It’s just after 3am on a Saturday night and an elephant almost knocked over my noodles. But it’s not its fault: she’s just a baby, and I was holding the sugarcane snacks I just bought from her mahout (handler) a little too close to the table. Plus, with the clubs letting out, the streets are buzzing with revelers soaking up the sin of the night with some street food and Beer Chang nightcaps, leaving little room to easily walk around, let alone if you’re a 500-pound pachyderm.
As the elephant and crew trundle off to beg for some more money, it finally hits me: I just fed an elephant. On the hyper-urban streets on Bangkok. In the middle of the night. Tourist says what? Glancing around, similar looks of disbelief are plastered on the faces of the other farang (foreigners) in the crowd, whereas the Thai, such as my new friend and guide for the past week Tong, have barely batted an eye (except to turn away from camera flashes). Turns out in Thailand elephants are a national symbol, surprisingly frequent in the flesh as they are on clothing, souvenirs and bas-reliefs, even here in Bangkok where they’re technically illegal to own. It’s like coming to New York City and seeing the Naked Cowboy in Times Square for the first time: titillating and somewhat illicit to the uninitiated, but tame in its everyday.
Such is modern Bangkok, a teeming megalopolis 12 million strong (officially) sprawled over approximately 606 square miles with no real center to it. Tong says a truer estimate of the population is 20 million once you include all the undocumented citizens; remember, this is still the third world. It’s vibrant and boisterous (at times uncomfortably so), humid and sticky (ditto), filled with smells tantalizing (grilling street meat, flowering plants) and putrid (raw sewage-filled canals), a riot of humble market stalls and Madison Avenue malls, with a cleanly soaring monorail snaking skyward and grid-locked, smoke-spewing traffic below, ancient gilt palaces and endless Buddhas housed in a sea of wats, their stupas and sloping terracotta roofs competing with the glass skyscrapers for command of the skyline, and in each their own currency—of the soul and of the economy—the progression of Thai society. You don’t just visit Bangkok; you confront it. And if you’re gay in Southeast Asia, you embrace it as the lusty and spunky, irreverent yet traditional tropical heart of the region: Krung Thep to the Thai; the “City of Angels” for the rest of us.
In Thailand it’s said there’s no gay movement because there’s nothing to move against. Buddhist teachings, of which roughly 90% of the country follow, don’t shame same-sex relations. Kathoey (transsexual, ladyboy) culture is centuries old and a distinct, respected entity in its own right with pre- and post-op kathoey being out and known in everything from politics to pop music, even kickboxing. Instead, like much of the emerging world, the notion of two masculine men dating or two ladies loving each other is a more novel idea, its acceptableness being a relatively recent development. (And with it, slang: “gay king” means top, “gay queen” bottom, as well as “Toms” and “Dees” for butch and femme ladies, respectively.) If anything stigmatizes gay relationships and keeps people in the closest, it’s pressure to start a family combined with the pan-Asian tradition of “saving face.” Modesty and discretion are national norms. But in many discussions over the past week, Tong gushed how there’s no better time or place in all of Asia, or even Britain where he studied abroad, to be gay than today’s Thailand.
With two days to explore on either side of a weeklong tour of the northern provinces with Canadian gay outfit Out Adventures, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, especially once the un-rushed tropical Thai mindset sets in. You could easily spend a week here, some say a lifetime, and never get bored, or in my case, comprehend the ridiculously haphazard maze of streets, side streets (soi), and alleys (a soi’s soi), that compromise the urban “grid.” Yet for all its churning humanity, clashes of wealth and poverty, and deep traditional mindset, it seldom feels unsafe, and a welcoming smile is almost always at ready hand—even to an oblivious farang—especially to gays and lesbians.
If you are intrepid, patient or have been to Asia before, Bangkok can easily be done on one’s own. But for my baht (now roughly 35 to the dollar, making it a refreshingly inexpensive destination), Tong took out all the trouble and had our queer coterie avoiding the traps (the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, for instance) and seedy sex-tourist side of the city while giving a personalized low-down on Thai traditions. For instance: the rainbow Technicolor taxis aren’t saying “Hey, Gay!” but rather represent the Buddhist tradition of wearing a different color every day of the week. (Guess we can’t co-opt everything.) And what’s ruder than a Danish cartoon of Mohammad? Stepping on a Buddha image or pointing your feet at one in a temple; don’t even think about talking ill of the King. Plus, when your every day amble becomes a smorgasbord of street vendors, having a guide by my side was worth what I saved in Pepto.
Your best bet for cutting a swath through the city is to stay close to the Chao Phraya River, which anchors the city and gives easy access via Express River Boat bus to the cultural highlights (The Grand Palace, Wats Po and Arun), or on toney Sukumvit Road, all high-rises and the latest in luxe. The Silom Road area, the city’s financial center by day and raucous clubland by night, is both gay central and super-convenient to public transport. The Ramkhamhaeng University area is also gay-popular and bar/club-heavy, but more of a local scene, not unfriendly, but more impenetrable as a farang. (Silom Road is probably 10% of the overall gay action in the city, but 95% of what’s easily accessible, in all senses of the word, to tourists.)
Although restaurants are plentiful, you need not spend a lot to eat well, and often the best and most authentic food comes off the street or from anonymous stalls in labyrinthine markets. Just follow the locals. And get lost. When you’re tired, get a massage; they’re cheap and refreshing and (mostly) legit. A motobike taxi is an inexpensive (if slightly dangerous) thrill, and with a business card from your hotel, they can always get you back where you need to go; look for the neon vests and negotiate prices beforehand. Once the adrenaline wears off, quaff a Red Bull (the original, before the Austrians knocked it off) or one of the super-potent local brews (crazy, vivid dreams be damned!), because as much as you pack in the day, once it starts to cool down outside, much of Bangkok is just heating up.
For the official word on Thailand, visit Utopia-Asia.com has become the region’s go-to queer-all.
To book your own Out Adventure, visit Out-Adventures.com