BUST OUT. Bangkok may be a cultural hub, but if you get out of the city and head North, you might find the relaxation you're looking for in Chiang Mai.
(Courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand)
The golden beaches and sunny climes of Thailand await the intrepid Canadian willing to sally forth from wintry snows and sub zero temperatures. I did it sixteen years ago and haven't looked back.
But I know I wouldn't have been so adventurous, were it not for my friend Greg telling me: "Go to Thailand for a month. You'll love it." I was on a spiritual journey of sorts, off to sultry India with gurus in mind. Another visa for Thailand didn't seem to be too much bother, as the plane was landing there anyway.
My plan was to disembark in Bangkok and find a cheap flight to Madras, my first point of entry to the subcontinent. But that was not to be.
Bangkok in November is oppressively hot. The shock of leaving the air conditioned cocoon of international travel hit me like a sledgehammer. The heat and smell was overpowering, the taxi drivers repellent and aggressive. "Just get me to my hotel," was all I could say.
Once there, in the confines of my room, the totality of the city hit me with the strangeness and utter hopelessness of the change I had brought upon myself. I was not at home anymore.
So I had to adjust to the narrow alleys and smaller one-person passageways. The mangy dogs filled me with sorrow and no one seemed to care. The Thais and the Europeans had a completely different way of being and that left me spellbound.
I travelled around, I saw things. Finding myself down in Gaytown (Soi 1 off Silom) seemed like being on the moon. It was gay, but such a zirconium-laden landscape. Money boys and poseurs, lady boys and boy ladies. I was out of my depth.
Even as a child of gay liberation movement's street protests, as an Act-Up groupie and habitué of Le Village, before it was so, I felt adrift. Dorothy had to admit she wasn't in Kansas anymore, and her ruby slippers weren't working so good on this side of the great divide. Adjustment followed adjustment in a dizzying stream of circumstances that lasted some fifteen years.
I used to try to explain to my students how Canadians dress for winter and mimic putting on of layers and layers, checking for cracks and possible invasion places for cold wind. They never really got it. These are people who walk around in sandals ninety percent of the time, because it's so hot.
The best way to get around Thailand is the Thai way: avoid conflict at all costs. Keep good interpersonal relationships, go with the flow and give as little info as you need to. "Jai yen yen", as they say. Cool heart.
Never mind what you hear on the tube about political problems in Thailand. They're largely isolated in the South. They are small pockets of problems in a universe of "mai pen rai" (don't worry, no problem). So this means most Canadians don't go South, but we can go to Pattaya (sin city), Phuket (snob city) and the islands like Koh Samui, where my friend John throws his trance-and-dance parties of island hoppers each month. The islands are fabulous, the beaches divine. The remote islands Like Koh Chang and Tao (Elephant and Turtle Islands) still retain most of their pre-tourist-invasion charm.
One of the best buys is Thai massage. Be it by bar boy, beer boy, masseur or masseuse, the nuad thai experience is one not to be missed. It's a great buy, and now the whole industry has blossomed worldwide.
Pattaya is party town. Sunee Plaza and Boyztown are all abuzz. It's what you've always dreamed of and more. Boys and men everywhere. Gorgeous! In Boyztown, the men seem a little more feminine (some might say more balanced) than their Western counterparts. So if you're into that, there are are drop-dead gorgeous men, especially in these places.
Most western gay guys when first landing here don't land in Thailand. They land in tourist-Thailand, a hybrid no man's land where the casual visitor to the kingdom is serviced and taken care of. Money is the lingua franca of this region and its raison d'etre; the peel of the orange, not the orange itself.
Laidback gay bars do exist but they need to be distinguished from their more service-oriented cousins. Equally so, most gay bars and discos have service personnel co-mingling with regular customers. You need to use more of your "jai yen yen, mai pen rai" to figure it all out.
Bangkok's Silom Soi 1 is just one stop along the way. Telephone, a bar once owned by a Quebecois man, is a nice meeting place. Gay people are the same all over the world. But it takes a certain finesse to pick up on the local variations.
Before leaving Bangkok, you might check out Babylon, a sauna-disco-hotel complex. The Big Mango (Bangkok for the uninitiated) is a tourist delight. And don't forget the Chatuchak Market for souvenirs. You'll fit right in, since lots of Thais love to shop. It's so gay.
But then beat it out of the city.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand. It's a livable size, clocking in a 1.5 million people, spread out over a river valley plain. A mountain to the west brings a breeze. The river, north to south, brings sustenance to man and beast and makes everything grow. The old part of the city can still be seen.
Chang Mai is surrounded by a moat. Traffic travels clockwise on the outside of the moat and counter clockwise on the inside. So like some ancient perpetual motion machine the city just keeps renewing itself everyday. There is a glow, shall I say, to this city; something magical and restrained. It's 700-plus years old. Lost to the Burmese for two hundred of these years, then recaptured, abandoned, and eventually re-inhabited.
It's beautiful, but beautiful in a Thai sense. It's restrained, refined, qualified, held-back in a certain way.
Chiang Mai is a difficult place to get to know. However once you get under its skin, it's a drink that's hard to put down — you find yourself wanting more and more. Perhaps it's the quieter atmosphere of a smaller city, perhaps it's the people who inhabit this charming outpost, perhaps it's just because. But, whatever the reason, Chiang Mai is a place that can grow on you. Here are some recommendations for your next visit.
First, let me suggest a visit to Chiang Mai's original Wild West: Santitam. The all-new Santitam Plaza is filled with pubs, a spa/fitness center and the largest seafood venue north of the moat. The owners of the Santitam Guest House have created a luxurious home-stay concept and built lush gardens. Around this area is any number of bars.
The biggest surprise in the area is Circle Pub's expanded digs. It features, Khun Ot, who has become a respected entertainer. His bar has shows nightly. He also recommends two new venues to rest your weary bones: Nagaraj Fitness and Spa and Pagoda Inn, a clean, quiet guesthouse.
Everyone is talking about the River House Massage. They've renovated an old house along the river; it's quiet and relaxing. Along the way, drop in to Mystic Oriental massage. It's a nice enough looking place, just off Tapae Gate, offering a full range of spa and massage services.
Nimmanhaemin Street is the place to be for the latest in trendzoid Lanna appearances. It's a glorious be-bop area being remade with buildings going up all over the place and a tremendous redefining of the Lanna architectural ethos. Case in point is Khun Chern, the seminal veggie emporium's new digs are on Soi 17. Try their inexpensive all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. Their expanded garden setting is ripe with flowers, plants and has a modern feel.
Next door, the IBerry Ice Cream Franchise is a crowd-pleaser. On the sign, there is a large yellow dog barking at Chairman Mao, resplendent in his green coat and giving the love sign to one and all. This has got to be a Nose Udon (Thailand's premier joker) venue. The building itself is knock-down chic.
Perhaps I'll see you there.