Travel: An American in Thailand
Buddhas and bars and big elephants, oh my! GO's Erin Cochran discovers Southeast Asia
I think I’m in love. Not one of those two-week crushes we’ve all experienced, but true love, and it’s here to stay. I found it 7,000 miles away in a place I never expected. My new love is Thailand.
Ever since my good friend moved to Thailand four years ago, I’ve been meaning to pay her a visit. It sounded like fun, but I’ve seen Brokedown Palace; I had no idea what Thailand was all about. I pictured a Hollywood version of China: dirty streets, sketchy and unfriendly people everywhere. Oh, and forget about the gay community; that must be so hidden from the government that a tourist like me would never find it. I was so wrong.
The first thing I noticed about Bangkok was the cleanliness of the place. Thais are obsessive about their floors; entire crews of people roam the city just sweeping and mopping. After adjusting my gait so I wouldn’t slip (and shedding a few layers of clothing in the sweltering heat), I headed to my friend Cee Webster’s apartment. Lucky for me, Cee is the owner and editor of bangkoklesbian.com, which is like the Facebook of the Bangkok lesbian community; the lesbian-only networking site helps expatriates, visitors and Thais connect. Talk about your perfect guide.
Over the next few days, I got a whirlwind tour of Bangkok. One of the highlights was what Cee called Modern Bangkok, essentially the shopping district. There are so many places to shop you couldn’t begin to hit them all in a month. But we were up for giving it a shot, and decided to check out Siam Paragon (Rama 1 Road, siamparagon.co.th), Central World (Ratchaprasong Intersection, centralworld.co.th) and the Mah Boon Krong or MBK Center (444 Payathal Road, mbk-center.com/en/), all of which are easily reached by the sky train. One shopping highlight was the Jatujak Weekend Market (Kamphaeng Phet 2 Road, jatujakguide.com ). This “mall” is literally miles of outdoor stalls where you can find anything (and I mean anything) you could possibly need or want—food, clothing, antiques, souvenirs, pets, electronics…and on and on.
Next we headed for Old Bangkok, which includes the Grand Palace (Na Phra Lan Road) and Wat Pho (Chetuphon Road, 02-222-0933), the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Both are stunning temples from the 15th century and absolutely breathtaking. The Grand Palace houses a giant jade Buddha, which is considered Thailand’s holiest of Buddhas. Unfortunately, this area must be reached by taxi, since the government doesn’t want to risk putting a sky train close by. It costs 200 baht for tourists and is free for locals, but is well worth the price (roughly six dollars). Feeling a little temple-drained, we then checked out a market across the street with some great restaurants, where we could sit on the river and enjoy some spicy pad thai and a glass of pilsner on ice.
Thai culture revolves around food. I’ll admit that at first, heeding the advice of my guidebook (“Don’t drink the water,” “Don’t eat from street vendors”) I was a little confused. But as a chef, I was not willing to miss out on the culinary experience, and I couldn’t have made a better choice. Turns out, I didn’t get the slightest stomach ache in two weeks of sampling real Thai food. And best of all, I was never more than three minutes away from my next meal, even when I was on the highway in the middle of nowhere. Multitudes of street vendors are always ready with a spicy specialty (though most vendors automatically adjust their spice level to moderate for the Western palate). Daring eaters have endless options, but those who don’t want to step out of food comfort zones are also in good hands; favorite dishes from Thai restaurants stateside, like pad thai, pad see ew, and red and green curry, are available, but here they taste so much better.
Walking around the streets of downtown Bangkok, I asked Cee if there were any gay-friendly restaurants in town. She responded, “This is Thailand; everything is gay-friendly.” If you’d like to make a point to support the lesbian community in Thailand, there are a couple places to check out. Zub Zip (674 Soi 101 Lad Phrao Road, 81-734-2759) is a lesbian-owned hangout space/restaurant with great Thai and Chinese food. The only drawback is that it’s a bit of a trek from the heart of Bangkok. Eat Me (Soi Pipat 2, Convent Road, 02-238-0931) is a gay-owned restaurant/art space and a good place to check out the gay boy scene, fun in its own right.
The nightlife was by far the biggest shocker of my trip. Cee, who is originally from New York, founded bangkoklesbian.com about two years ago, the first site of its kind in the city. There are now nearly a thousand members, and it’s growing every day. Cee and her crew organize a party every month, where they host anywhere from 30 to 100 women for drinks before heading off to the bars. After meeting lesbians from around the world at one such party, my posse and I headed out dancing at Zeta (29 Royal City Avenue, 02-203-1043), a hip all-girl bar in the heart of the nightlife district. Nothing I had seen yet in Bangkok could have prepared me for what I saw when I walked through the front door. This place was three times the size of NYC’s Henrietta Hudson, wall-to-wall with girls. We’re talking the kind of crowded that makes you wonder if there actually is a legal capacity. My friends directed us to the back of the bar where we could watch the dance floor and order a few bottles of whiskey. When going out in Thailand, the way to drink, especially in a group of people, is by ordering a bottle of liquor and some mixers on the side. They bring you a bag of ice and you mix your own drinks all night long. Then at the end of the night, if you happen to have some left in the bottle, you just cap it and put it in your bag to take home. Every time I did this I felt like I was trying to get away with something, but it’s just a custom that puts a whole new spin on “bottle service.” I could totally get used to it.
Another bar option in Bangkok is E-Fun (135-136 Royal City Avenue, 02-203-1044), which has a slightly older, but equally fun, crowd. It has a little more room to move around than Zeta, though the even New York’s uptown 6 train at rush hour has slightly more room to move around than Zeta. So maybe that’s not saying much.
When it was time to turn in, I had a place to stay with one of the celesbians of Thailand, but travelers without such luxuries should try Bangkok Marriott Resort & Spa (from $135, marriott.com/hotels/travel/bkkth-bangkok-marriott-resort-and-spa). On the higher-end, there’s also the Metropolitan (from $260, metropolitan.como.bz/Bangkok). Mid-range hotels run about $60, like Phranakorn-Nornlen Hotel (phranakorn-nornlen.com). And there are tons of options on the really cheap end. You might end up sharing a bathroom, but the backpacker hotels are generally very clean. Happy House (happyhouseguesthouse.com), Rikka Inn (rikkainn.com) and Shambara Bangkok (shambarabangkok.com) are all in the $20 range.
I like to have very active vacations, and with so many things to do in Southeast Asia, I couldn’t spend all my time in Bangkok. So I nervously left my friends in Bangkok behind and ventured out on my own to Cambodia for a three-day jaunt. After a 45-minute flight, I arrived in Siem Reap, where I immediately felt as if I was channeling Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. (Siem Reap is home to the Angkor Wat Temple complex, which is actually where part of Tomb Raider was filmed.) This part of the world is absolutely gorgeous. I mean life-altering, awe-inspiring, bring you to tears sort of beauty.
I stayed in the middle of Siem Reap at the gay-friendly guesthouse Ei8ht Rooms ($16, 138/139 Stheoung Thmey Village, 855-63-969788, ei8htrooms.com), where, one night after coming home from a long day of temple touring, I found the hotel owners and their friends having dinner and drinking beer on the patio of the hotel. They invited me to sit down and have drinks with them, and then offered to take me out dancing afterwards. We were soon sitting around the table, playing games and singing Cambodian songs by candlelight.
The food in Cambodia is not as flashy as that in Thailand—it’s hard to find real local food due to the large amount of tourism that surrounds the temples. However, for a few extra dollars, and the promise of lunch, I convinced my tuk tuk driver to take me to his favorite place to eat. It was some of the best curry I’ve ever had. I highly recommend attempting this trick for an authentic dining experience.
I got back to Bangkok with a little over a week of my vacation left and decided to use that time to do some good. Cee suggested I volunteer at an elephant reserve, and the very next morning we got in a car and headed to Chiang Mai and the Elephant Nature Park (209/2 Sridom Chai Road, 53-818754), a most awe-inspiring part of my vacation. The Elephant Nature Park was founded by Lek, a woman born into a Tribal community in Northern Thailand with a particular passion for animal rights. Its mission is to provide a sanctuary to abused elephants in the country. There are currently 33 elephants at the park, and it seems to be in a constant state of expansion. The day we arrived there were approximately 40 people either touring, volunteering or working. Volunteers are asked to do anything and everything, from stripping the bark on the park’s newly built observation structure, to helping bathe the elephants in the nearby river. At the end of the day we were rewarded with a feast of some of the most delicious Thai food of my entire trip. To check out more about this, visit elephantnaturepark.org, or bringtheelephanthome.org, which is a closely affiliated organization that is owned and operated by out lesbian Antoinette Van De Water.
As I neared the end of my vacation, I began to feel pangs of my first stomach ache, the kind borne of a sense of dread upon return to real life. After this incredible experience, I don’t know that I will ever be able to view a vacation the same way again. Thailand has delicious food, friendly people, a thriving nightlife and so much to see and do. So yeah, I’m in love, and it feels oh so good.