Jan 7, 2020
By Vincent Vichit-Vadakan. Illustrations by Anawat Muangthong.
Thailand has long been known for its live-and-let-live attitude to gender and sexuality, so it was really only a matter of time before the country became the first in Southeast Asia to actively market itself as a friendly destination for LGBT+ communities. Headed by the new Go Thai. Be Free. campaign (gothaibefree.com) from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), this play for the LGBT+ market has proven more than just clever marketing. While Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, the deputy governor for international marketing at the TAT, admits that the campaign is good for business, he also believes Thailand is evolving. “We are more open,” he says. “It is a priority for us to get people to come and to appreciate the country and if, along the way, we are seen as progressive, then all the better.”
To improve their LGBT-readiness, the TAT offers local hoteliers an important resource with the LGBT+ Travel Symposium, now in its second year. The 2019 edition included “sensitivity training master classes” for tourism professionals. The upshot? A better, smoother, more genuine hotel experience for all. Here are some of the ways Thailand’s push for LGBT+ travel is having a positive impact on local hospitality. Some may seem like simple logic, but that’s its own takeaway: good service often boils down to good manners.
The check-in desk is often the first place a guest is made to feel welcome. “It’s not great for [a same-sex couple] to travel to a hotel where they are going to be told they should be in two single beds,” says Ewan Taylor, General Manager of the X2 Riverside Resort in Chiang Mai. Instead, when two people check in together, staff have been trained to review the booking without making any judgment. If “two nights, king bed, breakfast included,” doesn’t illicit any comment from the guests, then it shouldn’t from staff either. Through sensitivity training, staff are prepared for guests whose appearance may not match the gender in their passport, for a same-sex couple traveling with children, or for any other traveler not fitting hetero-normative stereotypes.
For any hotel, anticipating travelers’ needs is a big part of providing excellent service. If guests are looking for a particular style of bar or nightlife, the concierge shouldn’t meet the request with a blank stare, but instead have those details at the ready. Hotels like SO Sofitel in Bangkok have staff in almost every department who themselves are members of the LGBT+ community, and who can provide “insider” information. Some are specifically designated as LGBT+ Ambassadors and act as the public faces of the hotel’s inclusiveness.
To give a face to the Go Thai. Be Free. Campaign, TAT enlisted Singaporean artist and social-media heavyweight Hirzi Zulki ie. “I was really intrigued when I was invited,” Zulki ie says. “Given the region’s political and social sensitivities, I was very impressed by this gutsy attempt at cementing [Thailand’s image] as Asia’s queer-friendly destination.” Singapore’s Article 377A still technically makes homosexuality a criminal act, and Zulki ie’s involvement will no doubt bring many more Singaporeans to Thailand. The benefits flow both ways: “Tomorrow, Singapore won’t have any excuses,” Zulki ie says.
Gay travelers, like all travelers, need general locality info—a fact many good-intentioned tour operators or hoteliers might overlook in their quest to be inclusive. The editor and designer of gothaibefree.com took a broad approach. “The original iteration was a gay-travel website,” says Uwern Jong. “But we flipped that. Now it’s a travel website for gay people. We feed your interests, but we’re not going to talk about Silom in every single article.” What you’ll see on the site is indicative of a new approach to LGBT+ travel where operators cover diverse topics like food and culture, as well as event and hotel listings skewed towards the LGBT+ crowd.
The X2 Chiang Mai Riverside Resort ensures that guests find creature comforts as soon as they arrive in their rooms. The vanity box comes with amenities drawers labeled His and Hers. But on check-in, the front desk staff know immediately if they need to switch them. “They phone through to housekeeping and it’s done before the guests get to the room,” says Taylor. The same goes for the personalized chocolates left at turndown in the evening. Sister hotel X2 Khao Lak Anda Mani Resort runs with a variation of the theme, switching out their gender-pronoun pillows as needed.
SO Sofitel Bangkok prides itself for being at the forefront of LGBT+ hospitality in Thailand. In addition to its LGBT+ Ambassadors, who take to social media to promote inclusivity, they host a monthly SO Pool Party—a regular feature since the hotel opened in 2012—and the annual Drag Me to SO pride party. The hotel has also hosted a number of international circuit parties including G-Circuit and White Party.
Insider content is always valuable, and the TAT leads the way with their free LGBT+ guidebook, Discover the Rainbow Side of Bangkok. Covering fashion, arts, shopping, muay Thai, hotels and more, it’s packed with anecdotes and interviews with cool locals, including a gallery owner, a transgender model and a chef.
Not all LGBT+-friendly hotels have designated products for same-sex couples. For many, it’s a case of being a judgment-free zone. “What makes us stand out as being LGBT-friendly is the fact that all guests are welcomed and given our utmost attention and service no matter their sexuality or gender,” says Thareeya Deasakorn Khamkar of Keemala Hotel Phuket. The Slate in Phuket, which occupies a similar stance, dubs it “all-welcome hospitality.”
• In the north of the country, X2 Chiang Mai Riverside Resort (x2resorts.com; suites from Bt6,460) brings sleek minimalism to the Ping River.
• Keemala Hotel Phuket (keemala.com; Clay Pool Cottages from Bt43,000) features luxurious private nests, cottages and villas nestled in native foliage.
• Chantaramas Resort and Spa in Koh Phangan (chantaramas.com; doubles from Bt4,724), on the remote and blissful Haad Yuan beach, is owned and operated by two sisters, whose philosophy is “treat everyone the same and never judge.”
• In far-flung Taling Ngam, the private pool villas of Avani+ Samui (avanihotels.com; Beachfront Pool villas from Bt13,548) come with Gulf views and a complete lack of raised eyebrows.
• The design-savvy SO Sofitel Bangkok (accorhotels.com; doubles from Bt4,420) offers themed rooms right in the middle of Bangkok, by Lumphini Park.
• The Oakwood Sriracha (oakwoodasia.com; studio from Bt2,340), has an open-to-all Lovers Package including room, romantic dinner and optional spa in the Thai Gulf-side town of Sri Racha.
• Gay-owned bungalow boutique Le Passe-Temps in Krabi (lepassetemps-krabi.com; bungalows from Bt3,075 per night), offers bespoke honeymoon packages, candlelight dinners and more.
• The beachfront garden property of Rabbit Resort (rabbitresort.com; doubles from Bt4,500) in Pattaya has been a seaside escape for Bangkokians for years, and is one of the few resorts where pets are allowed.