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On the approach to the brand new Bangkok International Airport, rice fields dotted with scattered temples and canals come into view. Nothing prepares you for the urban mash-up to come. Oozing tropical heat, teeming with some 10 million people, and exuding exotic style fused with the insane glamour of Tokyo's youth culture, this phantasmagoric collection of old villages and hypermodern communities soon will take you.
A giggling group of party boys passes a row of monks who are on their way to collect alms. It's Sunday, approaching midnight, and a gay squad has taken over Bangkok's hippest spot. The Bed Supperclub and its all-white decor throbs with electro delivered by a Dutch DJ, and upper-crust guys dance to the ripping beats. Edward Enscoe (the organizer of "Think Pink," tonight's gay Sunday bash) and I are trying to grab a drink, but the bartender is surrounded by young execs on their last hedonistic escape before the first Monday morning meeting. When we retire to the upper floor to take in the body expo below, we find the music has its grip on us too. Later, en route to an unofficial after-hours joint, Edward confidently sums up Bangkok: "It's Asia's premier gay destination!"
Indeed, Bangkok has stopped reapplying heavy makeup, gotten rid of that too-short minidress, and become a chic diva donning a sleek little black number. The city's throbbing nightlife scene is emancipating itself from the notoriously sleazy money-boy bars. Always a gay-friendly city, Bangkok is morphing into a truly attitude-free place where anything goes, as long as it involves a bit of glamour and fun. Grant Thatcher, publishing editor of the edgy Luxe City Guides, loves to come to Bangkok to soak up its style. "They don't call it the Big Mango for nothing," he says. "It's fruity!"
Asia's gay capital since the 1970s, Bangkok is as accepting as ever. The local club kids don't care about politics when the sun goes down, and Thai society doesn't differentiate between straight and gay. Buddhism, which is deeply embedded in everyday Thai life, has always been the mediator with regard to social differences, and thus, where gaps in understanding exist, acceptance takes over. An ethos of eternal transience keeps everything but basic values in flux. Strictly distinguished stereotypes are foreign to most Thais; gender roles are fluid or evolving. The only people staring at the stunning "ladyboy" transsexuals are the Bangkok novices (so don't stare; just smile as you pass).
Never mind September's military coup--the junta that attempts to refashion Thailand as temperate manages to keep corrupt police forces from raiding clubs. Never mind the 2 a.m. closing time--tiny after-hours venues (missing from any guidebooks, with owners trying hard to keep it that way) are opening almost monthly. Never mind drooling pensioners out for cheap sex--nightlife spots outside the Silom Road district are maturing into destinations for Bangkok's urbane beauties. And never mind machismo--the lesbian scene is finally, if slowly, eschewing the tried-and-true (and tired) Asian teahouse culture.
"One night in Bangkok"--that weary conceit that has had millions of visitors looking for cheap thrills, bad drugs, and worse drinks--is on its deathbed. The real Bangkok is alive. So much so, in fact, that affluent Singaporeans fly in for party weekends, even though their own city never closes and has developed into one of Asia's most popular gay destinations. Always on the quest for something new, they have been invading Thailand's capital for the last two years or so, mingling with the always smiling locals: drinking at the Room, a hot-pink shop house converted into a funky joint for the young (or at least those who get away with looking the part); partying at NEO Bar, the sleeker annex of Bangkok's fiercest club, DJ Station; eating at hip bistros that have banned fusion cuisine; and shopping at the glitzy Siam Paragon, which boasts the chic Euro-boutiques, restaurants, movie theaters--and even an aquarium--that would befit one of Southeast Asia's biggest malls.
Yes, gay Bangkok is growing up. Silom Soi 4, one of the scene's mainstays, is still open night after night, but it is peopled by shoddy tourists and the locals who serve them. On the surface, Bangkok may seem stuck in the global gay mainstream--endless Madonna remixes, topless Muscle Marys hoping for a late-night hookup. Gradually, though, a community is developing without these influences. "Finally, an alternative scene is emerging for queer folk," says Gene, a gay Thai who's a member of Thailand's hottest band, Futon. "So many are bored of not having any choices in this so-called gay paradise. It's time to revolutionize."
Gene's band is behind one of the most popular theme nights at Bed Supperclub. "Rehab" blends electro, punk, and bubblegum pop and serves it to a crowd that doesn't care about gender, sexuality, or orientation. Dude/Sweet is a loose collaboration of party promoters that organizes events at various venues where it doesn't matter whether you're pre-op, glitter lesbian, or straight-edge hetero. Designers, editors, art students, and other tastemakers rock the wee hours away.
Even the ladies are coming out of the clubbing closet. Traditionally ignored in Thailand, affluent young lesbians have found two new glam homes in the past few months: cozy Zeta, the first women-only bar with nightly live music; and Shela, a slick two-story space that is more grown-up by comparison but is pumping almost every night of the week.
Apinya Sor Pumarin, a transvestite Muay Thai kickboxer fights American boxer Anthony DeMaio in Bangkok
GYENT, a Web-based organization created by Edward Enscoe, aims to "organize activities and events for affluent and professional Thai and expatriate gays." It stages regular parties and events, creating a sense of community that has been missing in Bangkok. Coming-out groups and self-help centers are unknown in this family-based culture. Many of GYENT's members don't live in the city but are looking for the insiders' scene so they can get away from the tourist traps. James, an Australian, is a frequent visitor to Bangkok and hasn't "partied anywhere near Silom lately, thanks to a couple of guys that were willing to introduce me and my partner to a Bangkok that is bit more real."
But one need not be hip to party in or enjoy Bangkok. The old city is as dazzling as ever in the daytime. The grand temples, royal palaces, parks, and museums still attract millions of visitors annually, and deservedly so, but once you've seen them, you won't necessarily feel the urge to revisit them. The new thing to do is experience "the Kok" by bicycle; several operators offer extensive bike tours. When it comes to art, skip the national museum and head to the Thailand Creative and Design Center for edgy multimedia exhibitions. A stroll through the city's myriad art galleries will introduce you to local painters and designers who shun Western influences.
Indeed, boutique is the new buzzword here. From quaint riverside resorts and five-table restaurants to art-house cinemas and underground gay parties, Thais are giving up globalism and rediscovering the beauty of all things bespoke and small. Decadence isn't out yet--it's too much sanuk ("fun"). However, whether at happening bashes or hole-in-the-wall eateries--gay, lesbian, or straight--Bangkok is coming into its own.
(Dial 011-66 before all numbers) The Kok’s hotel landscape brims with gems of all calibers. For the last 130 years, the riverside Mandarin Oriental Bangkok (48 Oriental Avenue, 02-659-9000, from $289) is the place to stay in town. The bespoke guest services department knows what your morning pick-me-up is, what flowers you’re allergic to, and how many cushions you’ll throw off your bed. Tread in the footsteps of W. Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Gore Vidal--former guests who all have sumptuous suites named after them. The Four Seasons (155 Rajdamri Road, 02-250-1000, from $280) satisfies well-moneyed globetrotters with a camp lobby complete with silk ceilings. Oversized, immaculate rooms are sprinkled with Thai elements. Some of Bangkok’s most-lauded restaurants overlook the hotel’s lap pool (the city’s largest). The sleek Metropolitan (27 South Sathorn Road, 02-625-3333, from $240) is just as hip as its London sister, and even more minimalist. Low-key lovers have no other choice but one of the three all-white rooms at tiny Ibrik Resort (256 Soi Wat Rakang, Arunamarin Road, 02-848-9220, $100) overlooking the Chao Phraya River and the Grand Palace. Campy Reflections (81 Soi Ari, Phaholyothin 7 Road, 02-270-3344, from $71) is a beach hotel gone gaga--each room and suite is individually designed by loony pop artists.
Doing a dinner cruise is a must--and the one offered by Manohra (02-477-0770) is one of the best. Prime, at the sparkling Millennium Hilton (123 Charoennakorn Road, 02-442-2000), is Bangkok’s new sizzling steak house. Brunches aren’t as gay as the ones in Chelsea, but they are the best way to spend that lazy Sunday, and the brunch at the Four Seasons (155 Rajdamri Road, 02-250-1000, $60) is the most fabulous of ‘em all. Hemlock (56 Pra Athit Road, 02-282-7507) lures in the pink and purple crowd with great fusion food, eclectic art, a homey feel and low prices. Eat Me (Soi Pipat 2, Convent Road, 02-238-0931) is known for globally influenced cuisine served by gay young things beneath amazing art. Tamarind Cafe (Sukhumvit Soi 20, 02-663-7421) is the place for delicious vegetarian food.
Experience Vertigo (the grill, that is) while sipping Asian martinis at the open-air Moon Bar (21/100 S. Sathon Rd., 011-66-2-679-1200), located atop the Banyan Tree hotel. The Diplomat Bar (Conrad Bangkok, 87 Witthayu, a.k.a. Wireless, Road, 011-66-2-690-9999) delivers perfect cocktails and sumptuous jazz in a very stylish setting. You can’t go wrong with a killer drink at the cruisy Telephone pub (Silom Soi 4). Love it or hate it, nobody leaves Bangkok before partying at always packed DJ Station (Silom Soi 2). Go local and try out any of the bar strips around either the Or Tor Kor market (near the Chatuchak Weekend Market) or Ramkhamhaeng Soi 91, a street out in the burbs. (If you go, prepare to being ogled by local Bangkok boys--visitors are make their way here.) North of Lumphini (alternately spelled Lumpini or Lampinee) Park, Sarasin Road is teeming with pan-Asian guys barhopping between the Room, an upscale ’70s bar, and Zarazine (neither lists a phone number). The Tunnel (Lang Suan Soi 5), the place to go after all the other clubs have closed, has a mixed crowd that doesn’t care about sexual orientation. Zeta (on Royal City Avenue, or RCA for short; 011-66-2-203-0994) is a happening, women-only bar featuring pop-rock bands. Shela (106/12-13 Lang Suan Soi 1; 011-66-2-254-6463), another girl bar, takes it up a notch with lively parties. Omnisexual Bed Supperclub (26 Sukhumvit Soi 11; 011-66-2-651-3537) is still going strong after four years; prepare for very heavy screening at the door. (No flip-flops!) GYENT.com and DudeSweet.org both organize gay parties. And though touristy, tranny cabarets seem to amaze everybody--Mambo (Washington Theatre, 22–24 Sukhumvit Rd., 011-66-2-259-5128) is the best of the lot.
If the dazzling Grand Palace (Na Phra Lan Road, 02-222-0094) proves too overwhelming, head for the tropical charm of the Jim Thompson House (6 Soi Kasemsam 2, 02-216-7368). Go and shop your heart out, darling--Siam Paragon (Rama I Road) delivers deadly fixes for shopaholics and glamettes. The eye-popping exhibitions at the TCDC (The Emporium, 622 Sukhumvit Road, 02-664-8448) are the perfect cure for hangovers. Both Grasshopper Adventures and SpiceRoads run bicycle tours around Bangkok, be it a morning trip along palatial back roads or a whole new way to see a floating market. Lumphini Park has been called the “Central Park of the Tropics” and offers free sunset aerobics classes, cool jogging tracks with sweeping views over skyscrapers, and small pedal boats (but cruising is out, thanks to the police). Bangkok is also home to competitively priced spa venues delivering first-rate treatments. The Devarana (Dusit Thani Hotel, 946 Rama IV Road, 02-636-3596) is considered to be Bangkok’s best. Spa aficionados come here for expert therapists, award-winning body scrubs, and ever-changing specials. Ananda (Sukhumvit Soi 11, 02-255-7200) offers unforgettable treatments in a candle-lit luxury den. Take your better half along for their amazing couple’s retreat. Both spas offer treatments designed specifically for men.