Intro: In Laos there are no exclusively gay venues, organizations, activists, out periodicals, no push for equality, restaurants or hotels. Ironically, Laos is possibly one of the ‘safest’ places to be gay outside of certain western countries. Although there are no specific laws that criminalize homosexuality, the topic is virtually completely avoided in public, authorities do not spy on gays or arrest anyone unless they become overt or political, and no one steps out of line to advocate rights or equality. The safety is in the silence.
By Richard Ammon
A visit to the ‘friendly’ city of Luang Prabang
Officially, there are no gays here but across this ancient former capital city (a UNESCO Heritage site) are a lot of ‘friendly’ and ‘family’ people who work various tourist venues–hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants, massage parlors–in this rural city on the Mekong River 40 flight minutes and 8 hours driving time north of Vientiane. Invisible to a casual visitor and to other Lao people are the many married LGBT Lao men and women with families as well as closeted unmarried men and women who have secret affairs shared only between partners.
In a country where homosexuality is illegal, politically condemned and socially scorned there is no room for any show of sexual variety. Heterosexuality is the norm and marriage is the standard condition (with 6 to 10 children). That’s the official line.
But a different story emerges from a bit of research online. Go to Towleroad.com/2015/05/laos/, Utopia-asia.com/tipslaos.htm or Purpledrag.com/ and what appears is a modest list of places to sleep, eat and drink, owned or managed by ‘gay-friendly’ personnel. As in Vientiane, a foreign partner/boyfriend (farang) supplies the investment cash and the Lao supplies local know-how and the legal right to own the property; the farang can own the business but not the land.
In the beginning of such relationships, there are small gifts of clothing or jewelry from the faring that may lead, if the relationship gains strength, to an offer to underwrite a college education or buy a motorbike, get a rented apartment or house away from the family (most young people live with their parents until marriage), posssibly followed by a monthly allowance (even if the farang is out of the country) and ultimately a partnership in a business with the profits shared.
Passion plays a strong role in the creation of these business in Laos. A certain number of foreign investors in Laos are drawn to the culture because of their (I found no lesbian foreign investors) attraction to the ‘Asian look’ of younger male Laotians–smooth, soft, androgynous, smaller, lithe-bodied, a winning smile with a thick shock of black hair, who, in return, is drawn to older white men (some much older).
A word about Lao lesbians
My experience was that few foreign gay men know any Lao lesbians and native gay Laos guys may know one or two but the women are mostly well hidden and reserved in their public presence. Although in general women may hold hands or lock arms as part of their social traditions, romantic same-sex intimacy is quite alien to most women. It is said the government frowns on lesbian behavior more than on gay men, perhaps because they are more firmly confined to the role of being married and producing children. Non-reproductive women are not as respected as mothers who have spawned five to ten children.
As in any other repressive societies, the majority of lesbian oriented women are married with little outlet or awareness of such tendencies. Young lesbians not yet married can mingle with their peers–male and female–at school and work but they tend not to go out in the evenings to bars and cafes as young guys do. Friendship networks are their usual form of socializing but lesbian issues and feelings are not likely to be shared even here.
Of course there are many exceptions; in the capital of Vientiane there are young women who do go out to clubs and bars with friends to dance and drink. When I visited Somla Bar there I saw kathoeys and their lesbian and gay friends having a cheerful time fussing with their hair and comparing clothes.
(Also see the Laos 2000 story for further comments about lesbians in Laos.)
In Luang Prabang I visited five different partnership businesses whose owners were open to talking about their relationship business affairs.
Elephant Restaurant–Gilles and Yannick
Perhaps the most successful of the partners are Yannick and Gilles, together for eleven years, both from France. Yannick’s family is from Luang Prabang and played a key role in the opening of Elephant Restaurant (photo below right) in 2000 in a building put up by Yannick’s grandmother in 1960.
Every night the place is packed with visitors, virtually all from Europe and many on package tours. In 2010 they opened a second restaurant, stylishly decorated, adjacent to Elephant named Elephant Verde (Green Elephant) serving vegan food. As well, over the past decade they have started two other less formal eateries in LP, Cafe Ban Vat Sene and Coconut Garden Restaurant on the main street of Sisavang Vong Road.
“You don’t have trouble here as long as you are like the bamboo, swaying in the breeze, going this way and that,” said Gilles as we sat in the lime-green interior at Green Elephant one afternoon. He was referring to the government of this communist country, since 1975 when the Pathet Lao deposed the king and turned it into a socialist state. Closed for 20 years to the outside world of ideas and progress, from 1975 to 1995, Laos is generally backward and lacks much progressive development such as internal infrastructure–there are no railways here and the main highways are poorly paved.
“Now they allow free enterprise that provides needed taxes–although most people don’t pay taxes,” said Gilles, a handsome 60-ish man from Paris. “That’s why the country is so poor. Everybody cheats here; salaries are very low so there is the pervasive ‘hidden economy’ of bribery, from government officials to local police. A college educated teacher starting pay is only US$20 a month! Can you imagine living on that,” he exclaimed.
Such impoverishment is clearly one of the contributing factors to the emerging sex trade in Laos (and southeast Asia) and to the ambivalent nature of Lao-farang gay relationships. Many will argue that such couplings serve both partners, the Lao achieves needed income for himself–and his family as well. The farang–usually older and no longer viewed as sexually prime at home–gains attention and affection.
One of my theme questions on this trip is wondering why long-term gay relationships appear to be lacking. In various interviews with Lao gay people no one was in a long term relationship, especially Lao-Lao relationships. Granted, a longer and deeper study would reveal more precise truth, my conversations contributed reasonable and likely insights to this issue. Indeed, Gilles and Yannick broke the general mold against long-term relationships with their eleven years.
Gilles opinion was that family loyalty was more important than any commitment to an ‘alien’ relationship with another man foreign to Lao traditions. As swell, giving priority to sexual and emotional male-based intimacy is not something within the Lao male scope of normality. It is certainly not a common experience for young Lao people.
Fooling around sexually as a diversion or momentary play among peers is one of youth’s learning toys but beyond the moment to something ‘serious’ was unknown to most, even a gay Lao. Being ‘that’ different doesn’t exist in most of Laos. One would have to migrate to the larger cities to find similar others.
Regarding any gay community in Luang Prabang, there is none, said Gilles. There is no specific gay venue–every gathering place in the city (food and drink) is gay-friendly. The scene is totally mixed although there are some preferred venues where LGBTs are known to gather in the evening after work.
‘Gather’ is too strong a word; perhaps mingle is better. And even if a place is favored, the owner is not thrilled since the city is not large the police know everything that goes on. Owners, especially a gay farang with a gay Lao partner must show discretion and appear to uphold social standards. A mixed crowd is clearly better than an all male one, said Gilles.
Kobchai Beer Garden–John and Samborn
One such place that plays on the edge–on the safe side of the edge–is the Kobchai Beer Garden, another farang-Lao partnership venue in a leafy hillside setting that’s rocking’ from 9:30PM to 11PM with pop music, backpackers, tourist of allages and an occasional sprinkling of gays. It’s open most of the day for drinks and food but the music is turned low. (The food and ambiance get good reviews: see Trip Advisor.)
(All bars and discos in Luang Prabang within the historic UNESCO ‘Heritage District’ must close at eleven to avoid disturbing the many tourist guesthouses. Generally by 10PM the town has mostly rolled up anyway.) Flamboyance is not welcome and kathoeys are expected to be ‘calm’, which most are anyway. There are numerous kathoeys in LP and they blend into the social fabric with jobs such as hair dressers. One I saw was a ticket seller at a temple.
A chat with Sam, the Lao partner/owner in the afternoon canopy shade of tall trees overhead revealed why he was chosen as an appealing partner by his farang. Sam is the sort of Lao man a farang hopes to be close to–handsome, stylish, well-spoken in English, and smart.
After explaining the history of the Garden–open four years after extensive renovations and negotiating a prepaid 10-year lease–I asked Sam for his take on Lao gay relationships. He knew only one couple who had lasted for three years (“they are together but not always together”). Sam had a hard time answering my query about why no other long-term relationships. He is a 28 year-old native to LP and was had various relationships both with his farang partner and with other Lao men, yet he could barely discern an analysis about such affairs. “I’m “not sure,” he said, but I pressed him to try and think of a reason.
“Laos has only been open for a gay scene for a few years so maybe it is too new for us…I don’t know. I’m not looking for another serious relationship now. I just want to be free, not date and play around. I don’t trust easy and don’t fall in love easily. In the future I would like a serious relationship but that’s later…”
Sam said he really prefers people his own age, which weakens the likelihood of a serious connection. Other Lao young men have little experience in what ‘serious’ means and they lack any role models for long-term Lao-Lao relationships. These are rarely seen or known by younger people so there is little to go on other than groping naiveté. There is not one book about gay relationship in all of Laos. Gay love exists only in the shadows–but there are a lot of shadows here.
Sam is out to his entire family if not by admission then by his very evident four-year relationship with his former faring partner. Sam said they are all okay with his orientation and there is none of the usual family pressure to get married since he as two brothers and three sisters. One of his best pals is his 17-tear-old nephew and they hang out with other staff members of the Garden.
An interesting kink in his thinking is that he feels that marriage (straight) is a long term thing, and since marriage is not for gays there can be no long term gay commitment. Yet he is aware of the issue of commitment and claims he does want that for himself in the future. “I want a monogamous relationship that’s not open because the temptation is too big. If you want to be together then you need to be together”–at least to start.
My sense was that he did not give such an arrangement much thought or weight. He is young, pretty, well-off, desirable and free to play. Why give that up? He has achieved the unusual status of financial success, in Laos, with and because of his ex-lover; they are still friends and both are involved in the business. The ex lives most of the year in the Canada.
I was fortunate to meet the ex, named here as John, since he was in Laos for one of his three yearly visits (a month each time) to keep his presence in the business fresh and constant. He and Sam originally met in Bangkok and the attraction for John was immediate; for Sam, who can be sure. One of John’s first gifts to Sam was financial support to finish his college degree in Bangkok, one of the most common offers made by an indulgent and in-love farang. Few Lao families can afford high school educations let alone college or university learning.
As their relationship continued John and Sam started talking about a business together. John was fully aware that helping Sam was also a family affair and he would be helping a dozen others in the deal. John was experienced in business and Sam had the Lao clearance so Kobchai Gardens was born and became popular from the beginning as an easy hangout for budget and backpacker tourists. Within three years John had made back his investment.
He joked with friends at home in Canada that he was the only guy he knew with an Asian boyfriend who sent him money every month instead of the other way around.
However, he warns anyone thinking about such a venture to be very cautious about labeling it ‘gay’ or being too obvious about homosexuality. “They will shut you down if you cause any disturbance or create an offense to the ‘goodness’ of the People’s Republic. One story circulated about a Swedish guy with a bar in Luang Prabang who let it become too ‘out’ to the extent of allowing back room activity. When the authorities found out, the Swede was no longer in business and the place is now owned by a new investor. Understandably, John does not want Kobchai to be known as a ‘gay place, which it is not. Virtually all customers who drink and eat there are straight and have no idea–and don’t care–who owns it.
The House Restaurant–Win
A more cynical view of gay Lao sexuality and relationships came from Win, a middle-aged handsome man from Holland who co-owns The House Restaurant and Cafe, (photo right) a terrace venue overlooking the Nam Kahn River. After renovations and a sizable investment (without a Lao boyfriend/partner) Win now runs the restaurant and has seen success for four years. He is, by his own estimate 80% happy and 20% not.
The 20% has to do with relationships with Lao men. In the next dozen paragraphs he speaks for himself:
“As a forty-five year old man and having lived abroad for over twenty years, four here in Laos, I can say that having a serious relationship with another man in Laos is the most frustrating effort I know. The gay men here are money boys–and that’s it!
“Some are straight and can be gay for pay but I don’t mean them. It’s the gay guy who dates a farang and sees him as an ATM machine. It’s all within this culture of bribery where gifts and bribes talk louder than honesty and integrity. If you deal with local officials they expect certain ‘favors’ to move along an application.
“If you meet a Lao guy and you want to see him again you can expect to start with clothes, then a laptop then a motorbike, and maybe school in Bangkok–and for some guys, a business partnership like you see here a lot in Luang Prabang.
“In my experience Lao gay partners are not reliable, they’re impulsive and have no idea what a serious gay relationship is. They ask for something directly as if they deserve it and you should give it–a beer, a watch, money–just to be with him. They ask without shame despite their superficial humbleness and smiles.
“From the farang point of view, my point of view, it clearly feels the guy is trying to take advantage of me and I resent that; as if they should have something for nothing. I work for my money and they don’t they have to. They don’t appreciate hard work.
“And if he doesn’t like what I give him he might just disappear and not return my calls or messages. They are insincere and fickle. I call them ‘bamboo boys’ since they sway this way or that way depending on the direction of a favorable wind, on the gifts or advantage from me. Or he may be seeing other guys as well as me.
“The problem is I can’t trust him because I don’t know what he is thinking; there is a kind of natural deviousness when it comes to gay guys dating here. I know it’s a cultural difference in how people relate to each other, from Lao to Lao. But when the farang enters the picture there are barriers and misunderstandings, which can be overcome if there is good communication. But often English is a second–and weak–language so serious conversation is limited. It’s a big barrier to love, so money fills in the missing parts.
“The issues of money, honesty, commitment and love get mixed up because western gays guys play one kind of game and the Lao guys play another. Most single gay guys at home don’t look to pay for either overnight sex or to support a boyfriend who doesn’t work. And they don’t usually date several men once the relationship gets going. But Laos guys don’t know what serious means. It’s the bamboo effect.
“I think the problem is that Lao guys just don’t (or don’t know how to) take gay relationships seriously, as something of value and importance. Modern homosexuality is recent to Laos and there is no tradition of long-term relationships, no role models. None of the guys I’ve ever dated knew any partners together for more than a year.
“How can two guys be intimate over time with their families looking on? Young people don’t have much privacy with half a dozen siblings–or more–hanging around. Sexual privacy is rare; sexual maturity is not easily gained; long-term intimacy, compromise, problem solving, respect, integrity, sacrifice and complexity are not learned. Sexual self-respect as a Lao gay is lacking. A Westerner with the opposite background has no idea of the gulf that exists between his own sexual and emotional awareness and his Lao passion-boy.
“And the big spoiler is the money boy issue–the money. I think the Thai gay sex trade has influenced the young gay Lao so now farangs who come to Laos expect to pay for it, and the locals here have learned this. So for many Lao guys, a gay relationship is something that is paid for with nothing more than sex in return–no commitment of deeper feelings and no loyalty or responsible behavior. The role model for these guys is the gay money boy and his attitude of entitlement that comes with being kept with an unearned allowance.
“How can I expect mature gay response from a naive gay boy? A relationship of equality, of emotional fulfillment is not possible, well, perhaps possible but not likely. If a Lao guy has been lucky enough to travel or live abroad and understand cultural differences then the chances are greater that equality will happen.
“A smart farang is wise to realize this from the start and either go back home where the game is familiar or accept the limitations and distance and mismatch of the farang-Lao connection–and enjoy it for what it is and is not.
“Also, what is Lao gay sex is not is good sex. My experience is that these guys don’t know what to do in bed. They like the superficial pleasure of sex and they like to cum, but they do it quickly and then are finished with the moment. They don’t understand mutual pleasure, of lingering moments. They are more interested in the financial payoff, whether immediate for a few dollars or the long term for a motorbike or trip to Bangkok.”
Such was Win’s frustrated monologue on the issue of being gay in Laos. The analysis may be mostly accurate yet he is describing a gay sub-culture that is both young and naive. It has been repressed for at least for 35 years since the communists took over (half the population was born after that date); homosexuality is technically not a legal offense but is a cultural taboo that’s not openly violated. Sexual/emotional involvement with a gay partner is often passively tolerated but is not approved of. Any foreigner so involved is working ‘uphill’ against ignorance, indifference and Thai money-boy influences.
Thomas and Phout–Blue Ice Bar
Blue Ice (photo right) is the new kid on the block, having opened in mid 2010. It a small 3-room bar overlooking the Nam Khan River just before it into the Mekong; the two rivers form a peninsula on which the city is situated. Blue Ice has a small dance floor, a lounge area and a bar area with tables outside looking across the river. It is stylish, colorful and casual. Originally from Curacao, owner Tom Poncia is a welcoming host and enjoys talking with costumers at length and is happy to give advice and suggestions for seeing the town or boat cruising on the Mekong.
His handsome Lao partner is Phout a young man of 28 whose family is from Luang Prabang (LP). Although Tom had been in Thailand for 17 years, the two met in Pattaya four years ago and mutual attraction was immediate. It didn’t take long for Tom to be persuaded to visit LP where Phout’s family of parents and five siblings are fully aware of his gayness.
Today some of his brothers and sisters help run Blue Ice as well as the Thatsaphone Guesthouse which Phout owns a few blocks away. Tom said at no time did Phout ask for or hint about money. “Although we have a business arrangement and he benefits from that, there was in the beginning no issue about money. I know in Pattya there is a big money-boy scene but Phout was there as a visitor and it was great relief to find someone who was not looking for sex for money.”
I asked how he could be sure Phout’s sexual desires are wholly free of financial desire. “You can’t be sure–and I doubt the two are separable. It’s in the nature of any faring-Lao love affair; they know it and we know it, and you go on from there. Talk about it as needed and go on. Like any other relationship anywhere, there are always secondary issues that get ‘arranged’ and agreed upon,” explained Tom as dusk fell on the city one evening and we watched a mist crawl along the river valley.
Contrary to Win at the House Restaurant, Tom felt Lao guys were sincere–at least more sincere than Thai guys. “They’re more genuine and have strong loyalty to their families. They don’t know a lot about male-male relationships but they know family devotion, so they have an idea what love is, granted it’s different.
Organizing the business was mostly smooth, accompanied by the usual ‘gifts’ to city officials who issue permits and authorize the business. Noted Tom, “salaries are so low that any official in a position of authority considers bribes as part of his job benefits and nothing is said and is always presumed in dealing with them. They don’t demand a lot but a business owner should be generous and happy.”
Where are the lesbians in this town, I asked? It is impossible for a visitor to see gay women in this country. They don’t make themselves visible at all in public. Virtually every woman dresses in ‘normal’ modern or traditional dress; there is no ‘lesbian look’. On a previous visit the few lesbians I met were not obvious by their clothing. Come to think of it, men here are not either.
The only way I knew someone was gay was by being told so or talking to a referred person or was listed as a gay owner of a venue. “Keep two things in mind,” Tom Added; “every bar or restaurant here cannot identify itself as a distinctly ‘LGBT’ place. The government will not allow it. And, there are not enough LGBT customers here in this town to support all these businesses so we have to advertise to everyone and welcome everyone. It a matter of business, not gender or sexuality.”
Other LGBT-Mixed Places
There are a few other gay-friendly venues in Luang Prabang. One of the most successful includes the four businesses belonging to the Lao-owned Pack Luck Group. We stayed at Pack Luck Villa, a boutique guesthouse across from Elephant Restaurant. The rooms are small but comfortable and stylish; the Dutch manager is helpful and friendly. The Group also has Pack Luck Wine Bar with wine-tasting from a large selection of European vinyards including champaigne; beer and soft drinks are available. Tasteful music and a comfortable ambiance are free. Pack Luck Fitness offers weights and machines to visiting gym buffs to keep up their pecs, abs and gluts. Finally, there is a Pack Luck Jewelry Shop in town at the Dara Market selling unique hand-crafted items.
Other places I did not visit on this trip: the popular and elegant Blue Lagoon Cafe is partially Swiss-owned and is located on the main street by the nightly market. Thatsaphone Guesthouse, owned by the boys from Blue Ice. Deux Riviers (Two Rivers) guesthouse is stylishly Lao.
A Further Observation
We reluctantly left Luang Prabang, by boat, cruising for two days and one night upriver on the murky Mekong, passing remote thatch villages on the hilly banks, above the rocks and sand of the river, stopping to visit two villages.
It’s impossible for me to consider how a seriously gay person could exist in such a remote rural place as these tiny villages. How would such an anomaly show itself, how would it be received, interacted with? The thought came forward on the night at our river lodge, an upscale wooden lodge on stilts overlooking the river with grand views, good food and rustic elegance in the bedrooms.
After traveling upriver for eight hours on our tourist boat the first day, with thirty other folks from mostly Europe, we were treated to an ethnic music and dance performance before dinner. It was an amateur show put on by the local Hmong village in local home-made colorful costumes. It was ‘sweet’ and pleasant for 30 minutes. The dancers were mostly children and the accompanying musicians, playing Gamelan instruments, were adults. (photo right)
Among the dozen dancers, my attention was drawn to the tallest and presumedly oldest dancer, a boy of about 15. He was ‘normal’ looking, not remarkable or striking, but pleasant enough. But his body movements and the wavy curvature of his hands matched the female dancers in grace and delicacy. He was equally feminine in demeanor and motion as the girls. Granted it was a performance that called for smooth swaying and stylized finger motion. I could not help wondering how effeminate he was offstage. After the dance he appeared to move gently away with the others.
My positioning of him in this setting, in his village, as possibly gay, helped me, in my projected imagination, to answer my own question (how would he be received?): he is now who he has always been, a fey, delicate and effeminate boy known well for his whole life by everyone in the village.
His manner and demeanor were and are no surprise to anyone. Perhaps a disappointment–or not–to his parents who expected a more masculine son, but who is no different now than age at five or ten. Within the village, I presume, an acceptance emerged over time as he became more defined, being who he is and not knowing any other way to be.
I imagine him now and in five or ten years, not interested in marrying a woman but content to be single. As to whether he would actively pursue any intimate activity with another man in such a small village, I think it’s unlikely. Perhaps with someone from another village but how would he know what to do, what would be the expression of his feelings–if he knew what they were, or how to sense these in someone else.
Young people learn from others, adults and peers, to learn traditions, language, songs, dance and love-making. But if there is no one like him with feelings like his, in such a remote location far from any urban awareness of diverse sexuality, how would he know what to do or how to express these unusual feelings–or would he even think he can? So perhaps a quiet unquestioned emotional isolation would be his lot, with no desire for more…
Or perhaps he would be persuaded into a marriage and produce offspring and never realize, understand, manifest or express these hidden different feelings, longings, desires and attractions deep within him. Meanwhile he will continue to dance for foreigners who know about things he cannot know–yet.