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Martin Foreman

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The Lavender Lanna

January 2010: Once more to Chiang Mai - a name which it sounds much better in Thai than in its boring and misleading English translation of New Town. This 700-year-old city was once capital of the Lan Na (Million Rice Fields) kingdom, which only formally merged with Thailand in the nineteenth century. Today it offers a mixture of the bustle of modern Bangkok and, in the heart of the Old Town, the laid-back ambience of the Asian hippy trail a generation ago.

Chiang Mai is also home to gay life in various forms. Now sit down and study this carefully:

University students tend to meet in cruising grounds that are difficult for strangers to find, or in local bars and clubs, such as the Mandalay, which do not identify as gay. These places follow the Thai pattern of nightlife where drinking with friends is more important than meeting strangers.

Western visitors have the following choices to relax and meet others: (a) bars which offer instant companionship with poor young men from the hilltribes; these are mostly found in a narrow passage behind the Night Market, (b) bars which offer instant companionship with young men displaying their muscles on a small stage; mostly to be found in small streets off Chang Puak Road, (c) Western style bars where one is more likely to go with a steady companion than to meet a new friend; there are only two such bars - the Glass Onion and Soho, (d) the city's many men-only massage houses, (e) the rustic and welcoming House of Male sauna.

Despite these many venues - 60 or more by some counts - Chiang Mai is not very gay-friendly. In March 2009, protests by conservative activists linked to the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra prevented HIV educators and bars from hosting a gay pride parade - a conflict which was exacerbated by a local gay activist who was miffed at being excluded from the pride organising committee.

Against this background it was surprising to learn that Asia's biggest gay hotel, the 110 room Lavender Lanna, had recently opened in Chiang Mai. But since I had to visit the city shortly before Christmas, where else could I stay? I booked a couple of nights in one of its most expensive rooms (1,850 THB / app 36 / 39 / $57 per night in high season).

The good news first. The hotel is in a central position, overlooking the moat that surrounds the old town, next to Kad Suan Kaew shopping centre, a short walk from the oldest temples and a short tuk-tuk or song teow (pick-up) ride from the airport, Night Market, Zoo and other locations. While two other gay venues are within walking distance - Soho bar and House of Male - the Lavender Lanna offers its own gay scene with café, restaurant, massage service and go-go bar on the premises.

I checked in to a spacious tenth-floor room, high enough that the constant traffic roaring past was little more than a background hum. On the first evening I headed up to the Lavender Sky restaurant, where I found excellent Thai food and an attractive rooftop setting with a view of the old city, Thai pop playing quietly in the background and a water feature echoing a more rural setting.

Now, the bad news. The hotel has been refurbished rather than newly built. Recyled modernist furniture and fittings sit uneasily next to newly installed features of classical northern Thai style. My bathroom was nicely laid out with pebbles and wooden boards, but the plasterwork was slapdash, the shower curtain too thin and too short, and the towels, although soft to the touch, refused to dry my hands, face or body. As for the photo on the hotel's website that suggests a swimming-pool . . . There isn't one, merely a splashpool.

In the restaurant the reasonable cost of an excellent meal (640 baht for three dishes, rice and dessert), was offset by an exorbitant 400 baht for a glass of wine - two to three times the price elsewhere. And since I'm paying for the most expensive room and you provide me with a kettle to boil water, why not include free sachets of coffee and tea as they do in other hotels?

Service was typically Thai - alternately speedy and effective or downright inadequate. If an employee could provide something easily, satisfaction was guaranteed. But ask for something out of the ordinary, like an address downtown or the opportunity to speak to the manager and all you get is blank looks.

In the restaurant, I waited ten minutes for someone to notice that I had finished my meal. The table was cleared, but did the waiter ask if I wanted the bill, or a coffee, or the menu? No, with three staff apparently rushed off their feet serving three tables with a total of eight guests, it took another fifteen minutes before I was able to make another waiter aware that I wanted dessert. I discussed the problem with the restaurant manager at the end of the meal. He apologised, but he did not seem to understand the basic rule of restaurants: allocate each waiter specific tables to check on regularly instead of rushing to deal with whatever appears to be the latest crisis.

While I'm in gripe mode (a): I've never yet met a gay man who enjoyed more than ten minutes of ladyboys lipsynching. The amateurish show in Power Boys in the hotel's basement could have made much more use of its attractive young men as dancers instead of number after number of overpainted and overdressed dolls mouthing words to boring songs. But remember that when you have men in erotic poses, it's best not to have them fully naked; an embarrassed young man failing to get an erection is not, repeat not, sexy.

While I'm in gripe mode (b): if your guest is speaking your language, be polite and reply in that language, not English. If I respect your culture enough to study Thai, please respect me enough to help me speak it better.

All these factors taken into account, the Lavender Lanna provides a competent three-star experience (to call it a boutique hotel, as the website does, is misleading). The room price is slightly higher than other hotels of the same quality, but a premium is reasonable for a primarily gay ambiance - except for the vastly overpriced wine. Staff can be trained and a successful year or two could lead to a more complete refurbishment that would make it a primary destination for gay travelers in the region.

Not that the hotel needs my recommendation or advice. Within three months of opening it had attracted gay guests from all over the world (although they share the hotel's public spaces with groups of straight Thais who presumably booked under the hotel's previous incarnation). The mere fact that they are surrounded by men, men and more men will be enough for most gay customers to forgive the defects in service that they come across.

Finally, there's a broader issue than one hotel in a medium-size city. The Lavender Lanna is likely to prove the first in a series of larger gay hotels across Thailand and Asia. This raises two questions: should we be encouraging more travel at a time when climate change is threatening our very existence? And if we can overcome the problem of carbon emissions, is the potential ghettoisation of gay men a good thing? No, I don't have the answers...


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