You are in Thailand. Amazing Thailand! The Land of Smiles! A country of almost 70 million situated in the balmy tropics. A land of beautiful islands, exotic temples, long sandy beaches, stunning sunsets, rice paddies, water buffaloes, archeological sites, state-of-the-art shopping malls, mouth-watering food, a nightlife that is legendary – and, above all, a land of beautiful people with some of the most gorgeous guys you will find on the planet. Few countries offer more for the gay traveller.
How is it that this gentle Asian land, known to most only fifty years ago as the location of the Broadway musical “The King and I”, came to be front and center on most gays’ radar? It is a long story, but worth reading as it defines the character of the Thais that you will meet on your travels here.
Ask anyone who has lived in Thailand and they will tell you that it is difficult to understand the country! Thai society is deeply conservative; yet the nightlife entertainment scene is more open and obvious than almost any other country. Despite this openness, though, unlike in Taipei, Tokyo and Hong Kong, you find no Gay Pride Parade in Bangkok! Thai guys you will meet in the bars, massage parlors and clubs will happily ensure you have a good time. Yet the lovely young man you just spent the night with may well leave in the morning to spend the day with his wife and children! How is that Thai ‘ladyboys’ can be found in every city and almost every village and still be accepted freely without the general disapproval they might find elsewhere in such societies?
First, let’s look back in time. Thailand has one of the richest histories of any country in the world today. Known for centuries as Siam, its name was changed to Thailand only as recently as 1939. There is much debate about the origin of the ancestors of the Thai people. All we need know here is this. Many believe that if the Thai people have not always lived in what we know today as Thailand, then they moved into the area from the northwest of China’s Sichuan Province more than a millennium ago. Those who settled in the north formed the Lanna Kingdom; those further south, the Sukhothai Kingdom. Soon after, the dominant force in the region, the Khmers with their capital built around Angkor Wat in present day Cambodia, conquered the Sukhothai Kingdom and expanded their Empire into much of what is today eastern and central Thailand.
Eventually, about 200 years later, the Khmers were beaten back. Soon another Kingdom became a dominant force in Thailand – Ayutthya, whose kings became especially powerful in the 14th and 15th centuries. European explorers who were eventually to discover and colonise much of Asia appeared off the coast. The first were the Portuguese in 1511. A thriving trade developed between the two countries and Portugal became the first foreign country to open an embassy in Thailand. You can still see the lovely old building if you take a trip on the Chao Phraya river. It’s right next to the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel
Trade, not exploitation and colonization, was the aim of the early European visitors. The Thais ability to deal diplomatically – and always with a smile – with these potential invaders ensured that Siam remained a sovereign nation whilst all other South East Asian countries were to fall under the yolk of colonialism.
All was not smooth sailing, though. In the late 1600s, France helped a group of Greek adventurers in attempting to stage a coup. It failed. As a result, Siam, very much as Japan had done some decades earlier, closed its borders. In Siam’s case, this was to last for nearly a century. Perhaps as a result of that escapade, Thais still call foreigners “farang”, believed by some to mean “French”.
The Founding of Bangkok
The Kingdom of Siam was based in Ayutthya. In 1767 the neighbouring Burmese invaded and sacked the city. They were eventually repulsed, after which the King decided that a new capital be built further down river in what today we call Bangkok. Although increasingly surrounded by western conquerors, Siam was able to maintain its independence, partly by freely permitting western trade – unlike China which was made to suffer for much of the 19th century – and partly by engaging westerners to act as government advisers. A typical example of the Thais ability to keep an eye firmly on potential trouble makers!
One result was that some western culture and ideas slowly permeated Siamese society, a strictly hierarchical society headed by the King, the Royal Family and its advisers, and firmly wedded to Buddhist principles and traditions.
The transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy took many years. It was only in 1934 that the first democratic elections were held. But democracy divided the various factions within the country leading after a few years to the establishment of a strong military faction. But this did not end the struggle between the army and establishment elite around the Royal Family now joined by a slowly emerging middle class. The number of coups is extraordinarily high for a relatively democratic state, with some suggesting there have been 11 successful and 9 unsuccessful military interventions in the politics, the last taking place as recently in 2006.
The Thai Character
So what has this to do with the make-up of the “Thai character”? First, a fierce independence and love of King and country, for the Thais have never been slaves or the servants of colonial masters. Even today, the King is revered by all Thais, no matter how sensitive the political situation may be. So it’s best never to enter into any discussion about the Royal Family with any Thais. If you are even mildly critical for whatever reason, the lese majeste law can result in very strict punishment.
Second, in centuries of striving to maintain that independence, Thais developed an understanding of diplomacy – especially in the art of avoiding conflict. Thais became adept at not saying precisely what they meant in difficult or awkward situations. In some cases, what you believe is “yes” may well turn out to be “no”! And expats who live in Thailand come across countless examples where a Thai will walk away rather than have to face up to the problems which will arise if they attempt to explain and use logic. Besides, Thai logic is quite unlike western logic. So all visitors is should be aware that when you get into conversation with Thais, realise that what you are being told may not be all it is made out to be.
Thirdly, Thais smile a lot, and that smile can act as an effective mask. The Japanese also smile a lot, but they tend to use a smile when they are in a potentially embarrassing situation. The Thai smile can sometimes cover up deeper resentments. So, best never to get into an argument with any Thai.
Like many Asian peoples, the Thais do not respect anyone who loses their temper in public or indulges in any outward show of annoyance. That only makes the person lose ‘face’. So, no matter how difficult the situation, try to deal with it in a Thai way – and keep smiling! Not easy for those from the west accustomed to expressing exactly what they feel. In Thailand, it pays to be more circumspect.
Lastly, since Thailand has never been subject to the mass import of religious and Victorian ideas about sex and sexuality, sexual ambiguity has developed within Thai art and culture to the point where the strictly defined outlines westerners are used to are largely absent here. Few guys will tell you they are gay. With some exceptions, few may think of themselves as gay. They may be mostly gay – or they may be mostly straight. But, as mentioned earlier, that gay young beauty you spent the night with will have enjoyed the time he spent with you as much as he will the time with his wife or girlfriend a little while later. Take life as it comes. “Mai pen rai”, as the Thais say. “It doesn’t matter!”
Thailand’s Gay Scene
Elsewhere on this Board you can find detailed descriptions of what you will find in the various cities and islands popular with most gay travellers. In many, especially in Bangkok and Pattaya, you will find a host of go-go bars, many of which will have not only dancing boys but also shows of one type or another, outdoor beer bars with handsome waiters, saunas and massage parlors – a full range of entertainment to satisfy most desires.
Now, if you had been here when “The King and I” was first playing on Broadway, none of this would have been evident. The fact that an “entertainment” scene has developed is largely due to the Vietnam War. Not only was Thailand host to one of the largest American air bases (close to Pattaya), hundreds of thousands of young men came to enjoy a few days of R&R and release the tensions built-up during tours of duty. For most of the War and for some years afterwards, it was the girlie bars that sprang up and became popular. By the 1980s, though, Bangkok and Pattaya had started to develop a gay scene which has since mushroomed seemingly out of any control. But then, of course it is controlled; for whilst much of what goes on may border on the periphery of what is legal, turning a blind eye is not something only found in Thailand!
One regulation that is strictly enforced and which we not only urge but insist all visitors obey is not to indulge in any sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18. There are very strict legal penalties, including lengthy jail terms. We realise that young Thai guys often look younger than they actually are. But that is the best reason we can think of for saying you must always check the guy’s ID card to ensure that he has reached and passed his 18th birthday.
Even though it may seem the most obvious thing in the world in this day of HIV and AIDS, you should know that the incidence of HIV in the country is high, with some estimates suggesting that as many as 25% of msm are HIV positive. So, as they say in all the TV police dramas: “Be careful out there!” Always use a condom, for your own protection as much as for the protection of the lovely young Thai you are with. If you remember this, and the few other suggestions we have given you here, you will not only have a great time in Thailand, all your friends back home will be envious of your fun-filled, exotic holiday in the Land of Smiles!
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