Travel
3 min

City guide: Bangkok

Thai culture is traditionally more accepting of fluid sexuality and gender ambiguity

Credit: Courtesy Song Kran Bangkok, by gCircuit

A place of great beauty, Prathet Thai, “land of the free,” this country has stunning landscapes, tropical vegetation, idyllic beaches, shimmering temples of gold, and people who are generous with their smiles. The foundations of this society are Buddhism and the monarchy. Even taxi drivers at work will stop at small temples to make offerings and pray; and at 6pm each day people across Bangkok stand quietly to pay their respect to the king. Self-assured, fiercely independent, Thais are proud to have stood alone in resisting European colonization of the region.

Buddhist culture has uncommonly relaxed perspectives on sexuality and gender roles. To outsiders’ eyes, women working construction jobs alongside men in hard hats, while some men dance in bars in tiny thongs or less, doing sex work with men but living otherwise straight lives, might appear odd. And ladyboys, who don’t outrage or scandalize anyone, occupy a sort of third-gender social niche, hard to imagine in most countries.

In Buddhist traditions, life has far more important concerns, sexual knowledge is not immoral or depraved per se, and such matters are personal or family affairs. This attitude sometimes disorients foreigners who binge (so little time, so many opportunities), but Thais think of sex as a kind of appetite — to enjoy, to partake of in any or all it’s varieties, but in moderation.

Thai culture has traditionally been more accepting of fluid sexuality and gender ambiguity. Thai men, as appreciative of youth, vitality and bodies beautiful as anyone, can be less obsessed with body types or age than their Europe and American counterparts. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1956, and gay and transgendered people have been able to serve in the armed forces since 2005. There is not total equality, however.

While sex among men is not particularly remarkable, self-identified gay men may not become monks, and there are no same-sex marriages or partnership rights. Prostitution, technically illegal, is an important part of the economy, so widely tolerated if with partners over 18 years old. The age of consent is officially 15, but various legal caveats make it 18 in practice. 

By the Chao Phraya River, the Silom and Surawong Roads district has a thriving scene of restaurants, karaoke bars, saunas, massage spas, and go-go bars. It’s where most gay visitors head first to see the uninhibited strip shows, and more. Clubs might have a dozen to several dozen dancers, and anyone who tickles your fancy may be engaged for some private time alone. The mamasan will help with arrangements, or language difficulites. Besides companion costs, there are house charges and tips to pay. For small tips many dancers encourage hands-on explorations in the club. Lumphini Park, off Thanon Rama IV, can be quite cruisy, especially at dusk along east-side paths.

Few tourists make it so far, but a few of the intrepid might see another area of gay pubs and saunas in the Ramkhamhaeng Road area, a district best explored with Thai friends. English is less frequently spoken here, and most Thais are looking for Thais, but simpatico outsiders are welcome enough if friendly and respectful of local ways. The clubs here are more laid-back social meeting places, with far fewer commercial sexual overtones. Khamphengphet Road, Sukhumvit Road and Saphan Kwai (Pradiphat) are home to similar scenes and to some of the best gay dance clubs in Bangkok. Most of this other Thai gay world is invisible and inaccessible to tourists, but over 50 more gay bars, massage spas, and bathhouses are listed by local guides outside the central tourist district – either without websites or published only in Thai.

Straight friends may head for the Phrakorn/Banglampu area, up-river a bit, to the legendary Khao San Road. This favorite on the old backpacker/hippy trail is still full of inexpensive hostels, restaurants, bars, cafes, and services. Mainline movies enjoy the joke of knowing (or not) the ladyboys from the girls, here in this international party scene. Blame it on the whiskey.

The Silom subway (MRT) stop and the Sala Dang Sky Train (BTS) station serve the Silom-Surawong district, just off the Rama IV main road, the side opposite Lumphini Park. This popular gay tourist destination has a profusion cafe/bars, sports bars, cabaret showbars, go-go dance clubs, restaurants, late-night discos and massage services crowding each narrow side street (Soi in Thai). Many of these are lined with terrace tables for kicking back and just watching the busy world walk by. Silom Soi 4, where many people begin their evening, has a cluster of bars, and restaurants — turn right a short distance up Silom from the station. Silom Soi 2 and Silom Soi 2/1, between the the BTS and MRT stations, have a later scene with some of the area’s best dance clubs. Silom 2 has a minimum age restriction of 20.

Between Surawong and Rama IV, Soi Pratuchai, (aka Duangthawee Plaza or Soi Twilight) is the red light district, home to a dozen or so bars, go-go boy clubs, and massage establishments. A few more of the same can be found in streets on the other side of Surawong. Nearby short-term hotel rooms provide discreet spaces to relax with a go-go dancer you fancy. See our map for overview, zoom-in locations, and website links where available.

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Bangkok, see our more in depth City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.