Travelling before you leave the ground – traditional styles of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is a small part of the Asian continent that is made up of 11 countries. We are located South of China (for those of you who went to my college and asked if Malaysia was in China) and to the East of India. These 11 countries are made up of a myriad of cultures, but with predominance of ethnically Chinese or Malay. This of course shouldn’t be confused with the different religions (where in Malaysia to be Malay is to be Muslim), or different nationalities (a Chinese Indonesian is not the same as a Chinese from China and should not be called ‘Chinese’ since they are of different national identities (but we can get into that some other day)). Confused yet? =)

We all take pride in our own cultures and hold steadfast to its representation and practice; including anything in the external/ physical sense. This is especially apparent in national airlines in Southeast Asia where wearing local traditional garments are a norm.

As a traveller, one of your first cultural contact point would be the airline in which you fly in with. Many of you may choose the airline of your home country due to its familiarity. But if you considered flying with the airline of the country you will be visiting, your cultural experience would start even before you leave the ground!

Thai Airways

Thai Airways

If you choose to fly with Thai Airways (Thailand’s full service carrier), you will be greeted by beautiful flight attendants clasping their palms together with a slight bent of the body and a sweet Sawadeeka. It is one of the few airlines that have a policy where a flight attendant will change uniforms – from when they greet you outside the cabin (in their purple suits) and then change into their traditional outfit right before boarding. They will then change back into their suits before disembarkation. Their traditional outfit also comes with a beautiful brocade sash.

Day-to-day: In Thailand, you see most of the locals where some version of the traditional outfit mostly for important events likes weddings. It is extremely rare to see someone in this for their usual day-to-day wear.

Malaysia Airlines


This full service carrier of Malaysia will have their flight attendants clad in a tight short kebaya with beautiful batik print. Both of which are synonymous to the culture of the majority ethnic group in Malaysia – the Malays. The kebaya style itself has gone through numerous permutations which even had it be more sexy back in the 60’s – 80’s to its more conservative stance today. Batik prints were originally hand drawn using wax to outline the patterns (mostly floral motifs) and different colored dye to fill it in.

Day-to-day: In Malaysia, you will still see the locals wear some form of traditional outfit even for work. On Friday’s a walk around the city would show the numerous traditional styles available. Most public service staff choose to wear a longer less shapely kurung though you may still find a less tight and longer kebaya on some. Otherwise, most Malays wear these traditional outfits during main festivals like Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha.

Vietnam Airlines


Travel with Vietnam Airlines and you will be greeted by ladies in the beautiful Ao Dai. This elegant outfit combines both aspects of femininity with the functionality. The top portion of this garment is usually tight around the bodice giving it a nice curvy silhouette. The bottom section of the garment is loose with slits up to the thigh on both sides. Underneath, they wear silk pant that is helpful for them to be on the move.

Day-to-day: You still see some of the ladies in Saigon wearing this though not as much as you would see in the smaller towns. Iv’e heard it’s still quite the norm in Hoi An. If not, you can still find school children wearing them as their school uniform.  

Garuda Indonesia

Garuda Indonesia

If you’re flying with Indonesia’s national carrier – Garuda Airlines, you would find the flight attendants in similar outfits as Malaysian Airlines. Indonesia and Malaysia both choose to honour their heritage by wearing the traditional kebaya. However Garuda’s choice is a modified batik with a hem that falls to the hips and the batik print only on the skirt. They also accessorize with a beautiful large brooch pinned right in the middle at the point where both lapels meet.

Day-to-day: Similar to many of the countries in Southeast Asia, you can still see the kebaya worn by the locals, though less so in the city, and more so during special events. If you travel to the South of Bali however, you would find the Uluwatu lace and plenty women wearing a short kebaya made of lace on their way to the temples.

For interesting historical reading on Garuda’s uniform, click here. For detailed notes on the change in uniform, read this

Singapore Airlines


Similar to Malaysian Airlines and Garuda Indonesia, you will also find the Singapore Airlines flight attendants aka the Singapore Girl in a short kebaya with batik print motif. The slight difference being that Singapore Airlines tends to favour round neck collars whilst both Garuda and Malaysian Airlines favour V-neck collars. Given the batik print and colour, many would mistake the Singapore Airlines uniform for that of Malaysian Airlines and vice-versa. Easiest way to tell the difference would be by the collars.

Day-to-day: The history behind the uniform stems all the way back to when Singapore and Malaysia’s airlines were one and the same (which also explains why they look so similar). By the time the airlines went their separate ways, the Sarong Kebaya style had become synonymous with the airlines and they each decided to retain it. As such, you probably won’t see you average Singaporean in a sarong kebaya as this is something worn more by the Malays, or the Peranakans and not the majority Chinese Singaporeans. This should also not be confused with the infamous Sarong Party Girls, but that’s a tale for another day.

So if you’re travelling to Southeast Asia for the first time, or travelling to some of these countries for the first time, make sure to check out the flight attendant uniforms of national carriers. I guarantee it would feel like you’re almost there.