This issue of
Citylife

Naked Bunch

I am sitting in a mineral bath with 10 naked people. As I’m sitting there, I’m imagining myself where I am now, in my office, fully clothed, in front of my computer, typing this sentence to kick off the story of my 24 hours as a naturist: “I am sitting in a mineral bath with 10 naked people.”

Enter the Naturists

Let’s back up and define our terms. What is a naturist? Well, it’s essentially an inter- changeable word for nudist, meaning one who prefers to live life without clothes, often with an added affinity for other natural things such as organic food and the great outdoors. For our purposes, I will use the terms interchangeably because I’m a writer and I like having more than one word for a thing.

Here’s something I bet you didn’t know: the Naturist Association of Thailand (NAT) is the largest online naturist meetup in the world, at over 1,440 members and counting. Led by organiser Bruce Kendall, a retired 60-something American nudist living in Pattaya, the group is steadily increasing its membership and vying to make Thailand a premier destination for clotheslessness.

Chan Resort, the country’s flagship clothing-optional mainstay and self-proclaimed “Most Naturist Friendly Resort in Thailand” is located in Pattaya, also the setting for the up-and-coming Sala Villas – the third naturist-friendly resort in Thailand – which is scheduled to open this month. But don’t get any ideas: despite Pattaya’s reputation for the seedy, these resorts tolerate no funny business. In fact, Chan’s homepage has a section at the bottom which states, “We are not an alternative lifestyle resort. There is a resort like this in Pattaya and if that is what you are interested in, we are sure you can find it on the net.”

Indeed, a quick Google led me straight to this so-called “alternative lifestyle” resort, along with a slew of articles about a police raid of a Pattaya “swingers orgy” in January of this year. But that is another story for another time.

Naturism, on the other hand, is a “wholesome, family affair,” according to Bruce. In commercial terms, this translates to a golden opportunity within the often oversaturated Thailand tourism market. “Naturists are quiet, polite, respectful, and they always come back,” says Bruce. “In fact, they have the highest return rate for any group of people.”

This is what convinced Paulo Richel, a French expat who says he is “not exactly a naturist, but open-minded” to launch Northern Thailand’s very first clothing-optional resort: The Oriental Village.

“There are over 150 resorts in Chiang Mai,” he told me. “I realised I had to do something different if I wanted success.” And so, in September of last year, Paulo opened his resort just 30 minutes east of Chiang Mai, in the gorgeous green rice bowl of Mae On.

A quick email exchange later and I am scheduled to attend The Oriental Village’s first Northern Thailand NAT meetup of the season. It was only then that the full reality of the situation hit me; I was going to spend a weekend at a nudist resort, which meant I had one of two options: I could be the prudish observer, fully clothed while looking down my nose at the nakeds, or I could drop my inhibitions (and my shorts) and throw myself into the fray.

Body Talk

The night before the event, I met up to drink wine with a few girlfriends. It wasn’t long before I brought up the inevitable.

“So, you guys, I have to go to a nudist resort tomorrow.”

Naturally, the first question was, “Are you gonna get naked?”

I told them honestly that I wasn’t sure yet, that I was planning on assessing the situation upon arrival and playing it by ear. But the more we talked (and drank), getting deep into our own individual histories of body shame and personal hang-ups, the more we all started to get excited about the idea.

“I think something like that could be good for me,” said one friend. “I’ve always struggled with my own body image, and to get naked in front of a bunch of nonjudgmental strangers sounds like it could be very liberating.”

Key word being nonjudgmental. It was then that I recounted the last time I was naked in semi-public, six years ago at a ladies-only bath house in Morocco with two friends from my study abroad programme. There, sitting awkward and anxious on the clammy floor, waiting for what appeared to be a very violent scrub-down, one of said “friends” looked over and sweetly informed me that my boobs were disproportionate to the rest of my body. “They’re weirdly small,” she said, as though commenting on an unseasonable rain.

Gee, thanks.

While I have by now developed a relatively confident and healthy attitude about my own body, disproportionate boobs and all, I can’t say it didn’t sting. Because the truth is that we’re all our own harshest critics, and hearing your own self-judgments spoken aloud by someone else is not exactly encouraging.

In fact, fear of judgment is a key reason why social nudism is often relegated to the older, bolder crowd. For teens and 20-somethings, the youthful combination of insecurity and vanity makes getting naked in front of peers (in a non-sexual way) a tough sell. However, growing numbers of active young naturists are attempting to change this. And one of their main goals is to combat preoccupations with the “perfect” airbrushed bodies we typically see in the media by exposing more people to “real” bodies in a positive and supportive environment.

As Young Naturists America cofounder Felicity Jones points out, women in particular could benefit greatly from being able to see what other real women look like naked, and “discover that human bodies are very diverse.” This, in turn, “helps them feel at ease in their own bodies,” she adds. “Social nudity can really help body image and that is a fact!”

As I sat there sipping wine, I realised that this experience could be more than just a journalistic expedition; it could be a personal opportunity.

“I think we’ve reached a conclusion,” my friend Suzanne said, pouring herself another glass of Mont Clair. “You can’t really write this story without getting naked.”

Eastbound and Down

Of course, in the sobering light of morning, without the buzz of wine and female validation, things felt a little different. As I rode my motorbike eastward towards my destination, my brain throbbed with fearful questions. Was I really going to do this? At what point would it be appropriate to disrobe? What if I saw someone I knew? What if the people were creepy? What if no one else showed up and it was just me and one or two old naked dudes?

I was feeling a bit lightheaded as I made my way down the final stretch, along a dusty path tucked between cornfields and rice paddies, dodging chicken families and dogs sunbathing in the middle of the road. When I reached the resort, I could do nothing but steel myself and step through the carved wooden gates.

And there they were: the naturists. Several middle-aged men and women (phew!) were arranged around the outdoor pool, chatting quietly, swimming and basking in the sunlight, all naked or topless. A middle-aged white man with grey hair and a goatee waved me over.

“Welcome!” he said, shaking my hand from his position in the pool as I tried to maintain strict eye contact. This was Bruce Kendall, NAT’s organiser and head cheerleader. Immediately, despite the fact that I was standing defenseless in front of an old naked man, his friendly nature and willingness to share put me at ease. We introduced ourselves, and after a bit of small talk I began asking about the origins of his naturism.

Bruce told me he’s had “tendencies” since childhood, when neighbours used to call his mother to report sightings of him, escaped from the backyard and “walking bare-ass naked down the street.” In other words, naturism came, well, naturally for Bruce.

“It’s how you feel about yourself,” he added. “I’ve never really felt that seeing a nude body was a sexual statement.”

But it can be an empowering one. Back when he was living in North Carolina, Bruce used to go to nudist resorts regularly. His now ex-wife wasn’t into it, but one time, the youngest of his five daughters, who was 14 at the time, decided to join him.

“She was a plump girl and still is,” he told me. “When we were driving home from the resort, she said, ‘Dad, do you know why I like going there? Because it’s the only place where nobody makes fun of my body.’”

Indeed, as I looked around the pool at the other naturists – Bruce’s Thai-American wife Jai, Robert from Australia, Shan from India, Wan and Sherry from Malaysia – I quickly noted that none of them had anything close to the typical supermodel body types we are permitted to see disrobed in movies and magazines. No one was even attempting to suck in their stomachs. Everyone was just…being. And there was something uniquely disarming about that.

At another naturist meet-up at the Chan Resort, Bruce met a woman who had survived breast cancer, thanks to a double mastectomy. “The fact that she was able to show that without shame was so brave,” he recalled. “And nobody judged her because it’s a judgment-free zone. At a naturist meet-up, we don’t even spend much time looking at each other’s bodies. A person’s heart and mind become more interesting than anything else.”

The Naked Truth

After a clothed trip to the local market (naturists are not exhibitionists, I was told – they’re fine with wearing clothes in public places), we all settled down in the open-air restaurant for dinner. The members showed up in various states of undress, from the fully nude Bruce to the bottomless Wan (interesting choice) to the fully clothed (belt and all!) Shan. I was still mostly clothed at this point (the dinner table didn’t feel like the best place for the big reveal), but no one was pressuring.

Paulo served up a fabulous Thai-style feast and everyone was in a good mood and keen to chat as we slurped spicy curry and sipped boxed wine. Wan and Sherry told me it was their first time trying “social nudism.” Until now, they had only practiced clotheslessness in the comfort of their home.

I asked them how they were liking it so far, and Sherry answered without hesitation. “It’s great! We already feel like we’ve known everyone forever. I think because no one is judging you. You feel really free.”

We chatted about the cultural implications of being a naturist in a relatively conservative country like Thailand, where there are no official nude beaches and a display of public nakedness warrants a 500 baht fine, along with a dose of public outrage (remember the naked motorbikers?). But really, Thailand isn’t much more priggish than, say, America, where in 13 states one skinny dip can land you on the sex offender registry for life.

“Some Thais frown upon nudism, just as more conservative populations anywhere tend to do,” said Bruce. “But it wasn’t always this way.”

A brief history break: back when Thailand was still Siam, both men and women tended to go topless with a pakama (basically a sarong) wrapped around their waists. Then, when Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram (the one responsible for changing Siam to Thailand) seized power in 1932, he began to enforce a new definition of “Thai culture” by disseminating flyers decreeing new fashion rules that he declared more “civilised.” Pakama were discouraged and western wear, including “proper shirts and skirts,” was vigorously promoted.

“This is Thai culture,” stated the flyers. “That is not.”

Meanwhile, in Europe, nudism is thriving and has been for some time. Perhaps the best example of this is the French Mediterranean city of Cap d’Agde, whose family-style Village Naturiste resort takes in about 40,000 visitors a day during high season. It’s essentially a self-contained town in which everyone has the right to be nude, whether eating, dancing, camping, swimming, or shopping for groceries.

“Imagine a city where everybody’s naked!” said Paulo, the only one at the table who had been there. “It’s Mecca for naturists. You have to go at least once in your life.”

“It’s on my bucket list,” agreed Bruce.

Let’s Not Talk About Sex

I asked the group what they consider the most common misconception about naturism. “That it’s just about sex,” Bruce replied. “This is probably the most common and the most untrue.”

He explained the strict codes of conduct required by NAT’s online meetup group. “You can be naked in your profile picture, but if it’s just a picture of your genitals, we won’t hesitate to kick you out,” he said. “NAT is not about swingers or perverts, and we are careful about screening people who are looking for this kind of thing, and directing them elsewhere. If naturism means sex to you, you won’t last long in our community.”

Indeed, naturists are quick to point out that a consistent lack of clothing actually desexualises us in many ways. Without clothes, nothing is highlighted or hidden. Everything is just there, out in the open. And when it’s always there, it’s not such a big deal.

“Here’s an interesting point,” Bruce added. “Think about it. When teenage boys see any kind of near-exposure, they go out of their minds. This is normal society today. Imagine those boys if they were brought up in a naturist family. They wouldn’t have this overblown reaction that’s continually pumped into the media, like, ‘Look at Lady Gaga!’ Big deal, get over it.”

Off With Your Clothes

As dinner drew to a close, Bruce suggested we all head down to the pool for a skinny dip. By this point, tipsy again on boxed wine and buoyed by all the pro-naturist sentiments, I was ready to join in. It was dark – low visibility – so it felt like a safe icebreaker. Afterwards, as everyone headed back to their bungalows, I practiced walking naked in the dark up and down the pathway. “These people might be onto something,” I said to myself. It felt pretty liberating.

The next morning, it was time to head to the Sankampaeng Hot Springs. Paulo booked a private bath house (public nudity is not allowed there) while the rest of us boiled quail eggs in the sulphur pool and Wan cracked jokes about boiling his own “eggs” (no one said naturists were immune to middle school humour).

Before I knew it, we were in the hut and the tub was filling up. All the men had hopped in, nude as the news, while I remained perched on the edge with the other women, who were slightly more hesitant. We looked at each other and suddenly Jai stripped down to nothing and plunged in. The rest of us opted to go topless – I was still new at this and the quarters felt a little close. So there I was, where we began our story, sitting in a mineral bath with 10 naked people. But this time, unlike that time in Morocco, no one was making comments about my boobs. Jai passed out dollops of tamarind scrub and we all just chatted and relaxed in the soothing minerals.

Back at the resort, feeling newly liberated, I headed down to the pool for the final step: going totally nude in broad daylight. With one fell swoop the towel was off and there I was, naked as I’ve ever been, settled into a lounger as the sun melted away my offending tan lines. After lunch, the others joined me and Sherry, who had also gone only topless up to this point, told me she was inspired by my bravery (!) and opted to join me in bucknakedness.

The water and sun felt good against my skin and as I looked around at the imperfect bodies bobbing along in the pool beside me, I realised how easy it could be. This is what we are, just a group of humans enjoying a warm Thailand afternoon in the pool. No uncomfortable bikini tops digging into our shoulders, no panic about losing our bottoms in an overzealous swan dive, and best of all, no fear about the judgments of others. How stupid, this constant obsession with hiding ourselves, this constant fear of exposure. How freeing to let it all go.

Sherry looked over at me and smiled. “This isn’t as scary as I thought it would be,” she said. “But I feel empowered, don’t you? I feel like if I can be this daring, I can do anything!”

NAT: www.thailandnaturist.com

The Oriental Village: www.orientalvillage-chiangmai.com