Gay travel sites like to tell you that Bangkok is the Gay Mecca of SE Asia, that in Thailand you’ll find a warm and friendly people who willingly embrace gay visitors and smother them in tolerance. That’s because most gay travel site writers don’t know dick about Thai culture. And when they finally get down to telling you why Thailand is such a gay Mecca – in their view – you have to start wondering if they know anything about dick too.
Recently many of those sites trumpeted the inclusion of transgendered people in the new Thai constitution. Even though that’s still just a rumor. The Good General is not yet finished writing that document. But supposedly when he does sign off on it, the T community will be recognized. Thailand will finally have a third gender. And gay rights enthusiasts around the world are thrilled. Of course if you asked anyone in Thailand they’d tell you that ladyboys have nothing to do with being gay. And just because the new constitution may recognize their existence, that doesn’t mean equality is part of the package. Same-sex marriage still appears to be off the table. As the third gender being legally able to marry either of the other two genders – depending on the appendages or past existence of appendages involved – is still rumored to be too.
Nonetheless, gay travel writers continue to sing the praises of Bangkok as the gay Mecca of SE Asia. Even though Singapore is much more cruisy, Vietnam is making more headway toward marriage equality, and Taipei is turning positively pink these days. They point toward the complete lack of homophobia toward gay visitors in Thailand as proof, when in reality that’s more about Thai apathy toward farang idiosyncrasies. And that pink dollars are readily exchangeable for baht too. Sure, few if any hotels in Thailand will bat an eye at a guest checking in with a same-sex partner. And yes, TAT has an entire campaign geared at luring gay visitors to Thailand’s shores. But then no Thai is ever gonna let who is doing who – or what – behind closed doors get in the way of making baht. The idea that at a bakery would refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding would just make them laugh. But that doesn’t mean equality is just around the corner.
Part of the confusion of just where Thai society stands on gay equality is that there is a world of difference between how gay tourists are viewed and how gay Thais are treated within that society. What appears to the casual visitor to be a happy free-for-all where every gender preference is cool ain’t quite as tolerant when it comes to being a gay Thai in Thailand. The gay travel writer view that Thailand is a hotbed of tolerance just ain’t true. At least not once you step outside of the gay ghetto visitors are familiar with. And even within those pink walls, just what, and who, qualifies as gay is not necessairly the same as you may think it is. Sure there are a few pubs and clubs catering to gay visitors in and around Silom Soi 4, but one small soi doesn’t a gay Mecca make. And for many in the gay travel industry, that’s where the Thailand gay experience begins and ends.
It’s all good and well to finish off your day at Telephone for some gay camaraderie and DJ Station for a chance at hooking up with a local lad, but everything else those sites suggest to gay tourists have nada to do with being gay. And sorry, a visit to one of the city’s ladyboy cabarets doesn’t count. Those are not geared toward family, but to breeders who want to gawk at the boys being girls.
Thailand is amazing. It holds many wondrous sites for tourists to enjoy. Everyone should see The Grand Palace (or try to). Everyone should check out Wat Pho, dine on the streets of Bangkok, shop ’til you drop, and then get a foot massage. There are more things to do and see in Bangkok alone than most visitor’s time in the country allows for. Gay visitors should visit Jim Thompson’s House of Silk for Sale, because rumor has it that Jimmy was gay. And because by Day #5 of their visit gay tourists are gonna be wondering where in the hell all the gay rainbows they were promised are.
When those who try to make a living out of the gay travel industry visit the kingdom they end up doing the exact same things that straight tourists do. They ride an elephant. Stay at a posh hotel (which is always billed as being ‘gay-friendly’ as though not every hotel in Thailand is). Dine at a four or five star restaurant where they can take in a four or three star view of Bangkok. And then spend a few hours on Soi 4 ‘cuz when you are gay and visiting the gay Mecca of SE Asia, you’d better find something pink to do. They may even brave the wilds of Patpong, Bangkok’s red light district. Where you need to step lively to avoid being run over by a stroller being pushed in front of a farang family and its gaggle of kids who also decided to take in the seamy-side of the Big Mango. And if they’re truly going balls to the walls, they may give a small nod to Soi Twilight, which is either portrayed as place no self-respecting gay man would ever actually visit, or as the home to a few small clubs that offer usually uniedntified but ‘risque’ nonetheless entertainment.
And there’s the rub. As it is at numerous happy ending massage shops spread around the city that cater to the gay male. Because what makes Thailand a gay Mecca is not a small soi of pubs, or a total indifference toward same sex hotel occupants, or that you can barely step outside of your hotel without stumbling over a ladyboy. What makes Thailand a gay Mecca is that any gay man can get laid there. By anyone and anything at anytime. What draws repeat gay visitors to Thailand is the happy endings they experienced before. What lures gay visitors to Thailand are the gogo clubs where they can watch boys being boys with other boys while wearing little to nothing. And then being able to pick out their favorite performer and take him back to their hotel for a more intimate performance. Bangkok doesn’t hold a gay pride parade. But nightly, there is a parade of smiling gay visitors making their way down the streets of Patpong, headed for a night of heaven.
Rule #1 of Madison Avenue is that sex sells. And there are few places on earth where you’ll find more sex for sale than in Thailand. But it’s an open secret that no one in the gay travel industry wants to talk about. ‘Sex tourist’ still invokes an image of a degenerate, elderly farang preying on the youth of a third world country. When anyone who’s spent a night on Soi Twilight knows that those guys may be on the prowl, but they are also the prey. The customer base of Bangkok’s bars has changed over the years; it’s now a younger, much less white crowd. Yesterday’s sex tourist has been replaced by today’s gay tourist. Who may, or may not, decide to indulge in a bit of commercialized sex while in town. It’s time for that which Thailand has always been known for – prostitution – to come out of the closet. Because that’s the country’s real claim to fame when it comes to being a gay Mecca.
The naughty shows have been toned down recently. And then bloomed back into full on fuck fests. But the less in-your-face variety of show is where the bars are headed. Hell, you can hardly find a ping pong ball in Patpong these days. And Patpong itself is featured in every guidebook and on every travel site as a nighttime shopping destination with a slightly risque side where you can buy the latest in over-priced knock-off goods. Or take in a show featuring Pussy Blow Candle. The locals have never hidden those places. And all the neon screaming Boys! in every color of the rainbow should clue you in that the sexy shows of Soi Twilight are not being hidden either. Thais have a less-than-prurient attitude towards sex. Or at least toward illicit sex. And just because it’s two penises involved – or more – doesn’t mean a thing. It’s a healthy attitude towards sex. And it’s that tolerance that sets Thailand apart as a gay Mecca. If only the gay travel industry would embrace the locals’ attitude.
TAT hired a New York based travel agency to design its campaign – Go Thai, Be Free – to encourage more gay visitors to come to the kingdom. That’s why there are so many rainbows displayed in the campaign’s literature and so few hot, young, strapping local lads reminding you of why Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles. That’s why listed hotels have nothing to do with a gay clientele. And why the cost of a night with a moneyboy is never mentioned. That campaign has nothing to do with the Thai openness about its commercial sex scene, and everything to do with the puritanical attitude toward prostitution that permeates America. ‘Cuz in the USA there is no room in gay pride for paid-for sexual encounters.
Not every gay tourist who visits Thailand wants to find the moneyboy of his dreams. Thailand is an affordable, exotic, foreign destination worthy of any tourist’s time. But that’s about being a tourist, not about being gay. Sex is not part of every tourist’s holiday plans. Not even every gay tourist’s. But when it is not, an occasional rainbow flag fluttering in the breeze has little to no impact on his stay. And we tend to avoid visiting those destinations where they behead boys who like boys anyway. If you are going to bill Thailand as a gay Mecca, there has to be something to set it aside from every other somewhat tolerant, somewhat inclusive, somewhat accepting destination. Or else everyone can just visit Miami Beach instead.
Thailand is a gay Mecca, but only when you quit trying to hide its naughty nighttime entertainment offerings. By doing so, you only further the notion that the country’s commercial sex scene is as repressed as it would be in your home country, which is the farthest thing from the truth. Thailand is accepting and tolerant of its gay visitors, but not because Thai society embraces gay equality. Because it does not. What it does accept is that gay boys will be gay boys and gay visitors are free to act as gay as they want to. Even when that means money is involved. Or especially when that means money is involved. Because in the end, a country’s tourism industry thrives on the money it brings in. Not on the brand of sexuality that accompanies that money.