Queer in the Equatorial Zone

by Roberto Friedman
Thursday May 3, 2012

We're having a traditional Thai massage under a palm tree on the beach at Jomtien, south of Pattaya city on the Bay of Thailand. Big, strong Thai masseur, big, strong hands, he twists Out There up into a salty little pretzel.

"You think about what you write?" he asks, completely intuitive.

Yes. He bends our left leg way back to the side and presses our right shoulder all the way down to the mat. Our body doesn't usually stretch in opposite ways like this.

"You write about your Thai massage!" he commands us.

Yes. He pounds the muscles in our arm and twists it in its socket.

"You tell them how good!"

Yes. Ow. Good. Last week OT joined our good friends the photojournalists Jim James and Rick Gerharter on the first leg of their more extensive travels in Thailand. We flew through Hong Kong to Bangkok, then hired a car south to Jomtien in Chonburi Province, spending a week there and back in Bangkok. While Jim and Rick went on to the ancient capital Chiang Mai in the north, we raced back here to be with you, dear readers.

Our visit coincided with the Thai New Year holiday Songkran, a festive celebration of water in which impish Thais delight in dousing farangs - that would be us, Westerners - with buckets of cold wetness. Since we were chilling not far from the Equator during a hot season, the pelting with water didn't seem so much like punishment as a love tap. Thais laughed maniacally as they splashed us again and again, like a joke that never gets old. They emptied their super-soakers on us. It's considered good luck for targeted farangs. Better waterguns than semi-automatics is what we say.

Dongtan beach, where we stayed, is the Pattaya area's self-designated gay beach, just a few miles down from the larger and more frenetic town. It's mostly quiet, popular with expats and other farangs, but there is a vibrant gay nightlife, mostly centered on bars, cabarets and nightclubs in Jomtien Complex, where young Thai men (not boys) offer their charming company for drinks and other recompense.

In Pattaya we ate authentic Thai food, at a restaurant with an authentic Thai bucket flush, with expat Brit Phil P. , then headed to Boyz Town for people-watching at the Panorama bar. At Copa nightclub, bar boys in tight whites, dress shoes and black socks posed and pouted. The cabaret includes a water show with boys (of legal age) doing water aerobics in a giant glass-walled tank, a miracle of gymnastic talent and breath control. But we wanted to see them jump through hoops to catch a fish. They call him Flip-per !

Then we made our way to Sunee Plaza, a gay nightlife enclave in the Arab district, and eventually to the Crazy Dragon, where the boys (not underage) dance in their skimpies on mirror-top tables just for you. This is where, in a tableau which P. enjoyed describing to his expat chums the next day, OT had the fun of a go-go boy falling asleep in our lap. We will spare you the details.

Our visit coincided with the Thai New Year holiday Songkran, a festive celebration of water in which impish Thais delight in dousing farangs - that would be us, Westerners - with buckets of cold wetness.

Heading to Pattaya on Saturday night, the height of Songkran, we'd planned to take a baht bus - open-backed trucks that serve as public transit, 10 baht a ride - but noticed that the traffic had to run a gauntlet of super-soakers fully supplied with gallons of H2O. We tried sneaking behind the line of fire, but were spotted and drenched. Rick and Jim wrapped their cameras in plastic and prayed for them. One girl held our arm so she could pour a bucket of water over our head. "Happy new year!" she wished us with an angelic smile.

Downtown in the commercial district we were thrilled to pass a "fish massage" parlor with tanks set under benches in the window. A discussion of this phenomenon from a recent AbFab episode goes something like this:

"Oh, do tell them about the fish pedicure. It's hi-larious! "

"Well, it's not so hilarious. Well, what is a fish pedicure, because of course fish don't have feet. You put your feet in a tank of fish, and they come and nibble off all the dead bits. But what happened was a fish bit a bit too hard, and it drew blood. And then from there it was a feeding frenzy!"

Crammed in with a group of Russians on the baht bus: "Shtoi! Shtoi! "

Caged birds for sale on the beach: you pay to release them, for all the good karma of it. But what the mark doesn't know is that they're trained to fly back to their owner, ready for another day's shift on the grift.

Seaweed-flavored Pringles chips: they're made in Malaysia.

This was OT's third trip to Thailand, and it was a great idea to begin at the beach before returning to the big, bustling city of Bangkok. But return to Bangkok we must, and we went as old friends, because it's the only truly open place in Asia between Hong Kong and India, no? We're at home at the Malaysia hotel and at the famous Babylon spa, which draws men from all over the continent and where we were able to keep up our swimming regimen in the perfect outdoor pool, and otherwise divert ourselves.

In Patpong, the absolute epicenter of the lights red, gay male entertainments rub shoulders and other body parts with the far more prevalent hetero attractions. On previous visits to the alleys Soi 2 and Soi 4, we've sampled acrobatic sex shows and muscle-boy clubs. This trip, we swing by the Telephone and Balcony bars, where you're apt to run into gay blades you know from the Occident; and visit the Jupiter Club in time to see the night-show, sip our watered-down drink, and eye the sullen go-go boys standing in poses of masculine lassitude. The bar boys are always proposing something imaginative. "I'm done with the sofa, I'm done with the hall!" They're pushing the envelope as well as the gin.

We've seen the reclining buddhas, the gilded temples, the Grand Palace. But we were surprised, when we told some friends and colleagues of our plans to return to the Land of Smiles, by a not-uncommon reaction: Oh, it's for a sex vacation, is it? Yes, we admit it, the prospect of easily available recreational (safe) sex with young Thai men (not boys) can clearly be part of the attraction. But the bigger draw is the country's colorful culture, its Buddhist practices, the food, the nightlife, the natural beauty. The people, and their utter divergence from entitled Americans. Their refreshing lack of guilt about sex and "original sin."

Gay liberation, for us at least, implies a certain lack of judgmentalism re others' lifestyle choices. OT believes, for example, that there is no hierarchy of merit for sexual orientations, tastes, or sexual acts. Hetero isn't better than homo. Chaste is not better than loose. Married is not more virtuous than single. For Out There, whatever gets you through the night - or in this case, across the International Date Line - it's alright. Sawadee kap!

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