When I first told people I was visiting Thailand, the first thing almost everyone said was, “Oooh, I love Thai food.” It was apparent that most Americans know very little about this Asian nation, which contains everything from golden palaces to shantytowns, beaches that make Waikiki look like Coney Island, and a government that is usually in some state of tumult.
Admittingly, my knowledge was just as limited when I landed at Bangkok’s massive, but efficient, airport. I decided to skip the tour books, and look at the country with fresh, virgin eyes. After struggling to find my driver through the airport’s crowds, I was quickly on the capital city’s freeways, wending above an endless cityscape that dwarfed any vision of urbanity I’d ever set my eyes on. There’s not one or two downtown areas, like, say, in L.A., or even several clusters of high-rises that exist in cities like New York. We drove and drove, past skyscrapers both built and under-construction, surrounded by tiny huts clustered around the wending Chao Phraya River, for nearly an hour. The endless built out environment of Bangkok left my gasping with wonder: How were there this many people? When were all these buildings constructed? What does it look like underneath this endless highway?
When we finally exited to the capital’s narrow streets, covered with cars, motocycles, bikes, and pedestrians, we almost instantly had to stop and wait for an enormous, three-story freight locomotive to make its way in front of us; the mega-train was something Americans would expect to see cutting through the Kansas plain, not barreling through a dense urban center. I would soon learn that Bangkok is free of most Western-style rules and regulations; something both thrilling and nerve-racking.
From the outset, most of Bangkok’s buildings appear shoddy, with signs covering every inch of the ground-floor retail stores and intrusive electricity wires covering the second- and third-floors. The sidewalks are clean but narrow; crowded in many places with locals and hordes of tourists, many being sunburned Australian backpackers, both frat bros and friendly hippie types, who congregate at outdoor boba shops and wile away the days.
When I arrived at my hotel in the central Wat Sam Phraya district, I had no idea what to expect. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the Riva Surya hotel, even though after flying halfway around the world, connecting in Taiwan, and being confused as to what day it was, I would have adored a broom closet. Immaculate and fashionable, the Riva sits right on the river, with the lobby opening up to an adorable pool, restaurant, and bar that affords unobstructed views of ships moving lazily down the Chao Phraya. We had brunch buffet included every day, and it included American staples like toast, cereal, and eggs, along with Asian favorites like bok choy and cold noodles. Though I spent little time in it, my room was incredible, with a bathroom stocked with Thai beauty products and a river-view terrace. In my few minutes between sight-seeing appointments, I’d often sit out and peer at the Chao Phraya and feel very far away from home (in a good way). While I stayed in a premium room, rates are available at the Riva for as little as $100 a night (you couldn’t even get a broom closet in New York for that).
The street scene outside the Riva is wonderfully chaotic. Crossing the street is a dangerous act (if you’re not a city boy or girl and not used to dodging cars, buses, and bikes, be very careful). There are restaurants, shops, and, thankfully, Thai iced coffee and tea stands in every direction. Figuring out where to sit and refresh yourself is almost an overwhelming proposition. During the day, feel free to just walk where ever your feet take you (rapid transit is limited and expensive, so better to just wear comfortable shoes; though the busy elevated train stations are worth a ride for the experience).
Eventually, like every tourist in Bangkok, you’ll have to make your way to the Grand Palace.
Sprawling over 61 acres, the Grand Palace is more than ornate and opulent; it’s nearly obscene. Gold, glass, and tile covers nearly every inch of the 2.3 million square foot palace, which is not only building, but dozens. The Palace, first built in the 1780s, is truly a feast for the eyes. There’s an entrance fee, but it’s worth it; wander and wonder.
Nearby are two touristy stops, but they shouldn’t be missed: the Wat Traimit temple, with the 5.5 ton Golden Buddha, sitting in a lotus position. Take a moment to take in the serenity and wisdom emanating from this ancient artwork. Next, hit up the Wat Pho temple. This temple houses the world-famous Reclining Buddha; a truly awesome sight. Built in 1832, the Buddha stretches a city block and is one of the largest statues of prophets in all of Thailand. Nearby are pavilions hosting Thai universities teaching massage; artwork tells the story of how the world-renown practice came to be.
All the sight-seeing will tucker anyone out — there are plenty of fruit and coffee carts (Thai iced coffee is a must, especially for jetlagged Americans), as well as food halls, serving everything from traditional Thai dishes to fresh fruit and vegetables and Eastern desserts like sticky rice, mango mousse, and exotic candies.
Our long day of sight-seeing, combined with an early flight to eastern Thailand the next morning, meant we didn’t have much time to explore the city’s gay nightlife. Any queer traveler to Bangkok should head to the intersection Si Lom 2 and Si Lom 2/1 and browse around. Legendary clubs like G.O.D., the Telephone Pub, and the Stranger Bar—with their infamous sperm shots—are all nearby. Intense debauchery happens in Boys Town in Pattaya—you’ll find love (for the night) or just a damn good drag show.
Soon, we were back on a plane—but instead of the trans-Pacific journey from the States, it was just to the adorable Trat airport on the eastern side of the country. From there we hopped on van, headed to the water, and jumped on a speedboat. This, apparently, is one of the few ways to access the gorgeous islands of eastern Thailand. Sure, we were a bit exhausted from being in motion for the past two days, but what a way to travel. Islands careened past us; some inhabited, some not. The water was crystal blue and serene; we did our best to put our phones down and soak in the scene.
Finally we arrived at the Peter Pan resort on Koh Kut island. It felt so far from civilization, but with all the comforts at our feet (Wifi, pools, phones, etc.). We were instantly served fruit juice and a delicious Thai lunch of rice, vegetables, and various chicken dishes; everything was laid out for us in a pavilion that serves as the resort’s gathering place and overlooks the crystalline Gulf of Thailand.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Hawaii and the Caribbean and this beach was the most beautiful I’ve ever set eyes upon. The water and sand were absolute silk, and the views and lack of noise were perfection. We spent the rest of the day soaking in this paradise, indulging in a massage right on the beach before night descended and a performance of fire dancers entertained the resort’s guests and staff.
The next day, we boated around some of the other islands, including Ko Mak. We learned about the island’s efforts at carbon neutrality before heading to a coconut plantation and sipping on some of the most refreshing juice that’s ever passed my lips.
We hopped on another boat to Ko Chang, eating a feast of classic Thai dishes at one of the island’s small restaurants. We were soon headed back to Peter Pan, spent and happy.
The next morning, a bit groggy and disoriented, I hopped on a ferry back to Trat. Mingling with tourists from around the world — Chinese, Indian, British — as we slowly made our way back to the Thai mainland was an unexpected highlight. The slow-moving journey afforded me some time to reflect on how otherworldly, and at the same time, comfortable and welcoming, Thailand is, especially to a gay Westerner. My time in Thailand was fleeting, but it made me long for my eventual return.