A monthly column about gay and lesbian travel

Thailand: Land of Smiles

by Sasha Alyson

Thailand is remarkably gay-friendly -- but to really appreciate this country, you must be ready to do so on its terms.

Above: Elephants once served the role of trucks, even in Thailand's largest cities. They're still occasionally used for hauling wood; and, more often, as an alternative means of transportation for visitors.


The author: Sasha Alyson is the founder of Alyson Publications, the country's leading publisher of gay and lesbian books. He sold that company in 1995 to start Alyson Adventures, which specializes in active and adventure vacations for gay men and lesbians.



Table of Contents of Venturing Out columns


Gay holidays from Alyson Adventures

One of the globe's most notorious go-go districts … and a population too shy to kiss in public. A society uncommonly open to same-sex relationships … yet no visible gay community. These juxtapositions make Thailand a fascinating destination for the gay traveler. It's also a cheap destination. A simple but comfortable hotel room will run you $25; a good dinner, $10.

Thailand is 90% Buddhist. This kinder and gentler philosophy-religion yields an outlook on sexuality entirely different from our own. Publicly, Thais are extremely modest. Nude or topless beaches, for example, are unknown except for a few isolated stretches created by Westerners. Kissing in public is perceived as a brazen flaunting of sexuality. So is holding hands with someone of the opposite sex. Two men can walk arm-in-arm, however, and be seen as "just friends".

Thai modesty extends to the bedroom. If a Thai man escorts you back to your hotel room, don't be surprised when he keeps a towel securely around his waist until he's between the sheets. Yet when it comes to sex, Thai culture takes a none-of-anyone's-business attitude that, were it to take root in the U.S., would land Ken Starr right in the unemployment lines. One observer summarized it all with the oft-quoted remark that "in Thailand, you can do anything, but you can't talk about it. In the West, you can say anything but you can't do it."

Thailand does have a gay culture, but it's largely centered around bars, saunas, and numerous go-go clubs. These are easily found in gay guidebooks. They also advertise in the mainstream tourist guides distributed by Thai hotels; these listings are more likely to be up-to-date. Elaborate drag shows are a popular form of entertainment for audiences but don't fall into the "gay" category; the audiences at the biggest shows are mostly straight.

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How do you explore a country where most inhabitants speak no English, and you aren't likely to learn their language? There's no reason an intrepid traveler can't enjoy Thailand independently. Hotels are easy to reserve by fax or email. Plenty of restaurants have English-language menus. Your biggest headache will be getting around: Be ready for delays caused by the language barrier. Carry a map, and have a sense of where you want to be, but don't plan to communicate with your cab driver by pointing to a spot on a map - most Thais can't read a map.

Instead, hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs hand out cards with their name and address printed in Thai. Hold on to those cards, and perhaps you'll avoid my experience: Asking to go to Adam's Apple, getting an affirmative nod from the tuk-tuk driver that he knew what I wanted; then being delivered to the airport. His English, I discovered too late, went only as far as the first letter of a name.

There's much to be said for a group tour, especially if this is your first trip to Southeast Asia. Most gay tours to Thailand are set up for men whose primary interest is the nightlife, and they advertise widely in the gay press. For those seeking a broader experience, I recommend the company that I traveled with: Asia Transpacific Journeys (1-800-642-2742) which emphasizes a variety of activities and cultural experiences: trekking in the mountainous north, Bangkok sightseeing, sea kayaking, and jungle hikes. Although Asia Transpacific is not a gay company, two of the other twelve people in our tour group were gay, and we felt entirely comfortable with the mix.

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Thai tourist officials make much of the country's nickname, "The Land of Smiles." It sounds corny at first: Do we want an entire country of Donny Osmonds? Well, no, not even if they're Buddhist Donny Osmonds. But the ubiquitous smile grew on me. It's infectious - and useful. Did you accidentally offend someone? Smile an apology. They offended you? Just smile; everything will be fine. Want to say "Thank you"? A smile will do. Don't know how to handle an unexpected situation? Well, now you know.
At any given moment, I'd estimate half the population of Thailand is smiling. And blood pressures are undoubtedly a lot lower: Sitting for an hour in a Bangkok traffic jam, I realized with a jolt that not once had anyone honked their horn. This wasn't a Boston traffic jam!

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Despite the Golden Arches and KFC signs in Bangkok, Thailand isn't Kansas. Touching someone's head, pointing at them with your feet, or joking about the king - acts that might seem mundane to a Westerner will deeply offend a Thai. Your visit to Thailand will go more smoothly, and your interactions will be richer, if your preparatory reading includes not only a sightseeing guide, but some broader background. The book Culture Shock: Thailand is a good start.

More Thailand Links

February, 1999

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(Update: My own company, Alyson Adventures, began offering a Thailand tour after this was written. If you'd like to see this friendly country with a gay group, I hope you'll join us! )