As I flick through the messages I've sent and received on the gay social apps Grindr, Jack'd and Scruff, it's hard not to feel utterly hopeless at finding anything that resembles love or good sex in this city. The messages I've left unanswered, inquiring into my status as a bottom or a top or the size of my penis or if I like leather, pulse in my mind like small cyber ulcers. Where are all the quirky, career-minded lovers of literature and trashy pop culture and red wine and safely adventurous escapades in the boudoir? I wonder as I explore the gay culture of Chiang Mai, in both its physical expression in bars and cafes, as well as in its cyber expression through gay social apps and gay-themed blogs. While there is a decidedly very scene present in gay saunas and massage shops throughout the city, much of this scene seems targeted to an older generation of expat men. Where, then, is the space for a young gay expat in Chiang Mai?
A City in Flux
It seems like many of us of the "young and gay" contingent are curious to figure out where in Chiang Mai these spaces are. Of the tourists and Thai people I've spoken with (via gay social apps and in real life), the majority, more than sex, more than crazy drug-induced orgy-rific frolics through the mountains, simply want to find a safe space to meet and interact with other young gay people. This desire, however, is almost always coupled with frustration about the lack of that space existing in Chiang Mai, at least as far as they could readily access it.
Much of the difficulty in discovering the gay culture of Chiang Mai is that so much of it is ephemeral; of those interested in going to gay bars/clubs/cafes, the majority of them are tourists, who will leave the city after a few days, weeks, or months. Their stay is transient and though they might have a desire to help create gay-specific spaces, they will leave. Even I, who have spent much of my time as an intern at Citylife writing about and focusing on issues of gay life in the city, am only here for a short time. After my two months is up, I'll return to my "real" job teaching elsewhere in Thailand. And someone new will come, someone new will leave, so on and so forth.
Though this state of flux exists in every city with every group of tourists, it presents an interesting situation for gay life here, simply because the desire for gay-specific neighbourhoods and nightlife seems to be a predominantly Western one. Us gay farang are used to our Brooklyns and Castros in the United States, our Chuecas and our Sohos in Europe, and we seek to replicate this idea of the physical gay community when we travel outside of these western spaces (although I do generalise here and don't suggest that I speak for all travelling queer folk). But in Thailand, the idea of a "gaybourhood" is basically non-existent. Queer Thais go to the same bars as their heterosexual counterparts and live amongst them too. Even as areas of the city, such as the area surrounding Huay Kaew Road, are billed as gay areas on gay travel websites for Chiang Mai, the reality is a much fuzzier one.
Any establishment in the city, then, has the potential to be full or not full of young gay people. Popular nightlife hotspots like Zoe in Yellow and Warm-Up attract nearly everyone: men, women, tourists, Thai, queer, straight. When discussing this fact with some of my straight friends, a few suggested that this mixing of everyone might be a good thing and might even be the ideal thing. In their minds, the perfect club or bar is a space where everyone is welcome to get their drink and their freak on, regardless of skin colour or sexuality. Yes, of course, this is true.
And yet at the same time, it's not true. I wrote earlier of access to gay spaces and access here is not something to be taken lightly - some would argue that the access of minority groups to spaces in which they might safely and securely interact with other members of their minority group are vital and necessary. I am very much part of this amorphous some and believe that the seeking out of a gay community is much more than simply the seeking out of a cute boy to flirt with over the lid of a frothy, fruity cocktail. It's the seeking out of people who share something of the everyday struggle of what it means to be a queer individual in the 21st century.
Out on the Streets
As my "research" for this article, I visited many gay-specific establishments throughout Chiang Mai, especially around the Old City, the Night Bazaar and Huay Kaew Road: Soho Bar, CU Bar, Secrets, Yokka Dok (which I found closed, a "House for Rent" sign hung across its front), Adam's Apple and House of Male to name a few, all places I found via online searches on gay travel websites as well as by word of mouth.
When I asked one socially active young gay Thai male I met about whether or not he ever went to these bars, he replied, "No, not usually. These places are most popular with older gay farang, I think. " Which is true - of the many bars I visited, I was consistently the youngest Westerner by quite a long shot. But don't let the use of the word "old" conjure images of knee-high argyle socks and stringy grey hair. The prominent older gay scene in Chiang Mai is a tight-knit and thriving one. To see these older gentlemen gleefully swapping wits over cocktails with one another, it's clear that they've found their gay community in Chiang Mai, and that's great; however, it is not mine, and in these bars I often felt awkward and a bit unsure of myself.
In fact, it wasn't until I found myself at one of the city's newest gay spots, Orion Bar, that I actually felt comfortable enough to speak with any of the other patrons. A tiny bar with open walls and TVs streaming videos of ABBA, Orion sits nested deep in the pit of the Night Bazaar, tucked back on Soi 6 of Charoen Prathet Road. The bar is a flood of light and noise. As I enter, owner Komg and his gang of Thai staff are busy hanging a rainbow flag from the entrance. I sit at the bar and order a gin and tonic, which comes to me quick and strong. Every move Komg and his friends make feels like a wink as they flirt their way through the customers. I am the youngest farang by many a decade, though it doesn't feel as obvious here as it has elsewhere, perhaps because the staff is so young and engaging. After a few sips of my cocktail, I spy a trio of silvery gay men wearing short shorts and chortling over glasses of red wine. Though they are quite obviously a bit older (sorry fellas!) than me, I decide that these gentlemen are my kind of people, so I move to ask them what they think about gay life in the city.
David, David and Richard are pals who have been living in Chiang Mai for quite some time now, long enough to see the gay scene of the city shift from thriving to something barely pulsing along. They speak nostalgically of a time in which the Night Bazaar was packed with brightly lit gay bars, exuberant queer folk nearly spilling into the streets from how crowded everything was.
"Now it's all saunas and massage parlours," British David quips, much to the agreement of the other two. They take turns ticking off names of bars, only to have nearly three quarters of them struck from the list because they've closed.
"That's the nature of gay bars here, opening, closing, opening, closing," Richard says.
Though the three might disagree on which music to request from the bartender (the Davids fancy ABBA, while Richard asks for a switch to Rod Stewart), they're in unanimous agreement that much of the decline of gay life in the city is to be blamed on social media, particularly the aforementioned gay social apps like Grindr, Jack'd, Scruff and Hornet.
"Nobody needs to go to bars anymore,; they're bypassing that whole meeting step, going straight for the sex," Australian David says. "That's probably why you aren't seeing many young gay guys out and about, they're all hiding in here." He points at the smartphone perched on his knee. We share a few more laughs, swapping impressions of Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor as proof of our gay capital, before parting ways.
Into the Void
As I walk along Tha Pae Road back to my guesthouse in the old city, my thoughts turn to musings about what kind of young, gay community can be made up from the users I've encountered on Grindr, Jack'd and Scruff, users with names like "Big Daddy," "Freaky Manly Ready," "Sticky Sticky Rice" and "Leather Stud Seeks Younger," whose desire for sex seems almost too rampant and too voracious to be real.
Perhaps it's my natural penchant for the classy, yet suggestive winky face ;), but something just seems fishy about all this hypersexualisation and fetishism. Where's the vulnerability? People don't go around carrying leather whips or choke collars in real life, so why wield them in this cyber context? Maybe David, David and Richard are right; because of the lack of niche gay spaces within the city, there is a need to purposefully self-label and seek out members of one's niche group (leather, BDSM, muscles, twinks, rugged, femme, butch, etc.) online so that one might be able to create a private space (bedroom, bar, parking lot or otherwise) with people who share their kinks. What seems aggressive or explicit might actually just be a call out into the void: "IS THERE ANYONE ELSE LIKE ME?"
Since arriving in Chiang Mai, I've called out into this cyber void a few times, setting up two coffee dates with people I'd started talking to on Grindr, both of which never ended up happening. I flaked on one and one flaked on me. Though I'll never know why I was flaked on by the UK-based Thai lad with whom I seemed to have quite the spicy rapport (slinging back and forth Game of Thrones quotes and references to my favourite campy divas Liza and Bette), I know that I flaked on my American boy simply because I didn't think I had the heart or the guts to invest in a traveller who'd be heading back home in a week, even if all we'd ever share was a casual tousle in the sheets. Try as I might to be okay with something so fleeting, at the end of the day, it's not part of my nature.
Which is perhaps why I've had a difficult time finding my slice of the city's gay pie. In Chiang Mai, it's almost as if young gay culture exists only in glimpses, with no discernible whole to latch onto. If you're savvy or well-connected enough, it's easy to snatch at these glimpses and string something together of a wild and raucous gay life. But, if you're like me, it seems nearly impossible to do anything but fumble around until you've ended up at Zoe's for the fourth night in a row watching all your straight friends go gaga over each other while you're digging into your third and certainly not last Mai Tai.
However, there are patches of accessible, great and exciting young gay culture to be found here. One of the brightest glimpses I managed to discover was G-Star Vintage, a bar and dance club located north of the Old City off 107 in Chang Phueak. Packed with loud music, throbbing lights and a sea of fresh-faced Thai 20-somethings, G-Star is a fine (yet rare) example of a Chiang Mai establishment geared specifically toward a young gay crowd. Though it's a bit difficult to get to and only opens at midnight (with not much of a scene until 1:30 a.m.), G-Star is a fun, safe space where people of any sexual expression or orientation can dance and drink the night away.
So here I am, sitting at G-Star on a Sunday night with Daniel, a young Taiwanese investment banker working in Bangkok. As he pours me a Sangsom with soda, Daniel expresses surprise at my having found G-Star: "It's mostly Thai locals in here, not many Westerners."
Indeed, of the dozens of people packed into the club, my friend and I are the only farang. However, as we flit through the dance floor, pausing to hump-thrust and boogie with several different clusters of friends, there is hardly any of the everyday awkwardness we feel when attempting to interact with non-English speaking Thais. Here, the music is too loud for anyone to talk, so most people sing along to the mix of Western and Thai music or finish their drinks with a hearty chon gao.
"This is my favourite bar in Chiang Mai. I just feel so…" for lack of an appropriate adjective, Daniel throws up his hands and squeals, grabbing my friend for a quick tango. I laugh, slinging my arm across his shoulders. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and opens Grindr, pointing at my profile lodged in the top left corner.
"I saw this photo of you yesterday and I wanted to send you a message but I was nervous," he admits, jingling ice in his empty glass. In response, I fill up his glass and pull him back onto the dance floor where we stay into the early morning.
This night may just be a glimpse, a flash of what young gay life in Chiang Mai could look like, but it gives me hope that a community exists, and even if it doesn't fully exist quite yet, at least that there is a want for it to exist. As one long-term gay expat, now in his early 30s, revealed to me, "The thing with gay life here is that it isn't particularly in your face, yet it is everywhere."
I'm beginning to think he is right.