travel

Old-school Thai: Does Thailand live up to its reputation?

Attitude's Matt Cain takes a look

2018-02-05

Thailand is known around the world for its delicious food, unspoilt beaches and the warm welcome it extends to gay tourists. Matt Cain travels to Bangkok, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan to see whether the country lives up to its reputation.

As our taxi sets off from Bangkok airport, I’m bombarded by billboards carrying images of the Thai king. Our driver tells us that he died nearly 10 months ago now but the country is still in mourning. Clearly, the Thai people are very attached to their royal family.

Without wanting to be disrespectful, I find myself worrying that if the country’s in mourning, my holiday might not be what I was hoping; I’m here with a friend to get away from the stresses of work and really want to relax for 10 days.


Golden Glow: The Temple of Dawn, in Bangkok

As it happens, I have nothing to worry about.

I’ve never been to Bangkok before but soon discover that, like many Asian cities, it mixes the new with a smattering of the old; modern high-rise office and apartment blocks (not to mention countless branches of 7-Eleven) jostle for space with low-rise buildings that may look tatty but offer a glimpse into the city’s intriguing past. My favourite area is the neighbourhood near Chinatown, where the streets are lined with trees and the alleyways bustle with the activity of street markets.

One major downside is I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city so choked by traffic and we soon discover that getting around Bangkok by car is a constant challenge. But this negative is easily outweighed by the wealth of positives, not least of which is the city’s thriving gay scene. With such a calm, peaceful and tolerant culture, the capital of Thailand has become the undisputed hub of gay Asia.


Relaxed: Matt Cain

Much of the inspiration for some of the more outrageous anecdotes about gay Bangkok can be found in the gay red-light district on Soi Pratuchai; here you can watch live sex shows and hire boys after watching them go-go dance on stage. We dip in briefly but are upset by the sight of teenagers in underwear shuffling around podiums looking dead behind the eyes.

Instead, we head to Silom Soi 4, a street just a few blocks away which is home to most of the city’s mainstream gay bars. Venues such as The Stranger and Telephone may seem a little uncool compared with those in major Western cities but they’re friendly, unpretentious and great fun.

Around 11pm most of the regulars move on to a club called DJ Station, just a few streets away on Silom Soi 2. Although to call it a club is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more a whole street of clubs with customers spilling out on to the pavement in between. We spot a dance club, a drag club, a cabaret club, a karaoke club and a cocktail bar, all of which are packed with young gay men from all over Asia – and there’s a lot of love for Westerners.


Wat A Sight: The Temple of Wat Pho is the largest in Bangkok and is known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage

Thankfully, we’re relieved to find that, with such a busy scene, there isn’t much sightseeing to be done -- although on our second day we do explore some of the better-known temples with a local tour guide called Chris, who educates us about the Buddhist way of life, beliefs and ceremonies.

Doing the tour with stonking hangovers feels slightly disrespectful, and the need to wear long trousers in the sweltering humidity doesn’t help. But as a hangover cure I can recommend drinking the fresh coconut juice that’s sold in the grounds of most temples and on the majority of street corners.

Highlights of our tour include the Temple of the Golden Buddha, the centerpiece of which dates from the 15th or 16th century and is set in a vast hall decorated with intricate handmade carvings and paintings of lotus flowers; the Temple of Dawn, which features a breathtakingly ornate tiered tower decorated with ceramics that bear images of angels, demons and monkeys; and the Temple of Wat Pho, the biggest and oldest temple in Bangkok which includes a 48m-long reclining buddha that’s too big to photograph and dominates an ornate hall painted with scenes from Buddha’s past lives.


Icon: The Temple of the Golden Buddah

Our guide also takes us on a trip on a long-tail boat. This begins on the Chao Phraya river, which is surprisingly quiet and lined with palaces, temples, a hospital and parks. We turn off the river and sail along several pretty canals lined with mango trees and rickety wooden homes built on stilts, with balconies and terraces that stretch out over the water. Reclining on these are enormous iguanas and lizards, while herons stalk up and down, eyeing up the fat catfish that wriggle around in the water.

We end our tour feeling charmed and fascinated by our two days in Bangkok, a city we decide is underrated and terrific fun.

Our next destination is Koh Samui, which was known for a long time as a quiet paradise island but is now more developed. However, it hasn’t been spoilt and the gorgeous sandy beaches are still quiet enough for you to find a stretch all to yourself.


Idyll: Koh Phangan boasts beautifuk, quiet beaches

A lot of the tourism on Samui is high-end and luxurious but still affordable. And the food and drink is cheap – as are the massages, which are on offer everywhere. The main roads off the beaches are sometimes rough around the edges, with low-hanging electricity cables trailing everywhere, but they allow you a peek into the lives of the locals and give the island authenticity and soul.

Most of the nightlife on Samui is centred around Chaweng, the principal town and tourist hub on the island. The main street here looks a bit like Magaluf, albeit with men walking up and down offering photos with lizards and iguanas, and ladyboys trying to entice you into cabaret shows. But these approaches are friendly and respectful and if you’re drinking you don’t feel the threat of exploitation.

There are only a few specifically gay bars in the town, although most are gay-friendly – and you can walk around the streets holding hands with a member of the same sex without fear of hassle. The busiest gay bar we find is Pride, which has video screens playing chart pop if you want to let lose your inner Britney, and a pool table if you’re feeling masc. Here, locals mix with tourists and if you find yourself feeling frisky, there are plenty of opportunities to scratch the itch.


Pearly Queen: Matt on a night out in Bangkok

If you prefer, there are even more options on Grindr, although watch out for the acronym MB, which is used so regularly here that no one explains it, and stands for Money Boy. That is, if you don’t want to be slapped with a bill after a hook-up.

Another highlight of our stay on Samui is a day trip to the Angthong National Marine Park. An hour-long trip on a speedboat takes us there and when we arrive, we discover a collection of small islands which feel totally cut off from the rest of the world. Their beauty is breathtaking, as is the quiet calm they offer visitors.

Our first activity in Angthong is snorkeling. We drop anchor and one by one, our party slides into the water. We spot fish and turtles among the coral but it’s not what we see but the glorious setting that really makes the experience special. Even the skipper playing Westlife over the boat’s PA can’t spoil it.

Later, we zip around the islands and moor up at the largest to disembark our speedboat and explore. There’s very little development here, just a few lunch venues and toilets. We climb up a mountain to enjoy the view down on to a salt-water lagoon and it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen. Once we’ve climbed back down, we relax on the deserted beaches and splash around in the shallow water that feels like the proverbial hot bath. This is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience and the kind of place that inspired the hashtag #nofilter.

After leaving Samui, our next stop on the is Koh Phangan, which everyone tells us is what Samui was like before it became more popular with tourists. We have the option of visiting in time for the famous Full Moon Party but decide, for once in our lives, to be age appropriate and leave the hardcore partying to the youngsters.

As we wait for the ferry to take us there the next day and the previous passengers disembark, we’re subjected to a sorry spectacle of every last traveller cliché: nose piercings, fisherman’s pants, flip flops, hair braids, and yes, endless tie-dye. The travellers themselves look the worse for wear, stinking of booze and fags and gurning maniacally as the drugs they’ve taken wear off. We congratulate ourselves on making the right decision.


Unspoilt: Mu Ko Angthong National Park

Once we’ve had chance to settle in, we discover that Phangan is indeed slower-paced than Koh Samui, with even more stretches of beautiful, deserted beach. It’s the ideal destination if you’re looking for peaceful seclusion with a boyfriend. We soon slip into a mood of quiet reflection and can feel ourselves benefitting from the opportunity to ponder on our lives back home.

The main town of Thong Sala is the only disappointment of our time on Phangan. This is overrun with scabby dogs and more traveller clichés and all we can find to eat is burger, pizza and full-English breakfasts.

We much prefer Haad Rin, a lovely little village near to the port where our ferry docked. This is criss-crossed with quiet dusty streets offering views into Thai homes and businesses. There are several little restaurants and we eat in the no-frills No Name, where it feels as if we’re sitting in a family’s front room. The mother of the family does the cooking and she treats us to the best meal of our holiday. And that really is saying something.

It’s here in Haad Rin that we discover the Ko Phangan that people raved about. After dinner, we stroll on to the beach and discover a row of bars offering comfy seating and cushions for you to stretch out and look up at the sky while the waves lap the shore, and flame-throwers perform silhouetted against the sea. The atmosphere here is magical and after a few drinks we find ourselves dancing barefoot on the sand by the light of the moon. It’s a joyous experience and a great end to our holiday.

The Thailand we discovered is an amazing country with a rich, unique history. As we prepare to leave, I remember that someone told us it’s the only country in South East Asia that was never colonised and therefore has a name meaning land of the free. And for a glorious10 days it really did make us feel free. And that’s a special feeling we’ll cherish for a long time.

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@inclusiveretreat

WHERE WE STAYED

The LIT Bangkok
This stylish hotel feels homely even though it has seven floors of rooms. The LIT is a hidden delight, tucked away from the busy main roads of the capital and featuring a spa, gym and infinity pool. A perfect fit for Attitude readers, it also offers the best welcome pack we’ve ever seen, including items that are actually useful such as aftersun, a plug adaptor and mosquito repellant. A winner on every front.
litbangkok.com

Sensimar, Ko Samui
Opened just one year ago, Sensimar Samui offers tourists rooms and villas, each with a private pool, some of them looking out to the beach, others more secluded for couples wanting privacy. This is an adults-only resort – so you don’t have to worry about annoying kids clogging up the gorgeous infinity pool. And it’s quite coupley but not too straight; we spotted a handful of gay couples canoodling on the sun loungers. There’s an army of staff catering to your every whim, sunrise and sunset yoga classes as well as a gym and spa and one of the best breakfasts we’ve ever had. Idyllic.
sensimarsamui.com

The Coast, Ko Phangan
This slightly older resort was the prototype for Sensimar Samui and has equally well maintained gardens and grounds and an equally gorgeous infinity pool overlooking its own stretch of beach. Around Full Moon parties it caters to a younger crowd, the straight kind who get rowdy over cocktails at the swim-up bar and arrive for breakfast ten minutes before the buffet closes. The rest of the time it’s a quiet delight.
thecoastphangan.com