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Explore LGBTQ+ Thailand

by Ivan Quintanilla
Rairay Beach Krabi Thailand (Photo by Patrick Foto)

Thailand has something for everyone, from secluded beaches to frenzied cities, from sacred temples to gay nightlife.

Rairay Beach, Krabi Thailand (Photo by Patrick Foto) — By Ivan Quintanilla

Thailand is one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly countries in Asia and welcomes tourists with the respect and tolerance espoused by their Buddhist beliefs.

Today is my birthday. The bright sun is reflecting beautifully off an aquamarine-hued sea, gigantic limestone boulders are jutting upwards on the horizon, and a salty, warm breeze is welcoming me into a new year.

“How is this even my life!?” I think as I cruise on a speedboat across the Andaman Sea, accompanied by eleven new friends who I’ve known for only three days. I am infinitely fortunate in many ways, but it is literal luck that has led me to this unexpected birthday celebration, hopping through the Phi Phi Islands of Thailand.

Rewind about nine months. I’m attending a New York Fashion Week event featuring clothes by Thai designers, and modeled by actual beauty queens: Anna Sueangam-iam (Miss Universe Thailand 2022) and Manita Duangkham Farmer (Miss Thailand 2022), among others. I drop my business card in a bowl, sip on a fruity cocktail and enjoy a performance by the fabulous Pattaya Hart, a former Miss Gay America. And then I hear my name called over the speakers. It’s giveaway time and apparently I’ve won. I rush to the stage to join the event organizers amidst flashing cameras. It all feels very “red carpet” meets “Publishers Clearing House.” Apparently, I’ve won a roundtrip airline ticket to Thailand and I’ve almost peed myself with delight.

Now what? Planning a journey, by myself, to such a faraway destination seemed overwhelming and, for a moment, I considered not even claiming my prize. Then I found a perfect solution for a traveler searching for trip guidance with a bonus of community. The LGBTQ+ travel company Out Adventures (outadventures.com) hosts three gay group tours to Thailand each year and has 15 years of experience planning Thailand itineraries. In any given year, they run about 50 different trips all over the world. Out Adventures took all logistics off my plate and left me with one job to do: enjoy my Thailand vacation.

The Author in Maya Bay, Thailand (Photo by Ivan Quintanilla)

The Author in Maya Bay, Thailand (Photo by Ivan Quintanilla)

Thailand is one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly countries in Asia and welcomes tourists with the respect and tolerance espoused by their Buddhist beliefs. “Buddhism doesn’t say you are wrong if you are gay. Just be the person you are and be a good person. And in recent years, Thai culture has become much more accepting,” says Jaturaporn Tepkom (who goes by “Tony”), the Out Adventures local gay guide who leads all their Thailand tours.

Thailand actively courts our community, hosting multiple Pride events, festivals, parties. and a LGBTQ+ tourism initiative, GoThaiBeFree.com. The country has something for everyone, from secluded beaches to frenzied cities, from sacred temples to gay nightlife.

I joined the Out Adventures Songkran Water Festival Tour, planned around the celebration of the Thai New Year (commemorated April 13-15 every year). The Songkran tradition of sprinkling Buddha statues with sacred water has evolved into the world’s largest water fight. (The timing of my birthday was completely coincidental.) For three days, toddlers to grandparents and everyone in between walk the streets of Thailand armed with super soaker guns and buckets of ice water, ready to douse and drench anyone in their path. It is insanity and fantastically fun, but prepare yourself—there is no escaping the deluge. You will be soaked if you step outdoors during Songkran.

Our tour began pre-Songkran in Phuket, one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, mixing beautiful beaches and insane party energy. Going into this trip I was prepared for Bangkok to assault the senses ,but Phuket took me a bit by surprise. The area of Patong Beach, where we stayed, is home to the gay-popular Paradise Complex, a street lined with bars, drag performances, go-go boys, and nearby massage parlors whose endings range from therapeutic to happy. All of this feels demure when compared to Bangla Walking Street, the straight-focused nightlife equivalent. Luckily, from a Phuket base, you can rage at night and reset among serene lagoons the next morning.

Big Buddha Statue in Phuket (Photo by Thaisign)

Big Buddha Statue in Phuket (Photo by Thaisign)

Thailand actively courts our community, hosting multiple Pride events, festivals, parties, and a LGBTQ+ tourism initiative, GoThaiBeFree.com. The country has something for everyone, from secluded beaches to frenzied cities, from sacred temples to gay nightlife.

For our day in nature, we joined John Gray’s Sea Canoe tour (johngrayseacanoe.com) to Phang Nga Bay. From our pontoon boat base, about an hour from the Phuket coast, we boarded kayaks to explore the stunning seascapes. Don’t worry if physical exertion is not your forte. The company employs locals from the nearby islands to safely paddle on your behalf. The day’s excursions glided us through hidden bays and inside marine caves, with plenty of breaks to swim, eat. and mingle. Back on the boat, our guides taught us how to make a krathong, a floating floral offering to honor the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha. Though the Loy Krathong Festival occurs in November, this tour explores the tradition daily, eventually lighting candles in the offering and setting it to the sea to ask forgiveness for man’s pollution of the Goddess’ waters. In keeping with their eco-mission, the John Gray’s crew picks up the offerings after the ritual so that we don’t add extra cleaning work for the adored deity.

The next day we headed to postcard-perfect Krabi, for our own rustic version of a Thai White Lotus experience. The Railay Bay Resort (145 M.2 Ao-nang. krabi-railaybay.com) sits on a portion of Krabi reachable only by boat. From the mainland, our gaggle of gays boarded wooden longboats packed with all of our luggage and sped toward our idyllic next home. Krabi looks like a tourism flier brought to life. It’s almost too beautiful to believe, with its iconic limestone karst formations curving along a white sand coast. Wooden longboats on the beach, acting as floating taxis, add to its fairytale charm.

This Out Adventures trip was one of their “flex” tours, where some days are completely planned and others allow for free time. I loved that flexibility, but especially the added benefit of Out Adventures’ insight into how to best fill that time. Our group decided we wanted to explore the Phi Phi Islands. So, our guide Tony arranged a speedboat for our own private island hopping adventure. We visited the recently reopened Maya Bay, made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach movie. Made so famous, in fact, that the government chose to close off the area due to over tourism. Today, tourists can visit, and boy do they ever, but there is still no swimming allowed, to further protect the marine life that is thriving once again. Beyond Maya Bay, our speedboat took us to secluded beaches for swimming and coral reefs for snorkeling, before returning to our resort.

Mu Koh Phi Phi National Marine Park (Photo by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

Mu Koh Phi Phi National Marine Park (Photo by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

The western part of Railay Bay, where we stayed, is quite peaceful after the sun sets. For a little more action, cross through the pedestrian shopping street, packed with restaurants and bars, and make your way to Tew Lay Bar (Ao Nang, Mueang Krabi District) on Railay Bay’s east coast. The food is fantastic and the ambiance is super chill as you dine al fresco, overlooking the water and limestone boulders off the coast.

From Krabi (cue White Lotus music playing in my head as we leave via longboat again), we flew to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. Chiang Mai is not only home to some of the country’s most revered temples, but it’s also a culinary hotspot and a gateway to the Thai elephants. The most famous temple, the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai District) sits on a hilltop overlooking the city and is not only a place of worship, but a sight of beauty. Whether you climb the 306 steps or ride the funicular to the top, you’ll be surrounded by gold covered steeples, monuments and buddhas of every type. Take the time to be blessed by a monk and make a wish on one of the multiple altars.

For a unique culinary experience, I can’t sing praises loudly enough for the Cooking@Home (66/1 Moo 5, Soi 4 T. Sankhampaeng. cookingathome-chiangmai.com) class. I love Thai food and did not have one bad meal on this entire trip. However, the best food I ate was the one I made myself. Under the guidance of Pom and her husband, this experience began at a traditional market where we learned about all the ingredients we would later be using. Once at their Cooking@Home headquarters, which is set up in the courtyard of their home, they went step by step over how to make some of the most famous Thai dishes, including green curry and pad Thai. I have zero culinary skills, yet this class pre-selected our exact ingredients and, after a short demonstration, oversaw each of us making our own food. Everyone talks about the authenticity of a home cooked meal in comparison to a restaurant, and this course gave us the opportunity to enjoy traditional dishes the way a Thai family would make at home.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (Photo by Oriol Querol)

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (Photo by Oriol Querol)

No trip to Chiang Mai would be complete without visiting an elephant sanctuary. Now, there are many schools of thought and multiple types of experiences. Fortunately, Out Adventures strictly supports ethical animal interactions. We didn’t bathe or ride the elephants, rather we only interacted with them on their terms. Elephant Nature Park-ENP (1 Ratmakka Rd, Phra Sing. elephantnaturepark.org) is a rehabilitation center and sanctuary for more than 100 elephants, rescued from the circus or cruel working conditions. An ENP guide will walk you through the grounds, meandering through the herds. You’ll see some babies that have been orphaned, others with physical deformities from years of abuse, and older elephants in their 90s, a rarity for these creatures. Some of the elephants that are most comfortable with humans will come close to you and even want a treat. ENP is also a rescue sanctuary for dogs, cats, cows, water buffalos. and rabbits, so you will have an opportunity to make many furry friends.

Chiang Mai also has its own small, but mighty LGBTQ+ nightlife, my favorite of which was the Chiang Mai Cabaret Show (Anusarn Market. facebook.com/ChiangmaiCabaretShow). Thailand is home to a large trans community and the drag cabarets are deliciously campy and theatrically spectacular. From traditional Thai costumes and music to western musical numbers (cue Tina Turner, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera), these ladies put on a fantastic show. And yes, there is an audience participation component; so plan on shaking your booty on stage if chosen. Finish with a nightcap (or eight) at Ram Show Bar (48 Charoenprathet. facebook.com/ramcabaretshow), which also has drag performances after 10 P.M. every night.

The final stop on this trip was exciting, gritty, gorgeous, and diverse Bangkok. We arrived at the peak of Songkran, amidst city-wide water fights, and I was drenched for three days. “My first Songkran was one of the most memorable events in my life, stepping out into the street and feeling the entire city buzzing with excitement and ready to get soaking wet,” says Raymond Gonzalez, a Cuban American expat who has been living in Bangkok for 13 years and runs Casa Panza (Sukhumvit 39. instagram.com/casapanzabkk), a weekend chef’s table serving homemade Cuban food.

Bangkok’s many temples offer a welcome refuge and recentering from the soaked streets. If time is limited, you must at least visit the temples in and around the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Na Phra Lan Rd) and Wat Pho (2 Sanam Chai Rd). Remember to wear long pants and a sleeved shirt to enter these sites, as they are some of the holiest spots in the country. Architecturally breathtaking, the temples house the Emerald Buddha and the Reclining Buddha, respectively, among many other stunning sculptures.

Taking a Tuk Tuk Ride in Bangkok (Photo by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

Taking a Tuk Tuk Ride in Bangkok (Photo by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

At night, we joined a Taste of Thailand (tasteofthailand.org) tuk-tuk tour to explore some of the city’s most unique food. The journey alone, riding in a tiny tuk-tuk through the streets of Bangkok, was thrilling and gave us a completely different perspective on the city. Our first stop was Rad Na Yot Pak (514 Thanon Tanao), a sidewalk noodle eatery whose pad see ew is Michelin recommended. Next, we stopped at Cheng Sim Ei Bkk (338 Chan Rd. chengsimeibkk.com) for a palate cleansing fruity treat before moving to the front of the very long line at Thipsamai (313-315 Maha Chai Rd. thipsamai.com), known for their award winning pad Thai since 1939. After a walk through the 24-hour flower market, our group enjoyed a final drink at Amorosa Bar on the rooftop of Arun Residence (36-38 Soi Pratoo Nok Yoong, arunresidence.com). Overlooking the Chao Phraya River, it offers a stunning view of the Wat Arun temple at night time.

Wat Arun in Bangkok (Photo by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

Wat Arun in Bangkok (Photo by Tourism Authority of Thailand)

By all accounts, Bangkok is one of the LGBTQ+ nightlife centers of Asia. Especially during the Songkran holidays, the gay hotspots around Silom (primarily on Silom Soi 4 and Silom Soi 2) were packed every night. Start at Circus (facebook.com/circussoi4) or Balcony Pub (facebook.com/thebalconybangkok) and drink your way through the Silom 4 pedestrian alley.

If you want the full nightlife extravaganza (and let me tell you, you do), the end of the Out Adventures Songkran Water Tour conveniently coincides with GCircuit Songkran (gcircuit.com), the largest gay circuit event in Asia. This year marked its triumphant return after a three year pandemic-induced hiatus and, boy, were those queens ready for a party. I’m talking four nights of theme dances at the Bangkok Convention Center, each hosting more than 6,000 gays; and two daytime pool parties, with more than 1,000 guests.

I could not have asked for a better introduction to Thailand or a better group of strangers who swiftly became friends. “The most rewarding thing for me is the camaraderie, seeing the friendships form,” says Robert Sharp, the owner of Out Adventures. “It’s all about being yourself, meeting like-minded people and experiencing the world together.”

How lucky am I indeed to have experienced Thailand with my own LGBTQ+ travel tribe! I’d known these guys for only three days and yet they created a space within their own dream vacation to celebrate my birthday. For me, that sense of community and freely sharing of friendship are some of the greatest gifts of a gay travel group. The breathtaking backdrop of Thailand was just the cherry on the birthday cake.

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