this or that body part hanging out.
Added to the above scenery, the casual observer will also know about Thailand’s world famous party places such as Pattaya, Patong Beach, Soi Cowboy and of course Bangkok’s Patpong District which is on almost all tourist’s “must see” list.
In these sex industry locales, myriads of young, attractive Thai women (the bar girls) and ladyboys walk around publicly wearing breathtakingly seductive outfits as they lure men into their web of prostitution. Boobs are on display everywhere.
Given the above, it’s not surprising that most Western tourists to The Kingdom assume that Thailand has a very relaxed standard when it comes to how women should dress in public much like the United States or Europe.
In Thailand-Anything goes…right?
Wrong! First, the antics of what goes on in the sex industry enclaves such as Soi Cowboy or Pattaya have absolutely no relevance to how Thai women perceive proper dress in public. Thai women are not ubiquitous whores. In fact, the sex industry enclaves share very little in common with the rest of the country other than a geographic location within Thailand’s borders.
Secondly, if the casual observer had any interest in Thai social mores, such observer would quickly note that 99.999999999% of Thai women dress in a fairly conservative manner when in public. Thai women don’t walk around with their boobs hangin’ out.
Of course Thailand is not Saudi Arabia, but then again, it’s not the French Riviera either.
To Boob Or Not To Boob
Showing your boobs publicly in Thailand is a cultural “no no” to say the least.
Even going braless and allowing your nipples to poke through your blouse or T-shirt will be viewed with contempt by Thai women and snickered at by Thai men. And no, I’m not just talking about rural Thailand.
Outside the sex industry enclaves, usually the most provocatively dressed women anywhere in the Kingdom will be western tourists, not Thai women.
What Thai Women REALLY Think
Here’s a true event that will help you understand.
My wife (she’s Thai of course) and I were vacationing at a beach resort on Ko Samui, which is one of the most popular beach destinations in Thailand for foreign tourists. We decided to have lunch at the resort’s poolside restaurant as it offered a beautiful view of the beach below.
Our Thai waitress was young, probably in her late twenties or early thirties, and as often happens, my wife struck up a conversation with the waitress about where she’s from and other small talk. The waitress took our orders and returned with our drinks and more chit chat with my wife.
A young European couple (I think they were newlyweds on their honeymoon.) were splashing about in the ocean below, when the woman undid her bikini top and went topless. Upon seeing this, the Thai waitress stopped chatting with my wife and stared at the topless European woman. The waitress’s face changed from a smile to a frown and she shook her head negatively. The waitress told my wife that white women are always doing this (going topless) and that she hates it. She was disgusted that this woman was baring her breasts in public. She was personally offended.
The Thai waitress’s disgust at a topless woman in public represents the common Thai sentiment about showing your boobs in public, even at a beach resort that caters to Europeans. And as I suggested, even allowing your nipples to show through a blouse or dress in public will be seen as inappropriate.
Is Thailand a prudish society? No, not at all. Just walk down any street; page through a few Thai magazines or watch a little Thai TV and you will overwhelmingly see that Thais are not prudish and they believe in equal rights for the sexes.
But Thailand is mostly a reverent, Buddhist society and modesty is a virtue. Going topless in public is seen as a Western decadence and represents values that Thais aren’t interested in. So as you’re lounging about the pool whether in Bangkok or Phuket, I’d resist the temptation to go topless, unless like most tourists, you could care less about what the locals think of you.
But There’s Bare Boobs In Thai Wats!
Yep. And some Buddhist wats have more boobs on display than an old Playboy magazine.
To understand that enigmatic fact, I highly recommend you read my post “Going Topless in Thailand: A History of Boobs and Buddha”.
Thai women do dress modestly as you explain. Female foreign visitors are advised against halter tops or other revealing attire. Thai married women in particular are expected to be devoted to their families. Typical dress for women is a top with short sleeves, not revealing even shoulders.
Your statement that the Thai sex industry shares very little with the rest of the country should be re-examined. Please be honest and accurate about Thai men and the country’s sex industry.
I lived in Thailand for a time and spoke Thai. Married women were very honest with me about the double standard for personal behavior, sometimes being moved to tears in explaining their frustrations about family life and how their husbands engaged with prostitutes in the evenings. Thai men may start this practice in their mid-teens.
I loved Thailand and have deep affection for both men and women there. But in husband-wife relationships, “equal rights for the sexes” may be far from the truth.
Thank you for your writing, photographs, and historical perspectives.