Thailand – How Long Can Its Gay Tourism Appeal Last?
Thailand is a land of contrasts, nowhere more obvious than when it comes to sex
Centuries ago it was the custom for men and woman to walk about almost totally nude apart from a small covering around the genitals. As late as the 1880s an American visitor was “shocked almost beyond endurance at the nudity of the people,” adding ominously, “Not until Siam is clothed need she expect a place among the respectable, civilized nations.” Even in the early years of the 20th century it was perfectly common for women to walk around Bangkok topless. Polygamy was also widely practiced. Another visitor around this time, a British school inspector John Campbell, was horrified at Thai men’s sexual behaviour. He put it down to the climate. “In the hot regions of the earth sensual indulgence is far more prevalent!” Nice one, Mr. Campbell!
Unlike China and Japan, there appear to be few western accounts of homosexuality in old Siam. It was the excesses of heterosexual sex that caused such unease amongst western visitors. One reason may be that the labels homosexual, bisexual, and heterosexual are Western concepts and do not exactly fit traditional social terminology in Thailand. Some Thai euphemisms obliquely make reference to homosexuality, such as “playing with friends”, and these references go well back beyond the last millennium. But as far as I am aware, until a few decades ago there were no Thai words with the meaning “gay”, “homosexual” or “sexual orientation”. 500 years after the start of the cover-ups in Europe, it finally dawned on Thais that they needed to conform more to western customs. So the great Thai cover-up started.
According to wikipedia, there is a general feeling among Thais that “prostitution has always been, and will always be a part of the social fabric of Thailand.” For centuries Thai male teenagers visiting female prostitutes for a first experience of sex has been more or less a rite of passage.” In 1989 the Thai Ministry of Public Health estimated that 4.2 million men visited commercial sex workers. Goodness knows what the number is today!
Yet prostitution is illegal! So when you visit a go-go bar and take that boy of your dreams off for a good time, you are technically not permitted to agree a fee in advance. What you tip at the end remains just that: a tip, not a payment for sexual services. Such is one of the niceties of Thai logic. Of course, everyone knows precisely what is happening, but Thais have a habit of turning a blind eye when it suits them, the more so when significant amounts of “tea money” are paid to permit the trade to continue. It is this double standard between what is acceptable and what is legally not acceptable that has helped create a thriving commercial sex trade.
When you visit Thailand it’s not really important to understand there are essentially two standards: one for Thais and one for tourists, for you will rarely if ever see behind the veil of Thai morality. But it is important to realise that the commercial sex tourism industry is a relatively new phenomenon. It developed and mushroomed during the Vietnam War. Pattaya was then just a sleepy seaside village with few western influences. When Utapao south of Pattaya was turned into a major US base for B52s flying bombing missions into nearby Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Pattaya and Bangkok soon welcomed vast numbers of servicemen. Officially these were rest and recreation breaks. The GIs themselves preferred the term “I&I” – “intercourse and intoxication!”
Obviously this trade in sex and booze resulted in a major source of income for parts of the Thai economy. When the war ended, some entrepreneurs sought to protect that income by replacing it with income from the tourists who were now starting to come to Thailand in greater numbers. At first it was booze and girlie bars. It soon expanded into booze and boy bars. By the end of the millennium one source reckons this new sex tourism brought the country US$4 billion per year.
Whilst most of us consider Thailand one of the most gay-friendly countries, we often fail to grasp that there are further contradictions in Thai society. Consider these examples. Five years ago three young Thai girls were arrested for dancing bare-breasted during the annual Songkran celebrations. As everyone knows, this is a time when people are out on the streets celebrating wildly. The Ministry of Culture criticized the girls’ behaviour as being unbecoming to the image of Thailand. It was then discovered the opening page of the Ministry’s website featured a painting of three Thai girls – nude from the waist up! Immediately this was taken down, but not before one bright spark had captured a screen shot.
Then there is a recent poll taken amongst 15 to 24 year olds. This found that 56% believed homosexuality to be wrong. Yet one of the most common genres in Thai movies aimed at the younger generation features burgeoning love interests between schoolboys!
Another example is gay tourism. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has a website aimed specifically at LGBT travellers. “Go Thai, Be Free”. Yet since 2001 government ministers have attacked the whole business of sex-related tourism in the country, notably the Social Order campaigns of the now-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Opinion polls found the restrictions these placed on night-time entertainment were popular with most Thais.
The present Tourism Minister even announced the government intends to abolish the sex industry. “Tourists don’t come to Thailand for sex,” she claimed. “They come for our beautiful culture. We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone.” So gay tourists visit for the beaches! Yet, how do you promote gay tourism without having at least some night-time entertainment specifically geared towards gay men? Such contradictions all somehow fit Thai logic!
For those who remember Thailand in its gay heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it’s clear the whole gay scene is slowly evolving away from go-go bars, not a few of which have closed for good, especially in the Sunee Plaza district of Pattaya. How much really results from the desire of Thais to finally rid themselves of the sex tourism appellation and how much to the rapid increase in social networking sites with the consequent ease of meeting similarly minded guys, is very hard to say. One thing is sure, though. Despite the popular image, Thailand remains a very conservative society. Ladies may have walked around topless 100 years ago. Today that goes “against Thai culture”. Missionaries may not have caused as much damage as in China and Japan, but encroaching western views on morality certainly have. For now, the country remains a haven for gay tourists. For how much longer? Who knows?