I’m not sure how “start your engines” translates in Thai, but that’s exactly what I say to myself on the set of Drag Race Thailand. I’m watching a shooting of the show in a Bangkok TV studio on a typically sweltering day in February. This episode features “family challenges,” involving a member of each contestant’s respective family, with a superhero-themed twist for the main runway competition. An official spin-off of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show has made an international star of its witty, fierce co-host Pangina Heals, aka Pan Pan, who was educated at UCLA, is fluent in English, and makes appearances all over the world. Pan Pan’s hysterically funny, on-point impersonations of pop stars like Beyonce and Mariah Carey are evil in the best way, and you can typically see them at chic nightclub Maggie Choo’s (320 Silom Rd. Tel: +66-91-772-2144. www.facebook.com/maggiechoos) on its gay Sunday nights.
When I arrive, the season’s remaining six queens are laboring away in the studio’s workshop on their superhero-themed costumes, wigs, and props. Two of the season’s competitors, Kandy Zyanide and Angele Anang, are transgender, and several others hail from outside Thailand, including Hong Kong-based Filipino queen Mocha Diva, and Vanda Miss Joaquim, a Singaporean who takes their drag name from Singapore’s national flower.
“In Singapore, we don’t have drag shows every day, only on Saturdays at Tantric,” Vanda tells me. “We don’t have as much of a platform. Here in Bangkok, it’s crazy! The queens are really talented, and get a good response from the audiences!”
Drag Race Thailand, which premiered in 2018 on Thailand’s Line TV and aired stateside with English subtitles on streaming service WOW Presents Plus, proved a huge hit. Winner Natalia Pliacam and many finalists started traveling the world, appearing in the USA’s RuPaul Drag Con, while also performing regularly at Bangkok bars and nightclubs, including Stranger Bar (114, 14 Silom 4 Alley. Tel: +66 2 632 9425. thestrangerbar.business.site), Maggie Choo’s, and DJ Station (Soi 2. Tel: +66-2-266-4029. www.dj-station.com).
I’ve been to Bangkok at least a dozen times, and I certainly have my favorite parts of town and properties by now. SO Sofitel (2 North Sathorn Rd. Tel: +66-2624-0000. www.so-sofitel-bangkok.com) is close to the Silom gayborhood and rowdy Soi 2 and Soi 4 nightlife, with incredible views of Lumphini Park from its “elemental” themed rooms, plus a great pool and fashion-forward crowd. W Bangkok (106 North Sathorn Road. Tel: +66-02-344-4000. www.whotelbangkok.com) occupies a prime spot in upscale Sathorn, overlooked by the now iconic MahaNakhon tower. A recently opened cafe from my favorite Bangkok craft coffee makers, Roots (G/F, Bhiraj Tower, 33, 31 Sathorn Rd. Tel: +66-82-091-6175. rootsbkk.com), is just nearby. Roots’ beans are sourced from Northern Thailand, and some of the more unique cold brew concoctions, one with orange and tonic, are absolutely refreshing and delicious. A cute hipster crowd, too!
I’ve booked a month in a lovely “high-so” (short for high society, or anything expensive by local standards) condominium via Airbnb, located just off the BTS in Ari. A compact hipster enclave just two stops from the Chatuchak Weekend Market, Ari is packed with trendy restaurants and cafes. In this neighborhood, you find creative, progressive locals, and a refreshing lack of the usual tourists. The Ari cafeterias feature cheap fare for breakfast and lunch, so expect international shutterbugs, Instagrammers, and foodies in this queer-friendly area of the city.
There’s a popular multi-level gay sauna in Ari, Chakran (32 Ari Alley 4, Phaholyothin Soi 7. Tel: +66-2-279-1359. www.vckcoolbeguilingspace.com/chakran), with a rooftop, onsen-style pool. It’s largely the domain of local Thai and Asians seeking the same (foreigners pay $11.25 admission, while Thais pay $8). Adjacent sister venue, V Club 7, offers all-male massage and spa services. A few cute queer-friendly boutique hotels have popped up of late, too, including Chakran’s budget-priced gay male “poshtel,” Blu Cabin (32 Ari Soi 4. Tel: +66-(0)- 86977-4659. www.vckcoolspace.com/blu-cabin-ari), which includes access to all Chakran facilities, and the 71-room Josh Hotel (19/2 Phaholyothin Road, Soi Ari 4. www.joshhotel.com), which opened in 2018 and has drawn comparisons to a Wes Anderson movie thanks to its stylish retro-meets-upscale-modern design. Don’t miss its pastel pink and aqua tiled swimming pool.
While Ari is hipster heaven, it seems like just about every district in Bangkok is teeming with new developments, including expanded BTS and MRT public transportation lines (fuck you, traffic). Some locals lament this modernization, since it displaces and scrubs away beloved cultural staples and landmarks, including sordid gay ones.