I am always surprised at how many times I am asked if I took a shower, when exactly I took a shower, and when I plan on taking my next shower. Thai people like to talk about showering almost as much as they like to talk about food. They are not (usually) trying to tell you that you smell; it is simply a form of making conversation.
Not many will like to hear this, but westerners are not usually up to the Thai standard when it comes to personal hygiene. To be honest, they are usually considered to be unclean. Three showers a day is the norm for anyone who can manage it in Thailand. And I don’t just mean a splash in the water; I am referring to a vigorous scrubbing. A shower in the morning, afternoon (or early evening), and before bed is the standard.
If for some reason you show up at someone’s house smelling bad or not feeling fresh, it is not rude at all to ask to use the shower. There is also a good chance that they will offer this service to you. Thailand is filled with an abundance of truly terrible smells. One smell that is noticeably missing is that of body odor.
Thailand’s tropical climate calls for a whole different personal hygiene regiment. During the hottest months of the year three showers a day is truly necessary. In the cooler months, so much showering is not needed but for most it is a habit that is hard to break.
One must remember that most people in Thailand do not have the luxury of air-conditioning and that many roads are not paved, meaning you get a good solid dusting when cars drive by. Within Thailand’s cities, pollution is another factor that should never be overlooked. After walking around Bangkok for an afternoon, I sometimes take the edge of my credit card or train pass and scrape it along my face just for kicks. The amount of black grime left behind is truly amazing.
Many different fungi thrive in the heat. Powder is used after bathing as a way to thoroughly dry the skin and to prevent skin infections. It is also placed on the face, sometimes in geometric or other artistic designs to add beauty to the wearer. This practice is particularly popular in the countryside.
Mentholated powders are very popular and leave your body feeling like one gigantic breath mint for hours. There are also many pharmaceutical products to aid in the battle against different skin infections. I was expecting to have nice moist skin while living here. The opposite is true. From all the showering and powdering, my skin is drier than it ever has been.
Making a polite presentation in Thailand consists of being neatly dressed and smelling fresh. If you do smell, you have the chance of having it pointed out to you. The inevitable stinky situation does, of course, happen. When I am in this jam, I state, “I want to take a shower.” This lets those around me know that I am not being intentionally rude.
At many hotels and residences there is no hot water; be warned. Many other places do not have access to running water. Instead it is stored in gigantic vats. A plastic or metal bowl is used to scoop up the water and dump it on your body. Another thing worth noting is that it is incredibly rude to bathe naked in Thailand. A cotton wrap around (longyi) must be worn while bathing in public. In remote Thailand a public bathhouse can usually be found in the main town. Rivers, ponds, and streams are also used for bathing.
Another way to combat bad smells is to carry a little tube of menthol inhaler around. If you see Thais sniffing into a small metal or plastic tube about the size of a Chap Stick, they are simply freshening their noses.
I have nothing against trying not to smell bad or smell bad smells, but sometimes the Thai fixation on hygiene goes too far. It is common to see people popping each other’s zits in public. Nose picking is not seen as a rude gesture. I even saw a singer in a hotel lounge doing it during her performance. Combing each other’s hair for lice and other debris is another popular pastime. Roadside sellers can be seen doing this more often than not even if they are food vendors.
Many of Bangkok’s beauty salons will offer to clean your ears for you as part of the service. Unfortunately, sometimes the device they use for this has been used on all those who sat in the chair before you. It’s best to decline. When in Rome do as the Roman’s do to a certain degree. When in Thailand, shower.