A casual observer of Thai society could easily think that the country has a laissez-faire attitude about how women dress in public and even sex. 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.
Given the above, it’s not surprising that most Western tourists to The Kingdom assume that Thailand has a very relaxed moral standard when it comes to how women should dress in public much like the United States or Europe.
Wrong! First, the antics of what goes on in the sex industry enclaves such as Soi Cowboy or Pattaya has absolutely no relevance to the moral standards of the rest of the country. 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.
Of course Thailand is not Saudi Arabia, but then again, it’s not the French Riviera either.
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, the most provacatively dressed women anywhere in the Kingdom will be western tourists, not Thai women.
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 just can’t get used to 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.
Read the second part: “Boobs, Buddha and You Revisited” on my blog Finding Thailand.