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.
- Why I won’t ride an elephant and you shouldn’t either.
- Learn to make Pad Thai like a local at one of Thailand’s incredible cooking schools.
- The Best Beaches in Thailand just in case you’re headed to the coast.
Things to Know about Visiting Bangkok
- 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.
What to Pack for Thailand
Travel Backpacks: Meg’s Pick and Lindsay’s Pick
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.
Check it out this detailed guide for more packing tips for long term travel.
Things to do for Lesbian Travelers in Bangkok
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Explore some of Bangkok’s most beautiful temples
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.
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Enjoy a Thai Massage
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.
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Visit a Floating Market
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.