CityNews – Years ago, one of the big attractions of Chiang Mai was the relaxed gay lifestyle, and gay scene. In 2013 that scene is almost unrecognisable from what it once was.
The Peak…in the past
Something has changed in Gay Chiang Mai; it’s not the same as it used to be. Saying this sure makes me feel old, but, whatever happened to the good old days? In recent months this has become a frequent topic of conversation with friends. Many in Chiang Mai’s gay sex-pat community won’t like what I have to say, though really deep down, most know it’s the truth; they just don’t want to hear it or accept it. The question is: where did all the nice boys go?
Perhaps ten plus years ago, one of the big attractions of Chiang Mai was the relaxed gay lifestyle. It was easy to meet other gay people, both Thai’s and Farangs and there were many nice boys around. Near the Night Bazaar was an area called The Peak with a group of small outdoor gay bars clustered around a climbing wall. A strange mix with macho climbers, camp gay queens and a few girlie bars too, but it worked. Sanook! The gay bars were a mixture too, ex-pats, tourists, money boys but above all, there were genuine Thai gay guys who wanted nothing more than to have fun. I also have the perception there were more younger gay farangs around then too. Of course, we were all younger back then; still more than a decade away from even qualifying for a retirement visa.
Certainly, there were some hard core prostitutes who hung out at The Peak bars to make a living. But, at least they were mainly gay and Thai (rather than straight hill tribe or Burmese boys which make up the majority of Chiang Mai’s male sex workers today). Then there were quite a few more that were there for sex, but who wouldn’t object if they got some pocket money along with the pleasure, or hooked a farang for a long term deal. Yet most importantly there were the friendly Thai gay guys there for a good time, whether with friends, or hunting alone. They weren’t looking for money, they were there to interact with others and enjoy themselves. And everyone did have a memorably good time.
Fast forward to 2013. What foreigners would call the “gay scene” is almost unrecognisable now. Aside from the obvious houses of prostitution, i.e. the go-go bars and massage shops which have changed little, the remaining so called “Gay Bars” have become almost 100% farang focused. They are totally devoid of, “nice boys” the regular Thai gays who a decade ago made Chiang Mai such a fun place to be.
Back in 2005 the night bazaar area was home to more than fifteen bars, and after midnight the gay crowd shifted to clubs like Hot Shots or Bubble before finishing up at Spicy, eMale, Relax or Mai Peang. Elsewhere there was an interesting selection of bars in Nimmanhaeminda, Chiang Mai Land and Chang Phuek areas too.
Now there are a mere handful of authentic gay bars spread across the different areas of town. Spicy morphed into le homophobia, Mai Peang sells flowerpots, eMale sells sofas and the Glass Onion shattered into the Cosmos. Even the legendary Doi Boy is now a cardboard box factory. To add further insult, two of Chang Puek’s less salubrious venues have now been “saved” – as houses of Christ! A sad indictment on a once thriving “gay scene”.
When you look at the reasons behind these changes there are two different perspectives; Farang and Thai. For Thais you have to look at the large social and economic changes the last decade has brought. Cool chic is in, prostitution is definitely out.
On one of my first trips to the North I was taken on a memorable day out to “meet the family”. After a four hour drive from Chiang Mai, partly along mud roads, we arrived in a picture postcard Thai village that looked like time forgot. The houses were wooden shacks, dirt roads were still plied by buffalo, the only electrical appliance was a florescent light and a communal bathroom served several families. The only kind of glass was that used for drinking Lao Khao.
For kids brought up in such villages, come their mid-teens the more macho ones went to work on the farm, but for some there was a trusted “Aunt” who would accompany them on the bus trip to Bangkok. Ostensibly to further their education, the real reasons for going were never a topic for conversation.
Visit the same village now, the dirt tracks are paved roads and the journey time reduced by an hour or two. The buffalo have morphed into pick-up trucks. A preponderance of the houses are now modern affairs with glazed windows, indoor bathrooms and hot showers.
When it comes to electrical appliances many have more gadgets than Siam TV’s showroom. Herein lies the important point. Not only have there been big economic improvements but the biggest change of all has been the information revolution. Today’s village teenagers weren’t brought up with Grandma’s stories, and the naughty games they played at boy scouts. They were brought up with hours of Thai Soap Operas! They have satellite TV, Laptops, internet, porn, social media, cam frog, and smart phones. They have their own understanding of what gay means and what lies beyond the rice paddy. The only way “Auntie” will get them to Bangkok now is via Air Asia for a shopping trip to Central Lat Phrao, or Siam Paragon. Wanna be a prostitute? No way!
For Thailand’s Farang visitors, social changes have also played a part in the demographics. Many grew up in times when “coming out” was not an option in their home countries due to the associated social stigma. Perhaps fifteen plus years ago, for those living a closeted existence back home, the discovery that they could come to Thailand and be themselves was a major attraction. The fact that eager young Thai companions were readily available at a modest cost of ownership was an added benefit. Though, for many older Farangs, gay, straight, out or closeted, the sex industry will likely remain part of Thailand’s lure for a few years to come, it is certainly in decline.
The social acceptance of gay people has changed remarkably in Europe, Australia and, though to a lesser extent and at a slower pace, in the US too. The need to stay closeted or hide in the ghetto no longer applies for many gays. Yet, just look at traditional western gay bars. Like their counterparts in Chiang Mai, many are bereft of the younger generation who simply have no need for gay bars anymore. Young western gays can socialise with friends anywhere without much of the abundant prejudice that existed not so long ago. There may even be some peer pressure to avoid the traditional gay haunts where the “old pervs” hang out; OK so perhaps prejudice isn’t dead!
The internet has had a profound effect on the gay lifestyle and psyche the world over. Not only has it been a source of information for Thai youth but also an enabling factor for gay Farang too. Whether they are looking for encouragement to come out, porn to stay in with, or information about where to go and what to do, the internet has it all. The mass media communications and the internet have also played an incalculable role in advancing gay rights over the last decade or two. Moreover, the internet and smart phones are fast replacing social interaction in bars as the number one way to hook up with people for casual sex and more. This applies as much in Thailand as it does in the west.
The Glass Onion
For westerners, understanding Thai culture and particularly the standing of gay people within the country’s social structure is not easy. The immediate impression that gay is acceptable here actually masks deep routed homophobia and lack of equality for gay people at many levels. A situation complicated by large numbers of Katoey or Ladyboys in Thailand which significantly confuses the gender identity discussion and propels mass media stereotypying. In the same way that prostitution has become more taboo, for all but the camp queens, perhaps so has the out and proud philosophy.
My observations in Chiang Mai suggest that whilst Thai gays are quite visible, the majority seem perhaps more conservative and discreet in their behaviour than ten years ago. Rightly or wrongly, the Farang gay bar scene is often perceived by gay Thais as orientated towards prostitution and an interpretation of “gay” with which the vast majority don’t want to be associated. After all, they can happily go out in mixed company for a night out in any of Chiang Mai’s hundreds of bars. Why go to a Farang bar where the average customer is over sixty, you can too easily be seen by others and you risk being labelled a prostitute?
That’s not to say Thai’s have abandoned gay bars as changes of the last couple of years have shown. Indeed, the opposite is true; with the opening of first See Man Pub and now G-Star vintage Thai gays finally have two decent clubs they can call their own. G-Star Vintage has taken the city by storm and, unlike the bars where gay farangs hang out, are packed every night with hundreds of young gay Thais having fun. The combination of late night, discreet locations and Thai style entertainment means even the more closeted Thais feel comfortable going there. There are also plenty of fun, gay friendly, Thai bars with a mixed clientele where gay Thais congregate. Yet strangely, apart from a handful of in the know ex-pats, all these Thai places are almost ignored by farangs. I guess many older guys find these very Thai style places outside their comfort zone.
So where did all the nice boys go? The answer is there are plenty still here, in fact with the city’s growing student and youth population, many more than ten years ago. You’ll find gay Thais all over Chiang Mai, in Thai bars, restaurants, clothes shops, coffee shops, hairdressers, malls, clubs, saunas, gyms and above all, on the internet. Everywhere that is, except for the gay bars where the old dinosaur farangs hang out whinging about the fact there are no “nice boys” anymore!
Whilst admittedly I feel a tinge of nostalgia for those good old days and the fun times we all enjoyed, it is not with sadness that I write this. On the contrary, although there is always a price to be paid for progress, the advances in gay rights are far more beneficial than the decline of the gay village ghetto. Of course, there is still a long way to go before true equality, and in some countries there are still mountains to climb in this respect.
Even in the so called gay paradise of Thailand, the legal and social changes necessary for real progress in the acceptance of gays will still take a long time to happen. And in Chiang Mai, as more gay foreigners from younger generations arrive, the traditional gay scene will undoubtedly change and evolve at an ever increasing rate. Increasingly, gay tourists, particularly the younger ones, are coming to Chiang Mai firstly because it is Chiang Mai the rose of the north, rather than because of its perceived attraction as a gay destination.
But, whilst we may champion the cause of gay rights, I wonder how long it will be before the human rights of hill tribe people and Burmese immigrants in Chiang Mai will have been restored to a level that they no longer have to resort to prostitution to earn a living?