Far East Escape

By Justin Ocean

Originally published on Advocate.com August 04 2009 11:00 PM ET

My obsession with all things Asian started in high school, fueled by a steady diet: I consumed animé cartoons with a Filipino friend, kung fu movies with an Indian friend, and traditional food served by parents of both. By college I had two years of Japanese language under my belt as well as my first kanji (Japanese script) character tattoo. When my sister gave me some cheap Thai souvenir chopsticks, they might as well have been jewel-encrusted accessories from Bangkok's Grand Palace itself. In short order visiting Asia seemed like a trip of a lifetime -- far removed from anything I knew in hometown Reno, Nev., or at college in Boston. Brimming with mysterious customs, untamed energy, and vibrant color, it looked like the ultimate escape.

Over the past few years, as I've gotten the chance to explore the region -- particularly Southeast Asia and China -- it has proved as exciting as I'd imagined, and for more complex reasons than generic exoticism or naive fetishism. On a basic level Asia offers up activities for any appetite. I've lost myself in the techno future of Shanghai and lain languidly by jungle rivers in Laos, braved bedbugs at $5-a-night budget hotels and spent a few hundred on five-star luxury -- still a bargain.

Last fall I visited Cambodia and was impressed by even that tiny, sleepy country's wealth of offerings. After a sobering afternoon at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Phnom Penh, I fortified myself with martinis at the Foreign Correspondents' Club before hopping on the back of a motorcycle taxi, whizzing down dusty, traffic-clogged streets past crumbling French Colonial buildings to an off-the-radar gay bar. The joint was packed with locals singing pop ballads and drag queens performing traditional apsara (nymph) dance. Despite, or perhaps because of, the nation's war-torn history (Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge exterminated vast swaths of people over 30), the young crowd exuded a boisterous optimism. The next day I traded in torch songs for a kayak, dove through waterfalls, and dined on fresh fish at a solar-powered eco resort. By the end of the week I was in Siem Reap, where legit $6-an-hour full-body massages were key to recovering from days spent playing Indiana Jones at the centuries-old temples in the Angkor Wat complex; its massive, pockmarked stones are bulwarks in a futile battle against the jungle's creep. All I was missing was some beach time, but neighboring Thailand and its multitude of islands promised plenty of that -- so off I went.

For an out traveler, it's invigorating to not only travel openly but also see a queer community coming into its own, unhindered by Judeo-Christian shame -- though many cultures don't parse gender and orientation as finely as we do. Buddhism, the predominant religion throughout Southeast Asia, has no prohibitions on same-sex love; Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia are different stories. Pride celebrations and LGBT identity are still relatively new concepts in parts of Asia. In Cambodia, for example, there's no word for gay as we understand it; the idea of homosexuality is conflated with being trans or dressing in drag. It took labors to explain to a local girl that one can be both a man and gay -- the thought of it nearly had her tumbling out of her seat laughing. Over in Thailand, with no history of antigay government repression, there's not really a proper gay movement because there's nothing to move against. Ladyboys (MTF transsexuals) are an integral part of the culture. If anything keeps closet doors shut, it's pressure to have a family and an aversion to any overt sexual behavior. Meanwhile, for better or worse, financial pressures keep sexual boundaries fluid. It's nearly impossible to avoid coming into contact with Southeast Asia's widespread sex industry, especially in tourist-oriented gay venues.

Perhaps more than anything, what keeps me coming back to the region is Asia's uncanny ability to help me to reset my boundaries and challenge my expectations. Squat toilets washed my notions of American antiseptic comfort and hygiene down the drain. In China the concepts of personal space and privacy evaporate -- especially for a tall white guy like me. Feeling like something between an international superstar and a free-range zoo animal, I couldn't walk 20 feet at the Beijing Olympic Green without being asked to pose with Grandma.

Throughout Asia, open-air city markets constantly redefine the edible. Raw meat and fish swelter unrefrigerated in Phnom Penh's tropical heat. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, fresh ant eggs, boiled duck fetus, and snakes, scorpions, and skewers of barbecued frog made it to my plate. And in Lijiang in Yunnan, China, canines joined the list of local livestock one could buy alive.

These and countless other surprises continually confronted me. Why is there an elephant holding up traffic in the middle of Bangkok's Silom Road gay district? And why does a sign in a Singaporean gay bar admonish, "No hugging. No kissing. No dancing. No winking. No looking longingly," and list 10 other prohibitions on actual or perceived same-sex interactions? The trick is learning to adjust your perception. The elephant was being used to hustle for money. And that homophobic sign? It's just one layer in the complex cultural codes pitting official laws (gay sex is still illegal) against unofficial practices (it's not prosecuted anymore) that make Asian gay life intriguing.

And therein lies the challenge -- and reward -- of traveling in the region. I've lived and worked in Europe and crisscrossed North and South America, but I've never felt as alienated from a new culture as I do in Asia. That's actually a good thing. With that alienation comes a freedom to make mistakes and shuck the typical pressure of trying to be an inconspicuous tourist. In Asia, I can only ever be a tourist (and, being Caucasian, will always look like one), so why not be totally unabashed, forget yourself, and enjoy the ride? I can't think of a better escape than that.