My most beloved tropical vacation began with a single border crossing. There is no other way to get to Dulles than to cross into Virginia. Coming from way-gay Washington, the locals seemed surprisingly hostile.
My partner and I had reserved a room at the Dulles Hilton to make our 6 a.m. departure a little bit easier. When we checked in, however, we found we were violating the local norms.
”Do you have another reservation?”
”The room we have you in only has one bed.”
”That’s what we reserved.”
After her flicker of recognition, the receptionist continued to check us in, avoiding eye contact. I like to think she was embarrassed by her unprofessional gaffe, rather than freaked out by her proximity to two flaming sodomites. Regardless, it was off to bed for us. We had time for a few hours’ sleep before the 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.
From there, several hours — more than a day’s worth — became one big blur. Take off, sleep, crappy movie, land. Repeat, and repeat again. Upon the final landing, the haze did not clear immediately. It was sometime just past midnight — or noon, as far as our internal clocks were concerned. Instead of taxiing to a gate, the gargantuan plane emptied directly onto the hot tarmac. The air was thick with humidity and the smell of jet fuel. Then on to fluorescent-lit labyrinths of baggage claim, passport control and the line for taxis. Our rough calculation was 35 hours from the wake-up call in Virginia to walking into the lobby of the Peninsula Bangkok, our hotel home for the next two nights.
Despite being strange men in a strange land, the reception we received could not have been more gracious. Passport, credit card, sign here, sign there, and our luggage was already waiting for us in our room. The only peculiarity was a reference to my partner on some paperwork, wherein he was referred to as ”Mrs. Garcia.” Otherwise, one bed and two boys did not raise an eyebrow.
After a couple days in Bangkok — a city of about 6.5 million, where we actually bumped into the one D.C. acquaintance we knew had moved there — and a few days at Phuket’s Patong beach, I’d come to think that Thailand must be the most accommodating, most welcoming, friendliest country in the world. This was Montreal-caliber gaiety, but with Pad Thai instead of poutine, a definite plus. It was the Netherlands, but with coconuts instead of coffee shops.
One morning at breakfast, however, I suspected that there might be a limit to Thai friendliness. Each morning, we’d have breakfast in the open-air dining room. And every morning, Handee, who looked to be about 20, was our waiter. He liked to bounce his English off of us, as most of the guests were Flemish-speaking Belgians. And why bother learning Flemish? This morning, however, Handee was making a hard sell, pushing us to attend the hotel’s weekly ”gala dinner” that evening. We were not enthused. We planned to spend our day on a gay-run daytrip visiting two isolated beaches. We expected to roll back to the hotel sandy and exhausted. And we had no idea what a ”gala dinner” was. We conjured images of luaus and obligatory cheer, tiki torches and bad music.
We tried to explain to Handee that we had other plans. To our excuses, he feigned language-barrier ignorance. Finally, I trotted myself over to the hotel’s collection of tourist brochures and pamphlets, and found the one advertising the ”Gay Day Trip to Egg Island!” Surely, there would be no playing dumb this time. It did mean, however, outing ourselves. I worried that he thought our wives might be back in our rooms sleeping, and I didn’t want to threaten Handee’s cheery disposition toward us. Still, honesty is the best policy.
”We’re going on this tour,” I said, offering the brochure to Handee. He studied it, and sort of nodded. And he stopped smiling. We didn’t see Handee for the rest of the morning. He cleared our coffee cups and the rest after we’d left.
My partner and I discussed the possible fallout as we packed our things for our ”gay day” at the beach. Had we really shocked him? Perhaps Handee was no Buddhist, but rather a conservative Catholic? Would he start spitting in our coffee? Those considerations — and nearly all the others of our adult lives — evaporated as we sped across the Andaman Sea with a boatload of new gay pals. We snorkeled, played volleyball, and drank Thai whiskey. My partner got drafted for an impromptu drag chorus line on the beach, along with a jolly gay guy from Beijing. He was a Communist Party bureaucrat, thrilled to meet Americans who could tell him how the final season of Sex and the City played out. ”I am just like Carrie Bradshaw!” he squealed.
When we returned to our hotel at dusk, we tried to tiptoe past the preparations for the evening’s fete. We could not help but notice, however, that a table with our names on it was sitting front and center, facing an area cleared by the pool for entertainment of some sort. The pressure to comply was overwhelming, so up to the room to shower off the sand and put on long pants.
We seated ourselves just in time for the show — five acts of drag performances, complete with elaborate costumes, back-up boy dancers and divas. Just when Thailand couldn’t get any gayer, it had. And when Handee’s breakfast attitude seemed to make Thailand a little less tolerant than we’d imagined, it shouldn’t have. For here was Handee — not in drag, but performing the grand finale nonetheless. In military fatigue pants and a headband, Handee was twirling balls of fire on chains as a boom box blared the ’80s heavy-metal chestnut ”The Final Countdown.” After the show, Handee introduced us to his girlfriend, whose circus family had taught him the fire trade. It turned out that Handee was not disappointed that we were gay, but that we were going to miss his surprise performance. His beaming expression was evidence that he was thrilled we made it.
Handee’s enthusiasm was a fitting close for our few days in paradise. It represented the attitude we were treated to repeatedly on that vacation. Beyond temples and beaches and jungles, it was the friendliness, warmth and laissez-faire attitude prevalent among the Thais we met that offered us a vacation from reality.
So while the marketing may insist that Virginia is for lovers, don’t buy it. Thailand — the ”land of smiles” — is the place that actually lives up to its P.R.