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Martin Foreman

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Almost gay Isaan

Khon Kaen Maha Sarakham Nakhon Ratchasima Roi Et Ubon Ratchathani Udon Thani

June 2008 (updated January 2010): In four years in Thailand I'd only made two fleeting visits to Isaan - the primarily agricultural and poor north-east of the country. It was time to finally visit.

To the outsider, Thai culture is much of a muchness, but Thais themselves are very aware of the differences between the four main regions - north, north-east, central and south. In the past, when the Thai kingdom stretched much further than its current boundaries, the people of Isaan had more in common with their neighbours across
the Mekong River than with the inhabitants of Bangkok. They were separated in the late 19th century, when France bullied Siam into giving up the land that would later become Laos. Minor resentments remain. Most Thais secretly believe that Laos should be Thai, while Laos, proud of their independence, privately wish that Isaan were Lao.

The people of Isaan, meanwhile, don't care, as long as they retain their distinctive culture - their music, dance and food. Of course they adore their monarch as ardently as other Thais and they flock to Bangkok and other commercial centres to earn the living not available to them back home but their primary loyalty is to their families, their communities and their land. They were born Isaan and Isaan they will always remain.

Step into any taxi in the capital and there's a 75% chance that the driver is from the north-east and his radio is tuned to 95FM, the 24 hour luukthung (children of the fields) music station. Imagine a high-pitched tuneful wail as the - usually male - singer mourns his life, love and family abandoned at home while he toils seven days a week in distant unforgiving Krungthep - Bangkok. Another Isaan style is folk dance music based on bamboo pipes and with rustic string instruments. Then there is a Peua Din ("for the earth"), a joyful strand of fast-paced country songs celebrating the ability of farmers and labourers to thrive in the deepest poverty - songs which spring from the electric guitar as naturally as if that instrument emerged from the rice paddies of South-East Asia instead of the factories of North America.

I love Isaan music, although I have yet to lose my heart to its cuisine (think insects as a delicacy and rotting fish- or meat- paste as a key ingredient). And I'm a fan of the region for another reason. For those Occidentals attracted to Orientals, the people of Isaan, like their Lao cousins, have an almost ethereal beauty. There are exceptions, but it sometimes seems that somewhere in the heart of the region there is a large genetic laboratory or cosmetic clinic devoted to the 24-hour production of slender young men (and women) endowed with thick black wavy hair, haunting almond-shaped eyes, achingly high cheek bones and full, sensual lips locked in an irresistible shy but come-hither smile. The young man above, who sells souvenirs in Ban Chiang, is typical of the type.

Their beauty and poverty lead or push many young Isaaners into the sex trade in Bangkok, Pattaya and further afield. Most appear to enjoy their work, while those who don't usually move on to other trades. Others are sometimes embarrassed by the reputation that their fellow north-easterners have. Whether or not they sell sex, however, many men and women from Isaan find western partners with whom they live in long-term relations either abroad or back on the farm. The sight of an older European with his younger wife and one or two of their children is no longer unusual in even the remotest districts of the north-east.

But it wasn't marriage I was looking for on my first visit. The main squeeze, himself from Isaan, and I drove around with three goals in mind - to wander through thousand year old Khmer ruins, to see nature in its various forms and to visit his family in their village. Abandoned temples, flowing rivers and parents duly made their appearance, but I had a fourth ambition - to see if there were any signs of gay life.

Stories from friends in Bangkok suggested that gay men were everywhere and nowhere in Isaan. Forget the commercial scene - an internet search offered only a well-known sauna in Khon Kaen, which was not on our itinerary, and rumours of bars in Ubon Ratchathani and Udon Thani. Just look around; it won't be long before you notice those whose eyes linger a little longer or whose appearance and gestures tend towards the effeminate. It sounded as if the land was populated by a seething mass of young men high on hormones. That particular dream was not fulfilled, but patience had its rewards...

Our first stop was the Khmer ruins of Phimai and Phanomwan. We spent the night in the Phimai Inn, which was, according to the 2004 edition of the Lonely Planet's guide to Thailand, the most luxurious hotel in town. Our £7.50 ($15) double room offered erratic air-conditioning and a dry bathroom; the municipal authorities only switched on the water at 7 pm. We swam in the pool and ate dinner surrounded by several mixed sex Occ-Ori couples. Ah well, we had had a long day; it was time for bed.

On to a village in deepest Maha Sarakham, the main squeeze's home. Everyone was welcoming, although I couldn't understand a word of their dialect, and produced a dozen dishes of local food - I recognised mushrooms, snails, rice and fried chickens but the rest were unidentifiable. Surrounded by family and friends, the MS was in his element. Give me a couple of years to get used to the heat, the flies, the food and the language and I would be too, but I was not disappointed when it was time to leave.

The MS was The Only Gay In The Village. We drove on to Buriram and that city's luxury hotel. Reasonably cute staff, but no eye contact. A day spent in Phamon Rung and other remnants of the Angkor empire, including one on the Cambodian border where we were the only visitors and fading signs in Thai warned of unexploded landmines from Khmer Rouge days. Not many tourists and mostly women selling food and souvenirs. Sons, boyfriends and husbands presumably sweating a living in Bangkok.

January 2010: A second visit to the boyfriend's home, where he is about to become a monk and live in the local temple for a fortnight (Thai Buddhism is remarkably flexible compared to other religions). Which provides an excuse for 24 hours of ceremonies interspersed with celebration. The weather is cooler, my Thai has improved and there is free-flowing beer - all of which help me to socialise with friends and neighbours, including two who are obviously - a 20 year old law student and a 15 year old who appears to like nothing better than hang out with the girls. But although it's obvious to most people what my relationship with the boyf is, I'm still officially only a "friend". That's not a problem - it's their culture and the way they deal with it, and I'm still made to feel very welcome.

Meanwhile, on the drive up here, three of us stopped overnight in Khorat (Korat, also known as Nakhon Ratchasima, the capital of the province of the same name). A trawl through the internet had come up with several potential venues, including Handsome Boys massage, next to the Sima Thani Hotel, where we were staying; Khorat 69 disco, in Pailin Square, opposite the same hotel; and Buddy's, a long-standing go-go bar in Soi Lam Pru 2. The only massage parlour we could find appeared to be for straight locals and Japanese visitors, Pailin Square offered a girl coyote bar and a Tawan Daeng bar (as in Udon Thani - see below - with excellent food but no gay over- or under-tones) but no gay disco; and Buddy's appeared to be no more than a fading telephone number on an alley wall. At lunchtime the next day we spent an hour in the provincial capital of Roi Et, where the central lake and park were full of youngsters enjoying Children's Day. Among the crowd was a couple of effeminate boys in their early or mid-teens, swinging their hips and handbags in best Hollywood vamp style...

Things looked up in Ubon Ratchathani, the capital of the province bordering both Cambodia and Laos. The two cute bellboys at the four-star Lai Thong Hotel, who both insisted on delivering our two small bags to our room, smiled politely at me and complicitly at the Squeeze. The waiter in the Chinese-Japanese restaurant was also young, good-looking and friendly. But that was the extent of our explorations; with a busy day planned for the morrow, we retired early.

Eight o'clock the next day we picked up our Portuguese Friend at the airport and headed for the Cambodian border and Preah Vihar (Khao Phra Vihan in Thai). One of the most amazing Khmer temples, relatively unvisited because of distance and border disputes, its several levels stand on a hill with a commanding view of both the Cambodian and Isaan plains. We were joined by an unobtrusive freelance guide who filled in some of the details. Approached by a desperately poor vendor the MS bought a DVD that promised naked men and women in explicit sex; when we played it back in the hotel, we were treated instead to a respectable Cambodian soap opera...

Khao Phra Vihan

That evening, back in Ubon, we dined early in a street market on khaaow phad khai daaow - fried rice with vegetables topped with fried egg - before setting off for the Silver Pub, a gay go-go bar, according to the internet, in the north-east of town. A long tuk-tuk ride followed by forty minutes wandering along the ring road on a humid night brought us only sweat, frustration and, in the MS, irritation. We gave up when a phone call to the only number we had revealed that the venue had closed and the only alternative was a nightclub near our hotel. Heading back, we discovered that the nightclub in question, the E-Bar, was right next door. A change of shirts and we were ready for an evening's music.

The E-bar is typically Thai. A large room with subdued modern black and white decor, there is no dance floor, only tall stools around chest high tables where groups of friends drink and dance. Beer is available, but the preferred option is a bottle of Scotch whisky, shared by all accompanied by ice and various mixers. The music, dj-ed and live bands, is all Thai, moving through the evening from mundane pop and to dance and hip-hop.

The PF and I drank slowly, the MS knocked back three quick Smirnoff Ice and decided to lie down half-way through the fourth. Around midnight I put him to bed and came back to find the E-Bar full, a Thai punk band in full shout. Around us were dozens of mixed couples; to our right was a group of gay young men, toasting each other and beginning to eye the PF and me. The PF, meanwhile, a handsome gent of 60 who never fails to make new acquaintances, had been drawn into conversation and several vodka shorts by the stylish middle-aged woman on his left.

At which point, I disappointed myself by going to bed - partly because I was tired, but mostly because the volume level of the band was so high that it was hurting my ears and giving me a headache. I wished the PF luck and hoped he would have something to report the next day. He did - fatigue. Like me, beaten into submission by the relentless noise, he retired shortly afterwards.

Our next night was spent in the Tohsang Khong Jiam Resort overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Moon rivers, miles from any town. In the openair restaurant, protected by insect repellant, we enjoyed an excellent meal and reasonable wine; the PF flirted happily with the goodlooking waiter / barman before calling it a day. The next morning we were woken by the sun rising over Laos. A couple of hours later we were heading north towards Nakhon Phanom.

Our hotel in that city, the View Mekong, had seen better days. While the MS went jogging, the PF and I had a drink in the dreary and deserted karaoke bar, then the three of us walked up the promenade to the centre of town. Another hot and sticky night. The PF was driven by a search for companionship, the MS and I by fatigue and hunger. We forsook what appeared to be the busiest section of the promenade, where a dozen young Thais, alone or in couples, watched the lights of Laos across the river, and headed for the Satang, the most sophisticated (which is not saying much) restaurant we had seen.

The food was good. The gravelly voice of the tall and graceful waitress betrayed her male origins. She told us of the only nightclub in town, but the MS and I were tired and the PF would not go alone. We moved to a table outside the restaurant to allow the PF to smoke his Romeo y Julieta. Adjacent were five young Thais, including a gay couple. The PF tried eye contact, but to no avail - one, he believed, would be willing to talk, but not in the presence of his boyfriend. It was time for bed; the PF's frustration at a third night alone was alleviated by Portugal's 2-0 victory over Turkey in the first round of Euro2008.

A leisurely drive in a tropical downpour - it was the rainy season - took us to Udon Thani, where the PF flew back to Bangkok. The MS and I checked into the Ban Chiang, another dreary four-star hotel. We noticed a good-looking Thai gay couple, late- and mid-20s, also in residence. Over breakfast the next morning we observed them in the midst of a serious discussion; I could not hear clearly, but the topic, the MS informed me, was the size and type of bed they should buy. They checked out later and drove off in mid-range Honda into what I hoped would be a long and prosperous life.

The first night the MS and I met a couple of friends who live in Udon - G, late 40s from Norwich and his locally-born partner D, 30. After a seven-course meal (after this break I needed a week of dieting to recover), we headed for a karaoke complex. Spare girls littered the entrance. The MS and D headed for a private room where they could sing their larynxes dry and gossip about life and G and me; G and I landed in the public bar on the top floor. Several girls around a table wondered if we wanted to join them, but they and the local band with two good-looking male singers who chatted with us soon realised that women were not high on our priorities.

The next night G stayed at home while D the MS and I explored more of the city's nightlife. Mr Tong's - the late-night bar where people of all sexualities and a relaxed attitude to things legal gathered - was a possibility but D wanted to check out a new bar behind the bus station. In a dark alleyway the only illumination came from a yellow light-box announcing BoyBoy. The name is innocuous to most passersby - "boyboy" means "often" in Thai - and inviting to the rest.

We entered a bare box of a room with a couple of television sets and a few old armchairs and sofas. A small group of women and men were singing raucously in a corner. Elsewhere several youths sat silently watching the screens. This was a karaoke / off-bar, a common institution in Thailand. You invite one of the single young men (or women, if it's that kind of bar) to join you in song. Later, if you want to spend more time with him, you pay the bar for his time and give him tip. The going rate in BoyBoy was 200 and 400 baht respectfully, much cheaper than in metropolitan Bangkok.

The waiter brought us drinks and asked if we wanted company. D was in the mood to say yes, but before he could make a choice the young man he was interested in left with one of the women. I, of course, was a mere observer, since I was with the MS. He, meanwhile, with a constitutional dislike of prostitution and a strong preference for luxury and comfort was impatient for us to leave.

Our next destination was the Tawan Daeng - the Red Sun - a large music bar with an energetic band playing Peua Din music . Pictures of Lenin and Ho Chi Minh and other communist leaders hung on a wall, a reminder of the 1970s and early 80s when spillover from the Vietnam war led to some in Isaan taking up arms against the Bangkok government. There appeared to be slightly more women than men and there was a sprinkling of Westerners. We took a table served by a waiter that D fancied and watched as the room filled up. The empty tables around us were soon taken; behind me seven young men ordered whisky and soda, to our left a young man and woman sat alone.

Gay? I asked of the group behind me. The MS shook his head. All around us people were inspired by the music and alcohol to dance - Isaan style. While the MS favours the classical gently swaying hips and turned up hands gesturing together, D, like most men from the north-east, sticks his hips out behind and pumps his hands at chest level or raised in the air. To Western eyes, the movements are both humorous and erotic. They have neither the slick sexuality of hip-hop videos nor the energy of European nightclubs, but they celebrate both community - we are Isaan and this is our dance - and individuality - my moves may be crazy, but they're my moves alone.

D had begun to dance with the male of the couple at his side. Except, it seemed, they were not a couple. D and his new friend clinked glasses and that was the excuse for the five of us to greet each other. Then one of the young men behind me, in a striped shirt and with a sullen face that threatened violence until his smile promised laughter, reached through to offer us his glass and we all responded. The other six paid us no attention. Striped Shirt danced before us for a moment; D caught his arm, but he pulled away and was gone.

The band - four electric guitarists / singers, two percussion and a (female) tambourinist / singer - bowed out and were replaced by a similar combination. To my unpractised ear, the music stayed the same. A glass entered my line of vision from the left - another of the seven young men, offering me his compliments and a dazzling smile; his neighbour, not quite relaxed, acknowledged my presence. D, a wide beam on his face, was getting closer to his new friend. A movement on my right - a middle-aged man with a grey moustache and beard and spreading stomach offered me his glass. Of course I had to respond.

The music went on and the bonhomie grew. I would have stayed until 2 am closing time but the Squeeze and I had to get up for the early flight to Bangkok. We waited until D and his companion exchanged phone numbers and then headed for the door. There was a brief commotion as Striped Shirt lunged through the crowd to stop D. Don't leave, he said, almost begged. I'll be back tomorrow, D promised, then we were out in the warm night air and driving back to the hotel. The next morning, the capital beckoned.

So... there are very few gay places in Isaan. That's bad news for foreigners who like their sexualities cut and dried. But there is plenty of gay life for those for whom the North-East is home. If you're single, head for the fashionable and popular nightspots. Go with friends and look around. Make no assumptions. If you're relaxed and enjoying yourself you'll soon meet others in the same state of mind. And if you're married, officially or otherwise, wherever the two of you go and whoever you are, you'll be treated like any other couple. It may not be equality as we know it in the west, but it's acceptance and liberation of another kind.

Click here for columns on other aspects of gay life in Thailand

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