Prologue: Foodies rejoice.
I’ve barely had time to process my jet lag before we dive into our itinerary. More than every Out Adventure I’ve enjoyed to date, this one is about the food. We skip the traditional Welcome Dinner and head to the night markets for a street food tour that begins at dusk. Anthony Bourdain would have been proud. What the stalls and restaurants lacked in pretence they made up for with mesmerizing mouthfeel, and things only got saltier from there.
Scene 1: This restaurant is called what!?
Thailand is famous for being sexually liberal. An ex-politician and philanthropist named Mechai Viravaidya, better known as The Condom King, has made great strides in normalizing safer sex practices. Condom-blowing contests have been held. Taxi drivers have supplied condoms to fares. Mr. Viravaidya even convinced Buddhist monks to sprinkle holy water on condoms (I try to picture the Catholic priests of my childhood handing out prophylactics during the Eucharist and my brain will not compute).
Viravaida also founded a restaurant chain called Cabbages & Condoms to support and educate the communities where it operates. The name is based on the sentiment that condoms should be as easy to find as market veggies. Would “Cucumbers & Condoms” have been too on the nose? Carrots & Condoms? Courgettes & Condoms?!
Scene 2: Opium, anyone?
Cross-border shopping is as popular in Thailand as it is back home. Up north near Chiang Mai we ferried across the Khong River to Laos. The area is called The Golden Triangle, and the nations share a third border with Myanmar as well. There were indigenous snacks to sample, knockoff labels aplenty, and an impressive selection of spirits including…opium whisky?! Yes, Laotian libations include Liquid Morphine with a built-in bourbon chaser. And beware that any high to be had would be harshed by sobering realities of The Hall of Opium…our next stop after lunch. The museum chronicles how the drug ravaged the region and the world. We followed a proverbial trail of poppy seeds from the early opium dens of Bangkok to our modern opioid crisis. The dioramas could verge on camp but ultimately the stop made its point: good times with opium are bad news.
Scene 3: Now we’re cooking with fish sauce.
One night in Chiang Mai we tried our own hands at cooking dinner (I told you food was a big deal on this tour). To get into the spirit our local guide Tony had us don traditional Thai ‘shorts’ known as chong kraben. It entailed wrapping a single piece of silk around our waists and up between our legs. Before our class, Tony actually paraded us through the market wearing these outfits. The locals – who wore Western clothing for the record – had a good laugh at the silly North American homosexuals. Then we bought fresh coconut milk that’s so perishable it needs to be cooked or chilled within an hour of pressing or it goes bad.
Then our instructors brought us to their home, where our lesson was held in the backyard’s fully equipped classroom. Out Adventures has worked with this family for over a decade, since we were a fledgling company and their classes were held inside the home. Today the school is hugely popular with culinary tourists visiting Chiang Mai.
We began by tossing our papaya salads – not too spicy – followed by chicken curry and prawn pad thai. Dessert was mango sticky rice and it was divine simplicity. We took a break between courses to eat family-style while sipping ice-cold Singha lagers.
Scene 4: A fantastic drag.
If you don’t see a drag show in Thailand you may as well stay home. The girls are sickening. They came to slay. And they all serve fresh tilapia, as Gia Gunn would say. We hit the famous cabaret in the Chiang Mai Night Market, which is at the end of a long hall…right next to a macho Muay Thai boxing ring that really emphasized the violence factor. Such a setup might spell trouble in conservative North American red zones…but this is Thailand. In fact, a large cohort of straight Australian dude-bros attened our show, one admittedly less than impressed about his sloppy kiss from a performer. If you have social anxiety, stay out of the splash zone and try not to look like a wounded gazelle…the girls can smell your fear and thrive on public shaming.
The show was a blast. It married modern pop, feathery camp and sometimes atrocious lip syncing. My pro-tip would be to bring lots of bills to tip the performers. The cover charge was small but the performers gave it their all.
The Grand Finale: Songkran Festival
If you find yourself on the April departure (Out Adventures visits Thailand four times a year), you’ll get to partake in Songkran – or Thai New Year. The entire nation celebrates with a daylong water fight. Soaker pistols and buckets of ice water come out with primary school glee. Tradition dictates wearing lots of colour so we picked up tropical shirts and prepared to get soaking wet.
Denouement: Making wishes on Phang Nga Bay
On our last full day, following the madness of Songkran in the city, we escaped to the quiet side of Phuket Island: Phang Nga Bay. A one-hour boat ride brought us into a stunning archipelago where mangrove forests, bat-filled caves, secret lagoons and coral reefs awaited discovery.
To end of our afternoon – and our trip – we worked in pairs and built krathongs. These traditional floating baskets are made with banana leaves and flowers, then released while making a wish. As we released our creations I gave thanks for the epic journey. From the delicious food to the jubilant culture to their warm embrace of the LGBTQ-munity, it was clear why Thailand is Out Adventures’ most popular destination.
Care to join us in Thailand? Out Adventures visits the Land of Smiles four times a year. Our December (American New Year) and April (Thai New Year/Songkran) excursions feature extra-special itineraries.
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All photos courtesy of Lino DiNallo, or local guide Tony, unless otherwise noted.