Thailand has recently gone to great lengths to court the LGBT traveler. And so we went.
Asia may not be the most liberal continent, and it’s not exactly a haven for LGBT travelers, but tucked in the center of Southeast Asia’s continental countries, just north of the island nations, lies Thailand, with a culture long-accepting of diversity and newly focused on attracting gay tourism. Metrosource recently headed to Thailand to experience four Thai regions as diverse as its population, and the following is our recommendation for a Thai-tinerary worth the globe-spanning journey.
If you’re idea of Thailand is a tropical paradise with beautiful beaches and stunning landscapes, you’ll want to start your adventure in Phuket, where a mix of spectacular coastal scenery and a relaxed feel in Old Phuket Town provide the perfect low-key entry point for a weary traveler (who will have traveled about 24 hours from the North America). A southern province of Thailand, Phuket is surrounded by the warm waters of the Andaman Sea and offers a welcoming atmosphere with a local populace aching to share its heritage.
Take a Thai cooking class by the sea at schools like local favorite, Phuket Thai Cookery, where you’ll spend the morning in an open-air kitchen perfecting traditional recipes like Tom Yam (hot and sour soup) and Ka Nom Kluay (steamed banana cakes). Then take an afternoon tour on the road visiting landmarks like the massive 45-meter-tall Big Buddha, covered in white jade marble and perched high atop mount Nagakerd. From here you’ll get a panoramic view of the surrounding region before heading in to Old Phuket Town for dinner among the century-old Portuguese-influenced architecture. If you’re not too tired from the busy day, head into Patong at night for a raucous scene where absolutely anything goes, and everything you’ve ever heard about Thai nightlife proves true.
Don’t stay out too late, though, because you’ll want to get up early enough to spend the better part of a day exploring the nearby Phi Phi Islands, with stunning blue-green waters, skyscraping cliffs, an island overrun by monkeys, and the perennially popular Maya Bay, the idyllic setting made famous in The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. A 2-hour ferry ride can get you there, but charter a speedboat that arrives in half the time and provides personalized access to all the points you’re dying to see. Once you’ve had a few days of welcome from Phuket’s astonishingly friendly locals (who will know you intimately after an hour or two) and are fully recovered from jetlag, you’re ready to travel to the opposite end of Thailand.
In the northern mountains of Thailand, where the climate can be slightly cooler than the ever hot and humid Phuket, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are home to hundreds of temples. Like churches in Rome, you may fall victim to temple fatigue after a day or two of trekking in in the north, so be sure to hit the most spectacular and impressive temples first, before you give in to tired legs and eyes blinded by glistening gold spires. In Chiang Mai, head to the sacred space of Wat Doi Suthep early to avoid long lines and huge crowds vying for elbow room in this panoply of gold. There’s much to see inside, so take the tram up the hill to the temple and spare your legs for the exit journey down the impressive 309-step staircase flanked by two seemingly endless and equally ornate dragons. Later, you’ll want to check out the remains of the enormous Wat Chedi Luang, the foundations of which date back to the 14th century, and are surrounded by smaller temples, including one that houses a large reclining Buddha. Nearby are countless other temples – choose two or three more to visit before turning in for a night of much-needed rest.
For modern luxury and effortless comfort, take advantage of the Anantara hotel group’s strong presence in Thailand by checking into Anantara Chiang Mai, an oasis of quite calm with chic appointments and a riverfront setting. Have drinks at The Service 1921, the former British Consulate that now houses the property’s colonial-themed bar and restaurant. Try the house drink, which features chocolate, lychee, rose caviar, and dry-ice-special-effects before heading into one of many themed rooms for dinner. If you can swing it, book the private dining room accessible through a trick bookshelf in the library for a truly unforgettable meal.
From Chiang Mai, drive to nearby Chiang Rai, only a few hours away, making pit stops at some of the region’s most famous non-traditional temples. Visit the Black House (or Black House) and the impressive array of unusual structures on the grounds, all housing the art and collections of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. The experience is simultaneously serene and otherworldly, mixing the traditional with the inexplicable. The logical next stop is the White Temple, another privately owned exhibit that is more art installation than true temple. Intricately carved with innumerable figures ranging from the hundreds of hands (representing greed and desire) reaching up under the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth to the elegant creatures guarding the Gate of Heaven, the temple is a whitewashed overload of visual stimulation rivaled only by the nearby golden bathroom that is certainly among the world’s most impressive public restrooms. You may feel awkward snapping photos in a functional bathroom at first, but you’ll soon find that the line outside is more for this purpose than for any other.
When you’re templed-out again, make your way to the northernmost point of Thailand and check into Anantara Golden Triangle, the elephant sanctuary with views of neighboring Myanmar and Laos, for an escape unlike any other. From the massage during check-in to the infinity pool overlooking the jungles of three nations, no moment spent on this property is unremarkable. And while the food, service, spa, and accommodations are first class, there’s one very large feature that draws travelers to this exclusive property: elephants.
Thailand’s elephants don’t suffer much from poaching, but tourism takes a severe toll on many of the nation’s pachyderms, and Anantara Golden Triangle is a leader in responsible elephant care, rescuing exploited elephants and seeking to improve the lives of their keepers (mahouts) as well. Anantara offers guilt-free encounters with its gentle giants in intimate settings, including visits to the mahouts camp, learning elephant commands, the famous river bathing ritual, and responsible riding. Like the guests experiencing the grandeur of the secluded resort, the elephants are given the star treatment at Anantara, and care for both animal and trainer alike is setting new national standards by example. Don’t indulge elephant trainers selling rides and photos on Thai streets, but do support their care and proper treatment through initiatives like Anantara Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation simply by staying on site.
No visit to Thailand is complete without a visit Bangkok, so trek down to the capital city to re-orient yourself with an urban pace before heading home. Bangkok offers everything you’d expect from a modern city, from shopping and dining to culture and history, with the added bonus of a vibrant gay scene centered mostly in the area of Silom. Here you’ll find plenty of places to keep busy at night, with interests as varied as the names of the bars, ranging from Telephone (where you can coyly call your crush at his table across the room) to Bearbie, the smoky bear den a few steps away.
By day, be sure to take a boat to one of the floating markets outside the city, where you’ll shop for souvenirs, furniture, clothes, and meals from your boat. The markets are worth the visit for the colors and atmosphere alone, but be sure to grab lunch from one of the old ladies cooking on burners in glorified canoes, and take some ice cream in a coconut shell to go. You won’t have this experience many other places, and the food coming out of these adorable boat kitchens is surprisingly tasty.
Budget a good portion of a day for Bangkok’s main attraction, the Grand Palace. Remember dreaming of fairy tale castles glistening in gold and dripping in jewels and then accepting the crushing reality that such things don’t exist? They do. These mesmerizing fantasies are in abundant supply on the grounds of the Grand Palace, where you won’t believe you’re awake no matter how many times you slap yourself. The Grand Palace is a complex of colossal opulence evoking the glory days of Thailand’s powerful and wealthy history, and it’s well worth a visit for it’s dazzling detail and inspiring scale.
To be treated royally yourself, stay at the Peninsula Bangkok, where service and class are unmatched. From the traditional afternoon tea for which the brand is famous to the indulgent 88-meter, three-tiered pool leading from the spa to the Chao Phraya River, the Peninsula Bangkok is your haven for the ultimate in refined relaxation after days (and nights!) of curious exploration.
Wake up early for private sunrise yoga on the property’s helipad high above the city before taking part in the traditional Tak Bart ritual, in which the Thai provide daily food offerings to local monks – an intimate national practice the Peninsula has made available to visitors who wish to join staff in their morning offerings. A massage treatment is more than essential at this world-class spa where you can experience a royal Thai massage, or have the highly trained therapists develop treatment programs tailored to your individual needs. No detail of personalized service is overlooked at this property, where you’ll rejuvenate yourself before your journey home.
A journey through Thailand will often surprise and overwhelm with its varied topography and the different experiences those environments evince, but one constant throughout the country is its invariably open-minded population. The Thai citizenry certainly understands the art of hospitality, but it’s the genuine personal interest and warmth shining through each encounter that sets them apart. Thailand makes no effort to hide the fact that they are aggressively courting the LGBT traveler, and there’s nothing insincere or exploitative about the initiative. They simply want the rest of the world to know what Thailand already knows: The Thai are an open people who legitimately value their LGBT communities, and they welcome LGBT travelers to come experience their embrace. As the world begins to wisen to the LGBT tourism dollar, it’s worth investing it in nations that have long recognized the value in LGBT people.
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Last modified: August 16, 2019