Western culture continues to encroach, but Southeast Asia more accessible than ever
As I discovered on a recent jaunt to China, Thailand, and Cambodia, Southeast Asia offers more than enough hassle-free wonders to satisfy any American traveler, gay or straight, whether seeking to party or to pray at an ancient Buddhist temple.
And it can be startlingly easy on the wallet.
Continental Airlines now has affordable ($750 round-trip) direct flights from Newark to Hong Kong—complete with individual TV screens in economy class—that take a relatively speedy 15 hours. Bring that novel you never finished from your last vacation, your MP3, and an Ambien and you’re good to go.
Unlike many Europeans who are famously snippy with foreigners, Asians are hospitable hosts, particularly with Americans. At least on the beaten path, many locals grasp enough English to understand your requests.
I knew American culture had long ago invaded the East, but wasn’t prepared for the extent of its penetration. Strains of Clay Aiken and Norah Jones (whose CDs are top sellers at the HMV music store) waft through the markets and cafés, even in far-flung villages. As I bartered for thatched placemats in an open-air market in Bangkok, Sarah Jessica Parker smiled down from a huge billboard promoting “Sex and the City.”
Hong Kong Stands Apart
Hong Kong is a breeze to navigate. Though now officially part of China after 156 years of British colonization (it was handed back in 1997), the city brazenly retains its Western capitalist conceit. Most signs and menus are in English as well as Cantonese, and the subway, known as the MTR, is spotless and efficient.
Take the precariously steep tram up to “The Peak” for a jaw-dropping view of the magnificent skyline and bustling harbor. A ferry ride here is even more thrilling than our beloved Staten Island Ferry. And check out the garishly multi-colored Buddhist temples, such as the sizable Wong Tai Sin, always packed with fervent incense-wielding worshippers.
You can find plenty of inexpensive native foods and wares at the outdoor markets. Sure, the crispy beetles and grasshoppers look like straight out of “Fear Factor,” but there’s plenty of tasty conventional fare like steamed rice with chicken or prawns, stir-fried in impossibly fresh ginger, curry, and cilantro.
One night, we found an eatery that insisted we choose our own live fish from a bucket and within minutes it was on our plates––head and all. Needless to say, it melted in our happy mouths.
Just this month a trendy HX-like clone called G, a guide to “Where the boys are” was launched, in English, and it maps the heaviest concentration of queer spots in an area called Soho (sound familiar?). One of the more happening hangouts is Rice, a bedroom-sized bar that, even on weeknights, has a huge crowd spilling onto the street. The DJ was spinning an exhilarating mix of edgy, upbeat lounge tunes instead of the usual gay anthems.
A cruisy bar, The Works, is popular until about 2:00 a.m., when the crowd heads around the corner to Propaganda, where locals and Western tourists shake it to fairly predictable synth-pop.
Bangkok is Still Sin City
Bangkok, in the land of “The King and I” (the 1956 Hollywood movie is so offensive to locals it’s banned here), offers a tantalizing mix of culture and carousing. A visit to the Grand Palace, with its famed “Emerald Buddha” is a must, as are excursions to Chinatown and Khao San Road, where the slacker backpackers roam.
In Patpong, the nexus of naughty nightlife, there are scads of gay bars, cafes, dance clubs, and strip joints. On any given evening, you can’t walk down a “soi” (alley) without being accosted by purveyors hawking “massage” while thrusting in your face a scribbled menu of sex acts unsuitable for print, even in a gay newspaper. Overzealous waiters and whores grab your arm, beckoning you to unload your Western money at their, um, establishments.
At a raucous club called Freeman’s, catch a show of dazzling performers in stylish costumes, many of them stunning she-males, who lip synch Whitney Houston without flaw. The wink-wink sarcasm that taints many a drag show in New York is refreshingly absent here.
On a Tuesday night, as we entered the packed multilevel dance club DJ Station, police hauled away a couple of drug addicts. One local warned us that gay clubs are raided periodically, targeting Thais more than tourists. “Patrons aren’t just frisked—they’re forced to produce a urine sample on the spot,” he said.
As a Westerner, you’re pretty much guaranteed rock star status at any club. After midnight, don’t be surprised if Thai guys smile, stare, and grope as you make your way to the bar. They’ll request your e-mail address before asking your name.
It’s rare to see shirtless guys, even when the dance floor sizzles. “To take your shirt off is rude,” one guy told me. “Only muscled money-boys and tourists dance without shirts.” It is common, however, to see a Thai guy canoodling with a Western sugar daddy two or three times his age.
If you want flesh, go to “Classic Boys,” one of 15 go-go boy clubs listed in Variety, Bangkok’s gay guide. I allowed myself to be lured in (for journalistic purposes, of course) and was astonished by a series of elaborate shows teeming with sexy guys—a twisted hybrid of the spectacles at “Broadway Bares” and the Saint-at-large Black Party. One featured a giant aquarium with near-naked underwater ballet, and the final show, copulation, where panting performers ventured into the audience without missing a beat.
“I am 18,” a money-boy next to me insisted with a grin. I didn’t believe him. I knew it was time to scram when the bevy of boys, clad in white boxer-briefs and ribbed tank tops sporting a red numbered tag, marched onstage, cattle-call like, waiting to be chosen.
A sticker on the mirror in our hotel room warned against sexual exploitation of children. Sadly, recent efforts to curb this behavior are woefully inadequate; the underage flesh trade thrives.
Though the lyrics to that disco song, “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble” still hold true, the nights are shrinking. A few years back, to crack down on vice, all-night venues were ordered to shutter at 2 a.m., and there’s now a movement to roll back closing times even earlier.
Like other major cities across the globe, except in the U.S., sauna culture rules. Variety guide lists eleven saunas in Bangkok plus 15 men’s “happy-ending” massage parlors. Honk Kong offers no less than 18 saunas.
If the Four Seasons hotel chain decided to open a gay sauna, the aptly named Babylon in Bangkok, with capacity for 700, would be it. The fountain and flora-filled, marble-clad “theme park for decadence” boasts three restaurants, an outdoor pool, gym, massage spa, an Internet room, and a barbershop, in addition to the immaculate steam rooms, saunas, dark mazes, and sex cabins.
Angkor on the Verge
The magnificent Angkor temple complex, as yet unspoiled by developers, truly deserves its place as one of the wonders of the modern world. Located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, it’s just a one-hour flight from Bangkok.
The awe-inspiring structures—scores of them in various states of ruinous splendor—were built by a succession of kings from about 800 to1200 A.D. to worship Buddha or Hindu gods, or both. Many temples had been lost for centuries, hidden beneath a thick cloak of unforgiving jungle.
Although the grandest is the Angkor Wat Temple, another one, Ta Prohm, gets my vote for most romantic, since much of the vegetation is left intact, with trees 15 stories tall, their monstrous roots engulfing sandstone walls. It’s well worth the $50 to hire an English-speaking tour guide and driver with an air-conditioned car––a welcome respite from the 90 degree-plus heat––for the day.
During the war years, with Pol Pot and his killing fields, Cambodia’s economic and cultural development, along with its tourist industry, was put on hold. Now, that the sinister Khmer Rouge regime is long gone, the country is embracing visitors.
“Ten years ago, there were only a handful of hotels here in Siem Reap,” our tour guide said. “Since then, over 60 hotels have been built, many of great luxury.”
When we arrived, the airport road was being widened and paved. Several more mega-hotels were under construction. Right now, traffic lights and Starbucks are unheard of. But the fuse of development is lit; visit before the commercial bomb explodes.
Prices are so low they’re guilt-inducing. A savory authentic Khmer dish can be had for the cost of a subway ride in New York. The preferred monetary unit, despite the riel being the official Cambodian currency, is the almighty U.S. dollar, which is puzzling since less than ten percent of tourists are American.
While there are no queer haunts in Siem Reap, there’s a brand new bungalow-style hotel for gays nestled near the popular Old Market area called the Golden Banana (no joke). Meticulously landscaped with palms, cannas, and, yes, banana trees, this charming oasis charges a laughable $18 dollars a night, breakfast included.
The hotel’s owner is optimistic about gay rights in Cambodia. While there is no gay community to speak of, homosexuality is “passively tolerated.” But the issue is complex. “This country is opposite of the West,” he said. “Men and women who show affection in public here, it is frowned upon. But members of same sex can touch and it means nothing.”
As my plane taxied away from the airport gate, I spied on the tarmac two young male luggage handlers, dressed in bright orange coveralls, smiling and strolling hand in hand, for all the world to see.