by Sasha Alyson
Asian vacations are a bargain right now. Here are three destinations to look at.
Asia has long held an allure for travelers from the West. With the region now in economic recession, we have another reason to visit: The dollar buys much more than it did a year ago. Here are a few destinations to consider for a first-time visit.
While planning our tenth-anniversary trip, my boyfriend and I investigated gay Thailand tours. The leading company, we learned, offers no discount for double-occupancy: Everybody gets a double room to themselves, with an unspoken assumption that the other half of the bed will get filled soon enough. This didn’t seem like the ideal arrangement for our tenth-anniversary vacation, but for other travelers, it will be just the ticket. (Tours to Paradise: 213-962-9169)
For many, that’s the appeal of Thailand: Sex between men is legal, accepted, and available. Most contact between visitors and Thais is commercialized in go-go clubs staffed with young “masseurs”, who often identify as straight — but flexible. Clubs with a more western-style gay identity have opened in recent years like Bangkok’s Telephone (114/11-13 Silom Rd., Soi 4, +2/234-3279) or DJ Station (8/6-8 Silom Rd., Soi 2, +2/235-1227).
The north of Thailand offers a sharp contrast to urban Bangkok. You can visit an ornate Buddhist temple one day, raft in the Himalayan foothills the next. The hill tribes provide a fascinating cultural counterpoint to the rugged scenery.
Southern Thailand is known for its exquisite beaches and islands. The best-known beach resort, Phuket, has become congested, over-built, and a prime destination for sex tourists. Instead, consider Krabi on the mainland, or the islands of Phi Phi and Samui.
As for my own visit, which included the hubbub of Bangkok, the temples of Chaing-Mai, trekking to hilltop tribes in the north, and sea-kayaking amongst the islands of the Andaman Sea: I fell in love with this friendly country, and hope to one day offer tours there.
One of Asia’s most popular destinations is Bali. Beautiful beaches ring this verdant island and some of the most luxurious resorts in the world are found along these shores; readers of Conde Nast Traveler voted the Four Seasons on Jimbaran Bay “the best resort in the world”.
But don’t confine yourself to the beach. The striking river gorges of Bali’s interior are popular with intrepid travelers. Ubud, a city in the middle of the island, is Bali’s cultural capital, with shops and galleries featuring art and handicrafts. The interior also offers hiking, river rafting, a Monkey Forest, and the Pura Dalem Agung temple.
Bali is in Indonesia, whose capital, Jakarta, has experienced violent riots in recent months. Luckily, except for a few nonviolent protests at the university, Bali has been spared from the upheaval. I’d still advise checking with the U.S. State Department, before making plans, to see if anything has changed.
The freshest travel destination in Asia is Viet Nam, which fully opened itself to tourism only in the early 1990s. While lacking the sophisticated resorts of Bali, or the sexual openness of Thailand, Viet Nam offers enormous natural beauty and a fascinating culture that has long been isolated from the world. Intrigued? This is the time to go, as it won’t remain unchanged for long. Many hotels opened just as tourism dipped, so luxury rooms can be found for under $100 a night.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south is the fast-paced capital. There are few venues at which you can meet gays. One is Cafe 39 (Le Thi Rieng St., Dist. 5), outside the city center. Another is Dem Mau Hong Disco (Ham Nghi St.) in the city. But Saigon offers enough other attractions, such as the Reunification Palace, to keep you busy. If the city crowds prove overwhelming, about 130 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City lies Da Lat, a Vietnamese honeymoon spot noted for its beautiful scenery and relaxing atmosphere.
Hanoi, in the north, plays little sister to Saigon. Its charms include the old quarter whose crooked streets and alleys contain thousands of vendors and artisans. A day trip from Hanoi, four hours southwest of the city, is the Perfume Pagoda, a Buddhist cave temple set deep in a fragrant forest.
The narrow center of Viet Nam boasts two cities worth a stop. While in Hue visit Thien Mu pagoda by riverboat. South from Hue is Da Nang and nearby China Beach.* * *
Still undecided? Your travel schedule is a factor. October brings an end to the rainy season in Thailand and Vietnam; weather will be best from November into springtime. Bali’s the opposite: The best months are May to September.* * *
Sasha Alyson coordinates active and adventure vacations for the gay community through his company, Alyson Adventures.