I’ve been singing Thailand’s praises since my first trip in early 2014. Since then I’ve been back 5 times, that’s how much I love it. So when I started chatting with Out Adventures about hosting a trip my choice of a destination was a no-brainer. The idea of sharing a place that helped ignite my passion for travel with other queer women makes me pinch myself with excitement that this is actually my job. Pack your sunscreen and favorite suit, because we’re off to The Land of Smiles. Things kick off in bustling Bangkok where we’ll tuk tuk the hectic streets on a sumptuous street food tour. We’ll visit the Royal Palace, flower market, reclining Buddha and a local lesbian hotspot. Then it’s off to northern Chiang Mai where we’ll visit a respected elephant sanctuary, shop the fragrant night market and learn to wield a wok at a fiery Thai cooking class. To round out our adventure, we’ll belly-flop into Thailand’s two coastal capitals: quiet Krabi and, not-so-quiet Phuket. Optional activities in both regions include sea kayaking, jungle trekking, and a night of beer and bad decisions. What more could you ask for?!
Tuk tuk through Bangkok on a delicious street food tour, nibbling everything from crispy catfish to spicy red papaya
Visit a respected elephant sanctuary where you’ll meet and learn about Thailand’s famous friendly giants—Note: animal welfare is extremely important to Out Adventures and EveryQueer and petting or riding the rescue elephants is strictly prohibited
Enjoy a day of sun, sand and sea on famous Railay Beach in Krabi, home of the postcard-perfect longtail boats
Enjoy Bangkok’s proud queer side at a popular lesbian hangout
Kayak into the mysterious caves of Phang Nga Bay’s limestone towers
Braise, broil and fry your very own three-course dinner during a fiery Thai cooking class
Explore the Grand Palace, home to the King of Siam
Find your zen in ancient Buddhist temples and at important spiritual sites
Shop for the perfect souvenir at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
Animal tourism is a touchy subject. And, as awareness around animal tourism rises, the lens on ‘welfare centers’ and elephant sanctuaries become more critical (and rightly so). With more information out there tourists are becoming more and more cautious about where they put their money when it comes to animal experiences. And finding genuinely ethical elephant experiences in Thailand is no different.
Elephant tourism in Thailand is massively popular. And during our trip to Phuket and Koh Lanta, we saw a number of different elephant sanctuaries and attractions.
After a lot of research online, we decided to take a half-day trip to a truly ethical elephant experience in Phuket, Treetops Elephant Reserve and I learned a LOT. It was an incredibly valuable and insightful day and I would highly recommend it as a top thing to do in Phuket.
Here’s everything you need to know about the history of elephant tourism, how to find a genuinely ethical elephant experience in Thailand, and spending a day at Treetops Elephant Reserve, Phuket.
Why Is Elephant Tourism So Popular in Thailand?
One of the most important things I learned at Treetops is the history of elephants in South East Asia and why Elephant tourism is so common in Thailand.
The majority of elephants were brought to Thailand to work in the logging industry many decades ago. However, a logging ban by the Thai Government in 1989 put hundreds (if not thousands) of elephants and their mahouts out of work overnight.
For many families, elephants & logging had been their sole source of income. Therefore, they had to find alternative means.
Mahouts (the elephant owners & caretakers) started begging on the street, with the elephants by their side. This quickly evolved into tourists paying for a photo with the creatures… to the elephants performing for tourists… and from there the “elephants as a tourist attraction” industry exploded.
The Problem With Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
As perceptions of animal tourism evolve and many tourists become aware of the cruel training elephants endure to learn these tricks, the entertainment factor has faded. But still, Mahouts need to find a way to feed their families.
Thus, the new wave of elephant tourism in Thailand was born in the form of “elephant sanctuaries”.
Elephant sanctuaries may sound as though they have the best interest of the animals at heart. But in reality, there are still a number of harmful tactics being deployed. While elephants are no longer walking tightropes or spinning hoops, they are still forced to interact with humans in ways that go against their nature.
Bathing with elephants in Thailand is incredibly popular. However, it is bad for elephants to be washed this often and the buckets of water being thrown in their faces all day are distressing. Often Mahouts will have a hidden nail in their hand or underwater to move the elephant around as necessary.
Elephants use mud to keep themselves cool. So the constant bathing is contrary to their natural state.
Lastly (and personally I think most importantly!) elephants also almost always immediately shit on entry into the water. So if you’re bathing with elephants in Thailand, it’s not only unsanitary for them, it’s not great for you either!
So How Do I See Elephants Ethically In Thailand?
Short Answer: Head to Treetops Elephant Reserve!
Long Answer: Keep Reading!
Treetops Elephant Reserve Overview
Where: 30 minutes from Kata
Cost: 2,900 Baht pp (inc transport)
What: A converted Elephant Trekking site, now giving elephants and their Mahouts the freedom to live a peaceful and cruelty-free life.
The History of Treetops Elephant Reserve
The reserve (who are intentionally not labeling themselves a ‘sanctuary’) was originally the site for traditional elephant experiences in Phuket centered around elephant trekking.
Instead of shutting down the site and putting the elephants and Mahouts of work again, Treetops Reserve converted the existing site into a truly ethical elephant experience.
They shut down the site for 9 months, re-educated those who worked there on the importance of providing an ethical experience and socialized the elephants who lived there.
Before Treetops came in, the elephants had been kept separately and not permitted to socialize. So this was a necessary period of adjustment for them to interact and learn that they could truly roam where they wished.
Nine months later, the result is a newly opened, peaceful and genuinely ethical elephant experience right in south Phuket.
(It’s worth noting that Treetops provides the elephants with the free-est and best life possible in light of their backgrounds. After so many years of living in a controlled environment, they wouldn’t survive if released completely and sent into the wild.)
A Half Day Trip To Treetops Elephant Reserve
1 pm: Hotel Pickup & Drive to Treetops Elephant Reserve
The experience starts with a pick-up from your hotel.
We stayed at the SIS Kata, which was the last stop before the drive to the reserve, which made it only around 20 minutes of driving to the Treetops Elephant Reserve.
(Side note: The SIS Kata is a super lesbian-friendly hotel in Phuket)
1:30 pm: Arrival at Treetops and an intro movie
On arrival, we were offered tea, coffee, and some biscuits, whilst we filled in some waiver forms and waited for other transfers to arrive.
The first part of the experience really began when we were introduced to the reserve’s owner and our guides for the day. (The owner is originally from England but has lived in Asia for many years. The guides were two locals who had previously worked in the reserve in the trekking industry)
After that we watched a short movie, detailing the history of elephant tourism in Thailand, how the treetops reserve was created and how to spot an ethical elephant experience.
It was incredibly informative, and I learned so much. It really set us up well to understand the importance of the reserve that we were about to visit, and exactly where our money was being spent.
2:15 pm Feeding the elephants
Depending on whether you book the morning or afternoon session, the order of activities may be different, based on the elephant’s needs.
However, after our video, the first thing we did was head over to wash our hands and break up massive bunches of bananas in preparation for feeding the elephants.
We then waited by a fence for some of the elephants to come around to us for feeding. Not all of them came, which I guess is a great thing because it shows that treetops is a truly ethical elephant sanctuary. They reinforced many times that the elephants are never forced to do something they don’t want to do.
Feeding the elephants was an incredible experience. As someone who is not confident around animals, I thought it might be scary. But they are such gentle giants you just lay a banana out in the flat of your palm and they scoop it up… and immediately come back for another.
This part of the experience really gave everyone in the group a good amount of time to interact with the elephant in a safe and un-intrusive way.
Once the bananas were all gone, we washed our hands again (bananas are stickier than I expected!) and patiently waited for the elephants to stroll off into the reserve.
2:30 – 4 pm Exploring The Elephant Reserve
Taking a stroll
The majority of the experience was spent on reserve land. The reserve is a massive space out in the countryside of Phuket. There are no borders, and so at all times, the elephant is followed by their Mahout to keep it safe.
In our small group (approx. 15 people), we walked along the pathways that used to be used for elephant trekking, following behind the mesmerizing creatures at a safe distance. At times we were required to stop and hang back whilst they stopped for some snacks from the foliage.
The entire experience was incredibly relaxed. The staff and elephants were clearly at peace, roaming about on the land, doing as they pleased.
Getting that ‘gram
Before arriving, I had wondered how they would ensure that we were likely to see the elephants, without forcing them against their will to be somewhere. I quickly spotted that large piles of bamboo leaves (they eat two tons of per day) were strategically placed throughout the reserve. So, whilst the elephants we’re not forced to stop anywhere for a photo op, it’s highly likely that there will be opportunities throughout the walk for you to get that gram without interfering with their day. (It’s strictly forbidden to approach them unless they approach you, or to touch/hug their trunks).
During our walk, we also passed the watering hole, which is constantly filled by the reserve from the local rivers. This was created to give the elephant somewhere to bathe if they want. Some of them love it, others haven’t yet taken the plunge.
As guests, we waited in a sheltered spot away from the water (and besides some well-needed cold water for ourselves to drink). After a while, two elephants came down to the area and got in the water. The benefit of the treetops staff knowing their elephants so well is that they can generally predict where they’re going to go next, without forcing them to do anything.
It was incredibly fun to see them swimming around as they should. Particularly the baby who you could tell was having the time of his life rolling around in the water.
After witnessing their natural behaviors in what is truly an elephant sanctuary, I can see now, why bathing with elephants is harmful. It may be fun for us, but is not the right thing to do.
4 pm Buffet (and more elephants!)
After we’d spent around an hour and a half walking about the reserve and observing the elephants in their natural (or as natural as can be simulated) habitat, we finished up the day with a beautiful buffet.
We ate in a newly renovated sheltered area, with stunning outlooks on another watering hole and the whole reserve. The buffet had a mix of meat and vegetarian options. And plenty of fresh fruit. Thai food is simply unmatched anywhere else in the world.
As we ate, a few elephants came and went from the water hole. No matter how often we saw them, it never got old. They are truly fascinating creatures.
5 pm Hometime
Sadly, the time had come to say goodbye to the gorgeous animals and to the marvelous humans working at Treetops. We were driven back to our hotel in the shuttle van we’d come in and within 30 minutes we were back in Kata. Just in time to catch the sunset and reflect on a mind-blowing day.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been searching for a place where I belong. I’ve found glimmers of it over time. Like when I’d split a cab with my roommate and we’d both turn around to see the Manhattan skyline out of the back window while we drove over the Brooklyn Bridge. Or the first time I went to a drag show and saw real live lesbians (gasp) at my local college queer club, Muthers.
People keep asking me why I love Thailand so much. I think it’s because I’ve always felt like I belong there. Bangkok is a city of contrasts. You’ll find street food meals for $2 on the same street as hotels so luxurious they feel sinful. To truly see Bangkok you have to look past the curtain of chaotic streets where people, animals, tuk-tuks, and tour buses share the same lane and you’ll see the layers of Thailand that you may not expect. If New York is the big Apple – Bangkok is the Big Durian – king of fruits, a little off-putting at first sniff but delicious and complex when you give it a good shot. I’m a bit like that too. Not for everyone – but certainly for someone
I just returned from one of my many trips to Thailand. It’s a country I keep returning to because Thailand is one of the most welcoming and affirming countries in the world for queer travelers.
Bangkok is the epicenter of gay culture for lesbian Thailand travelers, but the Thai fondness for our people is only one of a million reasons I love Thailand. I love the complexity of Thai culture, the richness in the flavors of Thai food, the Buddhist temples, the elephant sanctuaries, and the hospitality of the Thai people. Thailand is like a deep exhale – you don’t realize how bad you need it until you’re in the midst of it.
Want to read more about our adventures in Thailand?
Headed to Sukhothai? You need to read my guide to this incredibly underrated city.
Bangkok is the gateway to Thailand with most travelers passing through the city on their way to one of the many gorgeous areas of Thailand. But you’d be doing yourself a disservice by skipping over Bangkok completely.
I’ve stayed in lots of hotels in Bangkok but the Peninsula Hotel is definitely a favorite. I spent one late night at the Peninsula Hotel watching rolls of thunder and waves of lightning cracking and splitting the Bangkok skyline via the cozy nook with picture windows in my suite. The best kind of thunderstorms are the ones with hot tea and a writing pad nearby. Which reminds me, Thailand has two seasons; the hot and wet season and the hot and dry season. I’ve traveled in both seasons and fully enjoyed my trips but keep in mind that rain storms happen nearly every afternoon in the wet season, so prepare accordingly.
Bangkok is a big city and fairly spread out. So even though you’ll be doing LOTS of walking, you’ll likely also need to use the BTS Sky Train, cabs, and tuk-tuks. Good news, though, transportation is super cheap in Bangkok. Taking the SkyTrain across town was about 44 Baht each way. When it comes to cabs, make sure your driver is using the meter and for tuk-tuks, always negotiate the prices in advance.
We both prefer to travel with a backpack rather than a roller suitcase. Why? It’ll take just one time of dragging a giant suitcase across cobblestones, up three flights of train stairs, and through less than ideal weather conditions before you start to see the virtues of the travel pack as well. Fair warning, the comfort of packs varies widely depending on your height, weight, and body type. Lindsay is 6 feet tall and thin with a long torso so she prefers a pack that is longer with a hip belt attachment. She’s in love with the Tortuga Pack. For me, I’m 5’2 and have a short torso so I prefer a more compact pack like the North Face Terra 55L pack.
Lightweight Day Pack:
When you’re touring around, you won’t want to carry everything you’ve brought with you on your back and chances are you won’t want to empty out all of your stuff to use the backpack. We usually pack a lightweight daypack into our gear to avoid this annoyance. We both really love these Herschel fanny packs for really lightweight items and these packable daypacks because they’re compressed small enough to take up minimal space but are still durable enough to withstand rough and tumble days on the road.
Lindsay is bordering on obsessed with travel shoes. She spends hours combing through online reviews, buying, and testing different forms of footwear. I just can’t be bothered with all the practicalities of footwear because I just like to wear what looks cute. Not sorry. But I consulted with Linds for this section and she suggests three types of shoes you must bring to Thailand. First, for any trekking adventures, she swears by the Palladium Men’s Pampa Sport Cuff Waterproof Boot – especially if you’re planning on doing any outdoor adventures in the rainy season. Next, Tevas are one of the most versatile pairs of travel shoes on the market. They’re completely customizable to each person’s individual foot because of the two velcro strap system. They’re made with a thick cloud like base that molds to your foot with wear and provides the support you need where you need it. They’re perfect for wearing in the water and don’t get slipper like basic flip-flops. Third, pack a pair of lightweight closed toe shoes, like vans. We both have several pairs of Vans because they’re comfortable, compact, and match with everything and well because we’re giant lesbians.
The weather changes quickly in Thailand during the rainy season. One minute it’s bright and sunny, the next it’s pouring rain. I loved my Patagonia Torrentshell Jacket because it kept me super dry but was small enough to compress into a pouch and put in my pack or purse during the day.
Not being able to take liquid shampoo on flights is a huge buzz kill. I don’t love the single-use shampoo you get at hotels because it’s terrible for the environment and never enough to wash my long hair. Kill two birds with one stone with a dry bar of shampoo. It lathers the same way as liquid shampoo when mixed with water but it’s TSA friendly.
Reef Safe Sunscreen:
Some sunscreen damages coral reefs and destroys our ocean life. If you plan to head south to the islands make sure you buy reef safe sunscreen that’s good for the critters in the water.
Travel tech is super expensive. When you’re going to places with rain, beaches, or any type of water having a drybag is a lifesaver. It’s a $20 insurance policy against water damage on your tech, passport, and other important gear.
The outlets in Thailand are different than the outlets in other countries. Grabbing a few adapters is an absolute necessity for charging any of your tech gear. I prefer universal adapters because they can be used in any destination with any plug. I also prefer adapters that have USB outlets in them so you can charge multiple phones in the USB outlet while using the main outlet for something else.
This portable battery pack is a lifesaver for long flights and even longer layovers. Rather than huddling around the four outlets in the airport terminal with a million other people you can have your charge right in your lap. Of all of the items on this list, this is the one I’d be mildly devastated if I forgot. I feel like having a charged cell phone abroad is a safety issue because it serves as your translator, map, a currency converter, and a million other tools you need on the road.
We travel with professional gear – because we’re professional travelers – Sorta. Mostly. You don’t need all of the nonsense we pack along – we have an entire bag filled with gear for creating content. For the average traveler, I’d recommend a low-level DSLR, like the Nikon D3500 and a GoPro for the water and action sports. Between those two cameras and your cellphones, you’ll be able to capture all the memories you could ever want on your vacations.
There are hundreds of temples and holy sites around Bangkok but there are definitely a few must-see Buddhist highlights. Remember that knees and shoulders must be covered and no shoes are allowed inside the temple. Most of the temples will have vendors outside selling Thai fisherman pants, wrap skirts, and scarves to cover up before entering the holy site.
Your first temple stop should be the Grand Palace. Plan to arrive at the Grand Palace right when it opens at 8 am. The Palace gets super crowded and will only get worse as the day goes on – I’m talking Disney World during summer break crowded. Get there early. There’s a reason it’s super crowded. For me, this place is an absolute must-see. You’ll pay 500 baht per person for entry but it’s absolutely worth it. The architecture is mind-blowingly beautiful, and it’s unlike anything you’ll find on other continents. The Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha are within the same complex, so you’ll be able to see them at the same time.
Temple of the Reclining Buddha is another must see temple in Bangkok. It’s busy but significantly less crowded than the Palace and displays one of the largest Buddha images in Thailand. After viewing the Reclining Buddha, take a tuk-tuk across town to visit Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. While the complex at Wat Arun isn’t as large as the other temples, it’s a completely different style and one of the most photogenic temples in Bangkok. It’ll take you about an hour or so to view the temple grounds, even if you choose to climb the stairs all the way to the top. Pro-tip these steps are actually super steep, like way steeper than they look in the pictures. If you’re up for it – you won’t be disappointed in the views but keep in mind it’s basically a straight up climb to the top.
For a whole lot more context into what you’re seeing you can take an organized walking tour of the temples to learn more about Buddhism and Thai culture.
Take a Thai Cooking Class
If it was up to me to cook for Lindsay and I – we’d starve. I was just not blessed with any kind of culinary skills. I can do lots of things but I can’t make a decent meal to save my life. So when I agreed to a cooking class at Blue Elephant Cooking School, I was convinced that I’d churn out anything edible. But I did! And It was awesome. I loved learning how to mix the spices straight out of a local wok. We ended up making several dishes and I fell in love with the process of making delicious, authentic, Thai dishes. Like the extra tender chicken in a thick green searing sweet and spicy broth of the curries we crafted and the subtle peanut taste of fresh pad thai.
See Thailand’s famous ladyboys at a cabaret
There are two categories of Ladyboy shows in Bangkok. The first is the broadway worthy seated performance style like the Calypso Cabaret show – think more dinner theater than Drag Race here. It’s more polished, organized, and designed for mostly straight tourists. That being said, the show is phenomenally choreographed featuring elaborate dance numbers with professional quality props and acts plus it supports the LGBTQ performers of Thailand. If you’re in for more of an authentic look at queer culture and ladyboy entertainment in Bangkok, check out Maggie Choo’s. Maggie Choo’s is the worst kept secret in Thai queer nightlife. For those not in the know, Maggie Choo’s is a ginormous old colonial opium den themed bar hidden behind a secret curtain in a tiny inconspicuous bar built inside what was formerly the East India Company Bank’s underground vault. In short, it’s unreal. When you first walk in it looks like a small bar then open the curtain to find a gorgeous giant nightclub. You’ll see queens performing everything from campy stand up to beat for filth fish queens belting diva type numbers. Yes, it’s mostly for the boys but Sunday nights are a great time to see drag performances and experience the other side of queer nightlife in Bangkok.
Thailand is known for their unique approach to massage and other spa treatments. According to the internet, Thai massage is “ a traditional healing system combining acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga postures.” Basically, it’s a form of massage where they bend and contort your body while applying pressure at certain points. It tends to be a bit more aggressive than other forms of massage but is really something you should experience while visiting Thailand. There are tons of options for massage spas in Thailand. At the low end, you can get an hour foot massage for about $6 USD and a 90-minute Thai massage for around $20 USD. But I’d definitely recommend trying a more high-end experience.
Thailand’s leading wellness sanctuary, Divana is a spa specializing in luxuriously scented aromatherapy products and services designed to relax muscles and quiet the mind. I had a90-minute oil massage and foot soak that was absolutely heavenly. The best part of getting spa services in Thailand is that even the luxury experiences are a fraction of the cost that they’d be at home. I may have had a daily treatment on my last trip.
Visit Khao San Road
Khao San Road is the backpacker party hub of Bangkok. It’s filled with hostels, blaring club music, cheap buckets of alcohol, and backpackers living their best life. It’s also a bit of sensory overload. It’s loud, crowded, and some of the best people watching in the world. It’s also one of those experiences that’s uniquely Bangkok and the kind of thing that is definitely not for everyone.
Check out some badasses at Bangkok Roller derby
Started in 2013, Bangkok Roller Derby competes on an international stage with matches against roller derby clubs from around Asia. Roller Derby is one of the most physically demanding sports. Basically, it’s like a cross between American football and rugby on roller skates. Kinda. It also tends to attract a lot of hot queer women. Just sayin. They train at Imperial World in Lad Phrao on Tuesdays at 7PM and welcome new folks to the fold. Just shoot them a message on Facebook first to let them know you’re coming.
There are several floating markets in Thailand. Some are more tourist focused and some are local markets for Thai people. Regardless which market you opt to visit, they’re full of local charm and definitely worth visiting. There’s a reason they’re one of the most visited tourist attractions in Thailand. For more info on the best of Thailand’s floating markets check out this guide from Travel Triangle.
Ride in a Tuk Tuk
Tuk Tuk’s are basically a motorcycle with an attached cart. They’re a very common form of transportation in Thailand and can be spotted on the streets of just about every Thai city. They tend to be slightly more expensive than traditional cabs but they’re definitely one of those things you should experience on your first visit. Make sure you negotiate the fee before your trip because tuk tuks don’t have metered fares. Booking an organized tuk tuk tour in advance is a more expensive option but is an easy way to hit some of Bangkok’s most iconic landmarks without worrying about navigation.
Have a drink at a rooftop bar
Bangkok is one of the busiest cities in the world. It’s filled with world class hotels, restaurants, and bars. You get all three in one at Vertigo the elegant rooftop bar and restaurant on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree hotel. The views are incredible but the food and drinks are even better. If you go, make sure you’re dressed to impress. Technically the dress code is smart casual but think elevated resort wear and leave your shorts at the hotel. Don’t forget to try their delicious cocktail, the Vertigo Sunset, a melody of pineapple, cranberry and lime juices blended with just the right amount of Malibu.
Taste some of the best street food in the world
I’m a pretty firm believer in mixing the high end and low end in travel. Bangkok’s street food cannot be missed. Of course, you’ll find Pad Thai and Mango Sticky Rice but venture out a bit and try Tom Yum Goong a creamy but spicy Thai seafood soup made with prawns and noodles. For dessert go for a Banana Egg Roti which is basically a caramelized banana crepe. There are hundreds of different dishes you’ll find on the street carts of Bangkok, these are just a few of my favorites. But if you’re looking for a more in-depth street food experience try the Secret Food Tour of Bangkok where you can sample all of Bangkok’s finest foods while learning about Bangkok’s rich culinary traditions.
Take a dinner river cruise
While this is one of the more expensive experiences in Bangkok, it’s absolutely magical and worth the cost. There’s just something beautiful and romantic about sailing passed the lit up temples and watching the city lights pass by. There is a large difference in quality on these trips, I’ve been on some simple boat cruises with just champagne served at a lower price point that were much nicer than some of the lower price point dinner cruises. One of my favorites is the Shangri-La Horizon Dinner Cruise because the food options are more on the high-end side and the boat is slightly smaller which provides a more intimate experience.
Shop til you drop
When it comes to shopping, Bangkok has you covered with dozens of different options for weekend markets, floating markets, and shopping districts. Bangkok is home to some of the best shopping complexes in the world. Central World, ICONSIAM, and SIAM Discovery are all mega shopping complexes with brands at multiple budget points. For a unique gift check out Atoms Bangkok. It’s perfect for the sneakerhead looking to expand their street style chops with some Asian kicks. This is more than just a sneaker store. Atoms specializes in difficult to find colorways and exclusive collaborations with brands from around the world. Check them out on the 2nd floor of Central World’s Beacon Zone. For trendy hipster type shopping check out Bangkok Warehouse it’s a series of shops that are ideal for vintage, lifestyle and boutique ready Instagramable finds. If you’re looking for some unique handcrafts Chatuchak Weekend Market is a massive sprawling complex filled with everything you could ever imagine from handcrafts to housewares to street food – you’ll definitely be entertained.
Exploring Lesbian Culture in Thailand
The first thing to understand when you’re investigating the nuances of lesbian culture in Thailand is that being queer in Thailand is not necessarily based on the same ideological framework as it is in other countries – particularly those in the western world. It’s also important that we’re not painting all LGBT people in Thailand with one brush stroke. The LGBT community is diverse and nuanced, however, some research-based generalizations are useful in understanding how the experiences and culture of Thai queer folks differ from other parts of the world.
I’m about to put on my queer Slacktivist hat here for a master class in gender theory, buckle up kids.
One of the biggest differences is the relative acceptance of gender nonconformity and complex gender identities in Thai culture. Many western writers overstate the acceptance of Thai Kathoeys. Kathoeys, are people who are at times male-to-female and other times identify as a third gender. They’re commonly referred to as ladyboys in English but in reality, ladyboy performers are from a variety of gender identities. Yes, some are Kathoeys, but some are also drag queens which have strong differences in terms of how the individual views their gender. Anyway, yes – Thailand is much more accepting than any other country in the world when it comes to transgender identity but they’re still far from perfect. Kathoeys are still a marginalized population in Thailand.
On the lesbian side of things, Thailand has a strong “Tom and Dee” culture which upon first glance can be mistaken for mirroring “butch and femme” identities in western culture. In reality, Tom and Dee culture – a play on the words Tomboy and Lady – has very different nuances. The ethnographic study Toms and Dees: Transgender Identity and Female Same-Sex Relationships in Thailand, by Megan J. Sinnott along with the break down from Queer Mango take a deep dive into the complexity of gender and sexuality in Tom and Dee culture.
In short, both Toms and Dees are viewed based on their gender expression rather than their sexuality. Toms are a hybrid of typically feminine and masculine characteristics like simultaneously being both the protecting and financially providing partner but also becoming the nurturing partner and many identifying as “touch me nots”. As a group, Toms partly rejected and partly accepted expected gender roles. Dee’s, on the other hand, are viewed as heterosexual women who are attracted to masculinity despite having sexual partnerships with Toms. They play a strong role in redirecting traditional views of female sexuality in Thailand because many women are viewed as nonsexual beings with their sexuality being viewed as a lens of obligatory pleasuring of their male partners with no expectation of reciprocation. Dee’s twist that narrative on its head by being allowed to ask for sexual gratification, change partners, and invest in their own pleasure in ways that heterosexual women do not.
When you’re visiting Thailand you will most likely see Tom and Dee couples rather openly. You will also see straight women holding hands or being affectionate. Because of this part of the culture, Thailand is one of the safest and most welcoming travel destinations for queer women. While Thailand does not yet have marriage equality, there is a strong push for it with many experts believing it will pass in 2019.
Experience Lesbian Nightlife in Bangkok
Go Grrrls is very popular with queer women expats and Thais alike. It’s a rotating monthly party usually held at Wine Bibber Sangria, but like every other lesbian party in the world, it changes venues randomly so make sure to check out the Go Grrrls Facebook page for dates and times. Unlike many spaces for queer women in Thailand, all LGBTQ people are welcome so you can bring your guy friends but the night has a heavy lesbian presence.
Vibe is a revamped monthly queer girl event. It is a good place to go for those questioning, and not out of the closet as the party promoters allow you to opt out of Facebook pictures. Men are not allowed into the party unless they are accompanied by a woman. Vibe is more chill than some of the other parties. While it has a dance floor they emphasize quiet spaces for folks to chat and connect.
Lesla is the biggest lesbian event in Bangkok. This is the best place to get a handle on the Thai lesbian scene. There’s house music, live Thai music, and party games. Here you will encounter many Toms and Dees but all flavors of lesbian go to Lesla. This is a very Thai event and foreigners will mingle better if they can manage a few words of Thai.
This past week I was invited to speak at the first ever LGBT Travel Symposium in Thailand in collaboration with Out There Magazine. It was a monumental event that served as Thailand’s coming out party as a welcoming and affirming destination for LGBT travelers.
After my speech, I was lucky enough to go from Bangkok to Sukhothai. Sukhothai, which means Dawn of Happiness, is a Thai city about 250 miles north of Bangkok. It is only about an hour and a half by plane and the tiny airport even has zebras! It’s also a wildly unrated destination for visitors exploring Thailand.
It was by far my favorite part of my two-week adventure through Thailand because it was lowkey, relaxing, and my itinerary was filled with incredible things to do in Sukhothai that had cultural, physical, and artistic components.
By the way, did you know that we have more posts about Thailand? It is my favorite country, after all! Take a look below at our other Thailand travel guides.
Over the next few months, we will be releasing tons more information on Thailand because we are hosting a travel group to Thailand in October of 2018 for lesbian, bisexual, and queer women because Thailand really is the ultimate lesbian vacation destination. Want to join us? Reserve your spot on our lesbian vacation today.
But without further ado – I give you my absolute favorite parts of visiting the city of Sukhothai.
Enjoy a Thai Massage at Sriwilai Sukhothai Resort & Spa
We stayed at the Sriwilai Sukhothai Resort and Spa and it was hands down my favorite hotel we experienced in Thailand. It’s a luxurious answer to traditional Thai accommodations. While it’s definitely upscale, the property pays homage to Thai design in both the grounds and the rooms that are decorated with local handmade crafts. The grounds are surrounded by lush green landscape and adjacent to Wat Chedi Sung. It’s one of the most relaxing and serene hotels I’ve experienced. Enjoy the services onsite at the Soila Spa. I loved the deep tissue massage but if it’s your first visit to Thailand, embrace the local culture and try a Thai massage.
Salute the Sun with Sunrise Yoga
The main tourist attraction of Sukhothai is the historic park in the old town. Many people like to wake up early and enjoy the sunrise peeking over the top of the Buddhist temple ruins. It’s one of those surreal travel experiences that I highly recommend. If yoga is your thing, grab a mat from your hotel and salute the rising sun while taking in the views of the 700+-year-old religious shrines. It’s an experience you won’t forget.
Pay Respect to Rchana Buddha Image at Wat Sri Chum
The Wat Si Chum is 13th-century temple located in the North zone of the Sukhothai historical park. The main event is a giant image of Buddha on display. While we were there we saw Buddhist monks and nuns paying their respects and got to witness their devotion first hand.
Make Your Own Sangkalak Sukhothai Style Pottery at Ganesha Gallery
Sukhothai stoneware is the most famous style of Thai ceramics. They’re stunningly beautiful and make an incredible souvenir. I like to think of myself as a “doer” so I really enjoyed trying my hand at painting our own ceramic dishes at Ganesha Gallery. While my design wasn’t nearly as beautiful as the local craftspeople, I had a lot of fun trying.
Take a Bike Tour Around the Sukhothai Historical Park with K Shop
Thailand is hot – like – extremely hot – so I wasn’t stoked when I realized we’d be taking a bike tour mid-afternoon around the Sukhothai Historical Park, but it turned out to be one of my favorite things we did during my entire two weeks in Thailand. I loved that we could ride between each temple with the bikes creating a gentle breeze as we peddled our way around. I loved that it was a physical activity to break up the history and photo taking. When you visit Sukhothai don’t miss out on the biking tours.
Watch Goldsmiths Making Traditional Jewelry
Sukhothai is very well known as a popular place to buy gold and silver jewelry. Head to Somsamai Gold Shop to explore the workshop and watch local artisans design custom jewelry with solid gold. After your tour of the workroom, stop into the gift shop to take a treasure home.
Taste Kuaitiao Sukhothai Noodles
One of my favorite local dishes was the Kuaitiao Sukhothai noodles. It’s a style of rice noodle soup made with chicken broth, green beans, chicken, fried garlic, Thai chili paste, and cilantro. To create your own version of Kuaitia Sukhothai noodles at home, check out this recipe from Thai Foodie.
Take a Ride in a Tuk Tuk
Tuk Tuks are practically the national symbol of Thailand. They’re basically a combination between a rickshaw and a motorcycle taxi – or imagine what it’d look like if you wrapped a tin can around a motorbike. BAM you get a tuk-tuk. They’re one of the most popular modes of transportation in Thailand and a MUST for first-time visitors.
Learn Some Cultural Context at The Ramkhamhaeng National Museum
When I’m visiting important cultural and historical sites, I like to have a bit of context behind what I’m experiencing. Novel – I know. The Ramkhamhaeng National Museum displays art, artifacts, and antiques from the centuries-old Sukhothai period. Take a couple hours out of your trip to really appreciate the incredible history of Sukhothai
Shop at the Sukhothai Night Market
The Sukhothai Night Market is more than just a street lined with vendors down by the river. It’s one part street food, one part market with a dash of a public concert, and a whole lot of open dance floor. Go for the delicious Thai street food but stay to people watch and check out the local kids to breakdancing.
Instagram This Wildly Questionable Bridge at Si Satchanalai
While you’re exploring Si Satchanalai-Chaliang Historical Park enjoy the 13th- to 15th-century ruins and grab your #travelgoals photos but please don’t fall in…I was too chicken to pose on it but lots of people did it – so maybe you’re braver than I was.
Make Traditional Buddhist Amulets at Baan Phra Pim
Buddhist amulets or votive tablet, are a kind of Thai Buddhist blessed item. Monks create them and sell them to the devote as a means of raising funds for the temple. Once they pass from a monk to a common person, they’re basically a tool to help enhance some aspect of life for an individual. At Baan Phra Pim, local artisans teach tourists how to create their own amulets to improve their marriage, wealth, health, love and relationships.
Participate in Almsgiving With Buddhist Monks
If creating your own amulets isn’t your thing, join the local monks for a morning almsgiving. Thai people see giving alms as a virtue, not charity. Giving alms to monks is about showing goodness to others and doing good deeds – which are cornerstones of Buddhism. In the early morning hours, usually between 5.30am and 8 am bring fresh food like rice, fruit, juice or milk or prepared meals from local vendors to offer. Generally speaking, the almsgiving will usually takes place around their temple. Once the ceremony is complete, the monks take the food back to the Wat to share and eat.
Have a Traditional Thai Breakfast at Sukhothai Organic Farm
Sukhothai’s Organic Agriculture Project is a picturesque location for a traditional Thai breakfast. We enjoyed local dishes made from the farm’s organic produce while taking in views of the orchids growing in the lilypad pond below the rice fields. If you’re feeling adventurous, the farmers invite guests to take part in traditional Thai farm activities as well. While manual labor is definitely not for me, I loved exploring the farm and learning about how the organic produce was cultivated.
EveryQueer & OutAdventures to Host Lesbian Vacations and Lesbian Group Travel by Meg Ten Eyck | Nov 17, 2020 | header, Travel | 0 CommentsFor as long as I can remember, I’ve been searching for a place where I belong. I’ve found glimmers of it over time. Like when...