Gay life in Thailand is alive and well in half a dozen cities and towns, having survived six years of a homophobic prime minister. Now revitalized with more venues than ever, the scene continues to be as it was, both visible and invisible. Despite the glitter and spice of the nightlife, most LGBT citizens continue to live in the closet in deference to the conservative Thai culture and don’t indulge in the lights and sounds of the scene.
This story is about the seen and unseen gay life of Thailand today.
By Richard Ammon GlobalGayz.com
May 2008; updated 2015
But Bangkok is a big city where changes occur almost as quickly as tidewaters. It has survived many political eruptions and elections. Business drones on in the streets and in high-rise towers. People come from all over the globe to see exotic sites and sights here—religious, cultural, social and sexual. Once again closing times in the clubs are getting later and the ‘scene’ is re-heating after Thaksin’s moral squads tried to cool it down during his six years (despite his own financial corruptions).
The Bangkok gay scene is very visible, colorful and spicy as ever. That is, the scene that most foreigners see in Silom and Sukhumvit—the go-go bars, massage parlors, bars, discos and gay cafes and hotels that cater to out-of-towners. Here is where most gay farangs (foreigners) make social and physical contact with native Thai guys, mostly at the level of commerce and ‘trade’.
But this visible, overt and spicy scene is only a small part of homosexual life in modern Thailand. Beyond the music, money, cruising and drinking LGBT Thai citizens lead separate lives that are more focused on professions, families, lovers, Buddhist rituals and shopping for food, furniture, clothes or flowers. It’s impossible to measure but it is a safe guess that most gay and lesbian Thais don’t go to gay and lesbian bars or clubs or any ‘scene’ venues.
An even safer guess is that the vast majority see their families more than they see other gay friends. One of the most common traditions in Thailand is for children to live at home with their parents until they are married–and sometimes after marriage. Rural gays who come to the cities for work maintain a strong connection to the family especially during the Buddhist New Year in April (the water festival of Songkran) when countless people leave Bangkok to visit their families for the three-day water-throwing holiday (five if it falls on a weekend).
One evening Jim Elder, a lively American-born resident of Bangkok and former co-owner of @Richard’s Pub and Restaurant in the Silom district described gay life beyond the city center. As we sat in his colorful and lively bar/cafe/restaurant in Silom Soi 2 he drew on his years of experience in Thailand.
“ Gay life here in Thailand is divided into the visible and invisible. What you see here in the flashy bars and discos in Silom and Sukhumvit are really the tip of the iceberg of homosexuality in this country. And even this visible tip is deceptive because many of the go-go dancers, masseurs and money boys are not gay.
“ On the other hand the vast majority of this iceberg is invisible because most non-scene gays and lesbians are blended—melted, if you will–into the intricate social structure of the Thai culture.”
Despite the Bangkok glitter, Thailand is a conservative culture that does not like disturbance or different-ness. It is in the nature of most people not to be confrontational or boisterous (except for festivals) or over-reactive. Sex is not a topic for public or family discussion and there is a strong feeling of inner shame (not fear) that gay and lesbian people feel that keeps them in the closet.
But one could say it’s a velvet closet: if a family finds out one of the clan is queer the most likely reaction will not be hysteria or violence as is common in Christian and Muslim cultures.
Rather, the response is usually silence in the service of family harmony and social order. Homosexuality is not an ‘issue’ around which a family rallies (for or against) but rather a slow-growth awareness over time infused with a range of attitudes, from indifference to muttered disdain to frustration to resigned ‘understanding’ of the inevitable. Rarely is there shouting or screaming and ejection from the family home.
Gay for Pay
Back in the visible scene, away from family eyes, masseurs and dancers and drag queens—gay and straight–consider the sexual aspect of their work as a job, one that pays well. Jim Elder claimed that a lot of Thai people are sorry the ‘boys’ do it but the workers are not stigmatized or discriminated against as in western countries. Although not liberal, Thailand’s culture, infused with laissez-faire Buddhism, appears to treat sexuality with moderation and quiet restraint.
Continued Elder, “as well, these boys—young handsome adults—do not consider themselves as prostitutes. Prostitution is technically illegal but there is a duplicity, denial really, in that sex work in the bars is considered entertainment, good paying entertainment that brings in tax dollars–and bribes—to the economy.
The scene supports a lot of people besides the dancers, waiters and masseurs: their families, the police, landlords and all the other ancillary businesses where tourists buy clothes, food, souvenirs and hotel rooms.”
And not to be forgotten is the major ‘circus’ event of the gay Thai year, Bangkok Gay Pride Festival that happens every November and generates many tourist dollars.
Sexuality usually remains a phantom, as described by Sam, an expat American executive who was transferred to Bangkok by his international corporation. After eight months he became involved with Non, a Thai flight attendant for Bangkok Airways. Seven years later, Sam has yet to be introduced to Non’s whole family. He has met one of Non’s sisters briefly and she is the only family member who ‘understands’ their friendship. But she will not say anything to her parents who, in typical Thai style, have let the issue of Non’s non-marital status drop out of family conversation. Family harmony, however superficial, is more manageable without the confusion of a strange sexuality.
Another friend, Winai, lived in Bangkok for several years working in restaurants and hotels. An appealing young gay man with a reasonable command of English, he had occasional affairs with farangs, foreigners, usually from Europe or America. His sexual energy and gentle manner succeeded in winning him an irregular-regular income from these benefactors and ‘daddies’ over time, at different times. But not surprising they gradually faded, one after another as fervent promises to return fell into forgetting.
On my most recent visit Winai had again been ‘found’, this time by an older Norwegian retired military officer who was proving reliable and consistent to the point of bring Winai to Norway to get married. Currently Winai is awaiting a Norwegian visa to return and set up house with his man.
As with nearly every Thai gay person I met an ever-present focus is making enough money to send home to one’s family. For Winai, to his fragile mother to allow her to stop working in a dried-fish packing factory near the rural farming village just outside Auytthaya, two hours north of Bangkok. His mother knows Winai is gay but her demeanor is diminished, meager and subservient, like a lot of lower class manual workers in Thailand, and she does not react strongly to him.
Survival and simple deep love are more important and workable than some quirt of sexuality in her son; as long as he is kind and caring and supportive she has no need to question him. She did say once that she wanted him to be happy. Winai feels this responsibility to his mom more sharply since his brother and a cousin were killed in a motorbike accident five years ago, a trauma that Winai has not yet recovered from; he still grieves in silence.
Much of gay life in Thailand is lived as Non and Winai know it: with their farang partners, occasionally, quietly, hidden away with moments of peak passion, tenuous and lacking a secure sense of enduring completion with their partners.
Douglas Thompson, owner of Purple Dragon Travel and Tours, put it this way:
“Regarding middle class gays being closeted, there are as many ‘HiSo’ (high society, which includes most of what is left of the middle class nowadays) people who are self-identified homosexuals as there are in the lower ranks of this class-conscious society. Just because they are not seen in places where foreigners prance around in towels does not make them closeted, nor does it make them snobs.
“It just means that they do not need to go to those places to feel that they are bona fide homosexuals. Most have their own circle of friends who circulate through a much broader spectrum of social life than those who imagine “velvet closets.” They go to chic restaurants, gallery parties, Sunday brunch at the Sukhothai and the Four Seasons, and to the movies, just like everyone else. Just because they are not ghettoized does not make closeted, whether it be in velvet, Shantung silk, chinchilla, burlap or anything else.”
A Scene Apart
Another aspect of the unseen gay life in Bangkok is revealed in the back of GGlamour magazine, one of the current gay publications in Thailand, where there is an index of gay hot spots in Bangkok. There are well over a hundred places listed but not all of them are part of the excitement in central Bangkok that tourists are familiar with. It’s easy to forget, as a short-term visitor, that most LGBT Thai folks are not attracted to western white types, preferring their own culture, language and sexual body language.
So it should be no surprise that there is a wholly separate ‘native scene’: bars, discos, saunas and parlors that cater almost exclusively to Thai LGBT people. Miles from Silom is the Ramkamheang, Ratchadapisek and Phahoyothin areas of Bangkok with their own selections of clubs and spas and karaoke bars. Here are the neighborhoods where many Thai guys and girls come to socialize and play.
There are at least five saunas, half a dozen bars and discos as well as about as many spas. Although these places are not exclusionary, it is rare to see a white western face here where virtually no English is spoken. Thanks to the new subway and the sky train, these areas are accessible by public transportation, but even then an outsider will have trouble finding the local action since there are many small alleys and side streets.
Also see Gay Rights in Thailand 2007.
The famous gay scene in Patong Beach in Phuket has more reputation than reality, more gossip than truth, more flash than substance. Patong gay life is, in a real sense, an artifice, an illusory stage show that thrives on fantasy, money, sex and willing populations of players who act and are acted upon—both foreign and Thai. That is to say, virtually no one in the LGBT scene here is from Phuket.
Typical of poly-populated Phuket’s Patong Beach area is Club One Seven (http://www.cluboneseven.net/) a trendy and stylish fifteen-room bed and breakfast guest house on the southern edge of Patong village. My host was manager Daniel See from Singapore. The hostel’s owners are Bangkok Thai men, the gay and non-gay house staff are from Burma, Malaysia and northern Thailand with most of the guests from Japan, America and Europe. No one in Club One Seven is originally from Phuket.
(My hotel arangements at Club One Seven were made through Purple Dragon Travel and Tours which is owned and operated by veteran farang and Bangkok denizen Douglas Thompson, an expert on gay southest Asian travel.)
Cheerful and attentive, Daniel has lived in Patong for seven years, four with a local partner, in the hotel business. We talked in the deep-red-walled dining room of Club One Seven decorated with orchids and original artwork of undulating male torsos. “Phuket is different from Thailand in a number of ways,” said Daniel, “materially and ethnically. This is the most prosperous region of the country because of the intense tourism and development of holiday condos and houses. It’s also different in its high population of business-savvy ethnic Chinese who migrated here over the centuries on their way south toward Singapore and Malaysia.”
The original draw of Patong was the farmland of the central valleys and the opportunity to work in the tin mines. The American war in Vietnam (1965-75) supercharged Phuket when it became an R&R destination for American troops, accompanied as usual by booze, sex, rock-n-roll and the spicy nightlife—and it hasn’t stopped since.
In modern times the appeal for holiday-makers is the kilometers-long beaches, swaying palms, sunsets and restful ambiance and, for business workers, the prosperous tourist and real estate trades.
Despite the present day ‘immigrant’ population and the contrived scene, the streets of gay Phuket are nevertheless full blooded–even if miniature compared to Bangkok. In the area immediately in front of the 25-story Royal Paradise Hotel in the center of town there are a couple of dozen gay venues where go-go boys swivel, masseurs manipulate, waiters serve food and drink and ladyboys in makeup put on sparkling drag shows in fabulous outfits. There is a modest-sized disco, three clothing stores selling colorful sexy fashions and swim wear, several billiard parlors and half a dozen small boutique guesthouses.
During the day the Paradise area is not particularly appealing with its grubby streets and gritty buildings, many in need of paint. But at night the dingy details disappear as the neon comes on and a troop of svelte young men with shocks of black hair dressed in tank tops and tight shorts show up for work in the venues.
Despite the colorful lights and fluffy boas and enticing smiles, a deeper look reveals again more pretension. Among the money boys none are native to Phuket, and those offering sexy massages in the parlors or bikini dancing and looking to be rented for an hour upstairs, many–some say 50%, others say 35%–are not gay but are gay-for-pay, similar to Bangkok.
As Jim Elder said about Bangkok, these young men and women work in the gray zone of entertainment where ‘personal services’ are bought and sold like merchandise. When does a massage—perfectly legal–become a sexual gesture in the dim light of a private room and who’s there to supervise?
Gay or straight, the massage price is the same and most—not all—are trained in the Thai method which is a deep muscle manipulation and stretching that feels, by the end of an hour or two, like a herd of velvet buffalo feet have run over you–relaxing, stimulating and exhausting.
I trawled a few places in Paradise alley one night (for research of course!) in the early days of the low season to check-out the offerings. In the go-go bar Passport, behind closed doors, a couple dozen of bikini boys tried to appear sexy (it’s not easy when there are virtually no customers to perform for) as I sat down for a coke and a chat with one of the managers who said his name was Day. (Thais appear to have nicknames such as Day, Nice, Nut, Song or Odd and other English-sounding words while others have English names such as Mack, Nate, Pete. However, most have Thai names such as Mong, Wut, Oud, Pon or Poon.)
Mr. Day said the slow season drops business to less than 50% of the high season. I wondered how many boys worked the high versus the low? “We have twenty-five boys now but low season only 15 to 17 boys are here,” he said. This must have been the final weekend of the high season as I looked across the glittery mirrored room to see the boys in various poses, from half-hearted seduction-dancing to lounging to sleeping to making silly gossip to obvious boredom.
It’s hard not to feel at least some pity for these under-employed kids desperate to make a few dollars for the night. Mr. Day said most of them don’t have daytime jobs because they don’t get home until three in the morning. “After high season some boys go to Chang Mai or Bangkok to work,” he continued. In other sex bars, I asked? “Some yes, others in hotels or restaurants. Sometimes a boy will stop sex work to drive a truck or work in a shop.”
In addition to Passport there are three other go-go bars in the neighborhood with what also appeared to be an excess of dancers with little to do but wonder and wait. I was there about 9 PM on a weeknight so perhaps it got busier later, but given the scarcity of boys on the beach earlier that day I doubt it.
In the next street I found several massage parlors literally adjacent to one another. I picked the one with a dozen boys hanging out full of ready-made smiles and diphthong‘hallouw’. One of the boys I spoke to was named Hot (really) who stepped forward and took my hand. As usual, my first question was where he was from. “Ubon. I from Ubon, up north,” he said. Did he go home to see his momma for the Buddhist new year last week? “No, I busy here. I will go next month,” suggesting the Songkran New Year’s holiday saw a spike in visitors to Phuket.
As for lesbians in Phuket, Daniel said, “I do not have any lesbian friends. I know two of them slightly since one works in the staff of the 7/11 store next door and the other one works in the Backpacker Inn next door to the 7/11. I hear they are a couple. They are not open to me or anyone I know. They don’t mention anything about their sexual life at all, not that they would in public of course, but they know we are a gay guest house and they have never made a gesture of friendship. Of course that’s their business.”
On the other side of the ‘hill’ a few miles inland from Patong beach is Phuket town, the largest city on Phuket Island, with a population of about 60,000. No indigenous Phuketians are among the Patong bar/stage owners or hotel managers or parlor managers despite the many native gays who live in Phuket town.
“They don’t really like the Patong scene,” Daniel described. “They prefer their own culture, their local talk and friends who are here to stay. Most of them are professionals who are not into the young money-bodies in Patong. If they want to dance or drink or cruise or whatever, there is a local gay-owned disco called Arte that becomes gay on Saturday nights—it’s mixed other nights. “ Arte Fashion Club is a trendy design disco, featuring house music spun by a DJ from Italy. The place just started, and it seems to be well received by local Phuketians. It is a real disco with no go-go boys or ladyboy cabaret show.”
Not surprising, there is also a night cruise park, Suan Luang Park with the usual hidden action and some shopping centers, such as Big-C Shopping Center have some cruising action during the day time.
Speaking for himself about his daily life in Phuket, Daniel said: “To be honest, my social life is mainly with gay friends in Phuket town. I go to dinner quite often with gay friends in Phuket town. Other friends in Patong are mainly for business and political reasons. My off days from work, are mainly for my boyfriend. We go shopping, watch movies, visiting friends and relatives around the island, or stay home and do some cooking together.
“ Typical of our friends are a few live-in gay couples such and Jason and Trevor (originally from Australia) who have been together for many years. Khun Wut and Khun Yan (Khun Wut, the original ‘Phuket boy’) have been living together for about three to four years already. One is a baker and the other owns a clothing store; they come to the beach occasionally but never go to the bars. This is how most of us live.”
Organized Gay Life
Although there is no LGBT central venue or political, legal or religious organization in Phuket–as one might expect from a vortex of gay energy buzzing 365 days a year–gay Phuket is more than a naughty nest of nights.
The major event is the now-annual Phuket Gay Pride Parade and Festival which is celebrated each spring with three days of festivities culminating in a colorful parade. In 2007, the organizers took a leap forward by having the festival ground on a public beach instead of the gay enclave by the Paradise Hotel. The intention was to be more inclusive of the broader community of businesses and the response was positive. Some non-gay floats entered the parade advertising the local hospital and the straight disco, Seduction, Singha beer and even a movie company from Switzerland.
Unique in the world of gay Pride parades Phuket’s featured several decorated elephants who virtually stole the show with their massive size and power, as elephants often do in public. The mayor of Phuket cut the opening ribbon in a symbolic show of solidarity and the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) has listed Phuket Gay Pride as a major festival to be seen.
See Phuket Pride web site for photos and further descriptions www.phuketpride.org. One of the beauty contest winners this year was sponsored by Club One Seven (photo left).
In addition to the Pride Festival, Phuket hosts The Straits Games, also known as the Asian Gay Games, every year that attracts thousands of visitors and participants.
Another organization in Phuket well worth knowing is the gay-friendly Andaman Powers, a MSM outreach health project part of Patong Hospital. They promote safe sex education, offer counseling, HIV testing, and activities promoting healthy lifestyle for all, with special aim at the people working in the sex industry. Andaman were very visible in the Pride parade with their float.
Also see Gay Rights in Thailand 2007.
Pattaya is a big city along the beach on the Gulf of Thailand, nearly an hour’s flight north of Phuket, that’s pumped with every enterprise of commerce, trade and service. It’s a driven city infused with investment, industry and soaring condo towers with equally soaring real estate values. The world’s tallest residential condo tower–91 stories–Ocean 1, overlooking the sea is going up here. Most of the buyers are not Thai but foreigners, especially Scandinavians. Most of the Thai life is at street level in huts and houses.
The southern part of Pattaya city is especially pumped, where red lights flash and music sounds and the tourist follow, around soi VK and soi Pattayaland. The scene is a mash of hetero open-sided live-music bars, gay go-go bars, massage parlors, Seven-Elevens, ATM machines, mom-and-pop laundry shops, honking Tuk-Tuks, tour buses, boutique hotels hosting one-night couples, gay cruisers, travel agencies, souvenir stalls, tailor shops and a few bold families walking through to see the circus of it all.
Cross-currents of booming rock-pop-western-Thai-house music compete with visually clashing neon flames enticing customers to see their all-girl or all-boy revues: shows at 11 PM and 2:30 AM. In the high season, October to March, the district is densely packed with tourists looking around or looking for.
Many Arabs are included in this mash with their upholstered cafes where they toke on hookahs, drink coffee and watch the passing western sensuality with self-censoring eyes. You won’t see any of them with Thai ladies in public, unlike many western men who come for temporary ‘comfort’ or permanent expat status.
Boystown is set in the middle of this raucous clamor. The public face of gay Pattaya jumps with in-your-face sexuality that reaches out from numerous go-go bars, massage parlors, or drag-show clubs where boys stand out front along the street in tight-shorts and sinuous smiles and reach for your hand and blow kisses.
At Ambience cafe or Howard’s Guesthouse a visitor can sit and watch the passing charade of giggling ladyboys, overweight farangs with lean trophy-boys or girls (whose faces do not express joy) on their arms, muscular white guys in jeans and tank tops cruising through, smartly dressed out-of-town Thai guys taking it all in stride on their way to a movie; none of this is dampened by the rainy days (’monsoon season’) that can frequent southern Thailand beginning in May.
That said, not all of gay Pattaya is neon and noise. Three miles to the south is Jomtien Beach area that is much quieter and has a lovely tree-fringed beach stretching for miles. There’s a small cluster of gay venues, including the new upscale gay restaurant Flamboyant in the Jomtien Complex a block from the beach. On the beach is Tui’s Guesthouse, a laid back stalwart gay sleepery/restaurant that’s been there for years.
One of the newest gay happenings in Pattaya is Sansuk Guest House and Sauna (http://www.sansukpattaya.com/), photo right below, a mile or so inland from the hot flashes downtown, halfway to Jomtien. Stylish and trendy, this boutique hostel offers 20 large, tastefully decorated rooms, a good-sized swimming pool, a fine restaurant, modest gym, and a comfortable lounge area with a big video screen playing music concerts or classic films.
And, unique in southern Thailand Sansuk also offers, in an adjacent building, one of the best upscale sauna/bathhouses in the country with a variety of spaces on three floors: two steam rooms and two saunas, two Jacuzzis, private cubicles, dim corridors and a rooftop lounge. It shares the ground floor TV lounge with the restaurant.
The owner, Punya Rayana has a staff of about 20 men and women (who average about $150 a month–above average wage–plus the benefit of their social security paid by Panya). The staff are both gay and straight; Panya doesn’t care as long as they can do their work reliably.
Since this story about gay Thailand focuses on the lives beyond the ‘scene’ Punya’s story is an antidote to the sex and smoke of the gay scene that many gay tourists think is Thailand.
Quite the opposite, Punya is a self-made man who worked since the age of twelve to help support his family, sometimes having gone to bed hungry and gotten up each morning for school.(School from K-12 is free in Thailand but money is needed for uniforms, books, food, transportation and miscellaneous fees.)
At the early age of 16, or so, he realized his life had no future in the same poor scramble of work-a-day tedious labors on behalf of his family. He had followed his father into being a chef on a commercial fishing boat but he determined to go beyond that to a more enterprising life. Breaking free of family dependence on him—although never completely–was not easy but he started working in the hotel business as a waiter, and while taking extra classes in high school in order to graduate in two years. He also studied English part-time at another school.
After graduation he went to Bangkok University, majoring in ‘mechanics’ as he continued to bank his tips–sometimes as much as $2000 a year–in high-interest accounts.
Several years later he met Howard an retired English stock broker (one of the advantages of working in an upscale hotel) with whom he became partnered for ten years, mostly in San Diego, California. Howard taught Punya how to maximize the use of his moderate savings by investing in stocks and funds. Punya was a fast learner and parlayed the ’97 Thai baht crash into considerable profit. After Howard’s death from emphysema in 2003 Punya returned to Thailand to open a restaurant/hotel business of his own.
After a couple of money-losing false-starts (due to corrupt Thai business swindlers) he bought land in Pattaya and built Sansuk, a veritable monument to Punya’s skill and determination and to Howard’s valuable mentoring.
Today Sansuk is becoming the premier gay hotspot and relaxation location for visitors to Pattaya and Jomtien, offering some of the best gay facilities outside Bangkok.
Also see Gay Rights in Thailand 2007.
Beyond Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya
Of course there’s more to gay Thailand than these three locations
Chang Mai has always had a busy scene, similar but smaller than Bangkok, with more than 30 night haunts to please every taste and desire. If you go, these web sites will provide most of what you need:
More recently Koh Samui has developed a modest but lively scene among the more luxury hotels, restaurants and resorts that have sprouted in the past ten years.
Even the little town of Hua Hin, the summer residence of the King, down on the east coast, has only one bar venue called New Guy Bar. There is one gay owned hotel and restaurant called MJ Gallery–“Cafe-Lounge-Poshtel” (hotel) (photo right: live serval cat kept as a tame pet at MJ Gallery)
These places are described and indexed in the gay magazine currently breathing in Thailand:
Thai Puan (www.thaipuan.com) a ‘community magazine’ comes out every month with colorful ads for most of southern Thailand’s LGBT hot and cozy spots as well as background stories.