Just how scandalous are my shoulders and knees? What if it’s hot out? Is there an exception for people riding bicycles?
Before leaving for my bicycle tour in Southeast Asia I Googled “What should women wear while cycling in Southeast Asia” and didn’t find much. Now that I’m back from my three months of solo touring in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, I want to answer this question so you can skip my trial, error, sunburn, and purchase of an overpriced new shirt in Vang Vieng.
The Standard Advice
If you ask Google what women should wear while traveling in Southeast Asia, you’ll find two opposing views. The first says it’s a conservative region and women should cover their knees and shoulders (and obviously everything in between). The second says it really doesn’t matter because in the tourist towns people are used to backpackers shuffling around in crop tops and booty shorts. Both are true.
You rarely see local women showing their shoulders and knees, especially outside of cities. Locals even swim fully clothed. Partly this is because they go to great lengths to shield their skin from the sun. Partly it is from cultural norms of modesty.
If you spend time in towns where tourists hang out you will see young backpackers dressed like they are going to a summer music festival. I saw it all. Some of the clothes they wore would be considered culturally inappropriate on the streets of almost any town in the world, let alone a relatively conservative region.
My personal opinion is that when I visit someone else’s culture, I should make an effort to respect their norms. This doesn’t mean I change everything about the way I dress, but I make an attempt to not be offensive. This is for their sake as well as mine. Life as a solo female traveler, or any traveler really, is much smoother when the people I meet feel goodwill toward me. Why give them a reason to have negative feelings about me before we even interact?
Just to be clear: It’s unfair that much of the world sexually objectifies women which leads to social restrictions on how we are supposed to dress. It’s horrible when men use a woman’s clothing choices as an excuse for harassing or harming her. These things suck and I hate them as much as the next woman. We should be able to wear what we want. But when I travel, I travel in the world that exists, not the one I wish existed.
Are Cyclists Different?
I knew the above recommendations before leaving for my trip, but there’s an extenuating circumstance that made me second guess my choices: it’s frickin’ HOT in Southeast Asia. Hot and humid. Exactly the kind of weather that leaves me craving the breeziness of a sleeveless shirt.
Knowing that the cultural norms around modesty are relatively relaxed in Asia (compared to, say, many Muslim countries) and knowing that the area is a popular tourist destinations so the locals are used to western dress, I wondered if there could be an exception to the dress code for those of us actively engaged in sports (i.e. riding a bicycle, all darn day long).
I experimented with riding in a tasteful sleeveless shirt for a few days in Vietnam and Laos. By tasteful I mean it was not strappy and not plunging in front nor in back. Just a normal, sleeveless, shirt. My cycling shorts came to my knees when standing and just above when biking, and I never changed these as they were all I had and seemed to fit in just fine.
Sleeveless Shirt Experiment
So what happened?
Nothing. People treated me no differently. Women still talked to me. Men did not turn into lecherous creeps.
One old women was concerned about my sun exposure. She was right! After a couple days of nonstop sun my bare shoulders started feeling crispy. This was one reason I decided to switch back to a shirt with sleeves.
The other reason was that I simply felt uncomfortable riding all day in places where I never saw another bare shoulder. Yes, in tourist towns it’s common, but as a cyclist we spend a lot of time between tourist towns, in places where locals don’t see many foreigners.
This is a personal thing, but one of my biggest challenges when bike touring in developing countries is always being so darn conspicuous. I get tired of the constant stares and of being treated like a wealthy alien who just dropped in from another planet. The last thing I need is a nagging feeling that the way I’m dressed might be raising internal eyebrows even if people are too polite to show it.
So I switched back to short sleeve shirts for the rest of my trip, except for a day or two of lazy pedaling around tourist towns. And I felt more comfortable. Your mileage may vary, but that’s my story.
My Clothing Recommendations
If I could repack for the three months I spent cycling in Southeast Asia, here’s what I would bring:
- Two synthetic stink-proof short sleeve shirts. I’m normally a huge fan of lightweight merino wool for situations where showers and laundry are unpredictable (merino wool doesn’t get smelly!), but in the humid climate of Southeast Asia they soaked up too much sweat and didn’t dry fast enough. I ended up buying a normal synthetic athletic shirt locally. The challenge was keeping it from smelling – lots of vigorous rinsing in guesthouse sinks. Now that I’m home, I’m looking into brands like Athleta and Columbia that make UPF-rated (sun protecting) clothing with anti-odor treatments.
- One lightweight tasteful sleeveless shirt for wearing around tourist towns, if you feel like a change or want to work on that farmer’s tan.
- Sun sleeves. My forearms got a surprising amount of sun while riding and I often wished I had a cool (in temperature, not in looks) way to cover them. Some cyclists wear long sleeves but I value the flexibility of a short sleeve shirt with the option to add sun sleeves when I’m feeling a little too crispy.
- One long sleeve merino wool shirt, good if you need a little bit of warmth on a cool night or to cover up from sun or mosquitoes. I love the Icebreaker Sphere Longsleeve Lightweight Hoodie for this purpose. It’s easy to slip on as a top layer and always feels comfy and light.
- One pair knee length baggy (mountain bike) cycling shorts with lots of zip pockets. I absolutely love these Zoic Navaeh Women’s Shorts for their comfy fit, adjustable waist and plentiful zip pockets. I used the gray color in Southeast Asia, but my next pair will be black so the dirt and sweat don’t show.
- Two pair padded cycling shorts, whatever type works for you. Watch out for seams and other places that rub – details matter when you’re cycling every day! I liked having two different brands with different levels of padding, so when one inevitably started to chafe a little too much somewhere, I could switch to the other which chafed somewhere different.
- One pair capri-length hiking pants, as backup cycling shorts or two wear around town off the bike. My favorite are these Columbia Women’s Saturday Trail Knee Pants, in black to avoid dirt and awkward sweat stains.
- (Optional) One pair long lightweight pants for cool nights in the mountains (rare). If I hadn’t gone to north Vietnam I could have skipped these.
- Idea: sun sleeves for legs? I haven’t tried these yet but I recently ordered a pair of Pearl Izumi Sun Knees and I’m considering them for my next trip. They are lightweight and cover your knees and upper calves, which seems useful as this is where I got the most sun (and the weirdest tan lines). They are tight fitting so easier to ride in than long pants, and probably wouldn’t irritate the skin on my knees like the capri-length hiking pants did when I rode in them.
- Three pair merino wool panties. I mix it up between these Icebreaker Sprite Shorts and these super lightweight Woolly Merino Wool Hipster Briefs.
- Two merino wool sports bras. I tried a lot of different ones and ended up with two of these: Icebreaker Merino Meld Zone Sports Bra. I like that they come in different colors for wearing under different-colored lightweight shirts without showing through. I also love that they are padded for modesty, much appreciated when wandering around foreign countries alone, and that they don’t get stinky when I can’t wash them properly. They’re not cheap, but they work for me and when I wear them every day for months it’s totally worth it.
- Two pair lightweight merino wool socks.
Yes, I love merino wool for underwear. Did I mention it doesn’t get smelly?
- Rain jacket or poncho for those monsoon downpours. You don’t need expensive alpine-grade Gore-Tex here, just something lightweight and basic. I use a Marmot Precip Jacket (men’s version here) for this type of weather, and love that it has pit zips for ventilation in the humidity.
- (Optional) rain pants. I only used these once or twice in chilly, wet northern Vietnam.
- Something comfy to sleep in, I liked a lightweight merino wool t-shirt and running shorts.
- Swimsuit: I didn’t use mine, as I only swam at locals beaches and went fully clothed like they did. But many tourists do swim in swimsuits in rivers and the ocean.
- One nice and clean shirt for around town, when you’re surrounded by tourists in Instagram-worthy outfits and get tired of feeling so grubby.
- Buff headwear: I LOVE these things! Perfect under my helmet for keeping sweat out of my eyes on those long hot climbs. Also good as a mouth and nose cover for dusty roads. Or just for looking a little less shabby when walking around town with hair that didn’t get fully washed in last night’s cold bucket “shower.”
- Cycling gloves to help prevent nerve issues, sun damage and blisters. I use these Pearl Izumi Ride Women’s Elite Gel Gloves (men’s version here) but there are lots of good options out there.
General Notes on Local Dress
This is what worked for me and made me feel comfortable. Of course it’s a personal decision. Here are a few more observations on local womens’ dress to help you make up your mind.
- Less conservative dress is more common in cities and towns than in the countryside.
- In the countryside you often see women showering in sarongs with bare shoulders, or men working shirtless. It’s not like it’s completely scandalous. It seems to be more of a time and place kind of thing. I got the impression this may be ok for working or for your own front yard, but not ok for running errands or social situations. Where does that leave bicycle tourists? I have no idea.
- Laos and Cambodia were more conservative than Vietnam and especially Thailand.
- In cities I saw local women wearing shorts more often than I saw them wearing sleeveless shirts.
- Locals will probably not confront you about your clothing choice no matter how offensive it is to them.
- Locals usually swim in shorts and t-shirts.
Dressing for Temples and Religious Sites
An article about what to wear in Southeast Asia would be incomplete without mentioning temples and religious sites. In general when entering a temple both men and women should have their shoulders and knees covered. In some places this was not enforced at all, though I would still suggest doing it out of respect.
In some places it was strictly enforced, for example Angkor Wat in Cambodia. In Thailand I was turned away from the Royal Palace even in my long shorts, and was surprised to find out they require full-length pants and closed shoes (no flip flops). So, it’s helpful to have some options available if you want to see all the famous sites.
Other Cycling Resources for Southeast Asia
If you’re heading to Southeast Asia on a bicycle, here are some other resources you might find helpful: