Far East Escape
BY Justin Ocean
August 05 2009 12:00 AM ET
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.