Friday afternoon - time to get out of your office drag and into something tight. If you're in the mood for fun under the sun and under the disco ball, you have two good choices in Thailand: Phuket and Pattaya. One is a city a little to the east of Bangkok, the other an island hundreds of kilometers to the south, which raises the question: which way to go for a good lay in the sand and hide-tanning?
Phuket is not ruled by the gay scene. If you ask a Thai about Phuket, only the gayest of the gay think of sex before the beach. "Of course you should go to Phuket," says Mick, if you can afford it, "for the nature." Most of the visitors come for the sun and the sand.
But if it's boys you want, boys you can get in the Paradise Complex. It's a small place compared with the gay centers of Bangkok and Pattaya, but it's easy to navigate, and there's a good variety of bars and clubs to choose from. Composed of a series of blocks of shop-houses, there's a rather limited selection of activities, (eating, drinking, sleeping, and rubbing) but within those varieties there's a lot to choose from. There are many small guest houses mingling among the bars. Connect, for example, is pleasant and central which makes it a little loud. D&P Guest House, at the back below the towering Royal Paradise Hotel, is quiet and ever so slightly snazzy. The nightlife in Phuket can also be fabulous and glitzy, with places like James Dean Bar and Boat Bar, favourites with visitors and regulars alike.
And if you're not feeling very sexy, you're always a few minutes' walk away from sex-neutral space. If you're sick of snuggling there's always snorkeling, and if that's not enough for you, the many scuba schools can teach you how to go down all the way. Patong Beach is the most crowded - it can feel like Fort Lauderdale during spring break. Kata and Karon Beaches are quieter, and Nai Yong, way up north, is virtually wild - or, rather, it technically is the wild - it's a national park. (That doesn't mean it's completely free of development, though.)
This is not the case with Pattaya. It's been called the "sex capital" of Thailand, and it's easy to see why: some folks say there are as many bars and boys-for-hire as there are grains of sand on Jomtien Beach, where the queer crowd swims and suns itself. That those people are really exaggerating doesn't take away the fact that there are a whole lot of discos, and go-go bars.
The tourist trade has also spawned a number of tourist traps, where you can kill a few hours with two of the things that many queers in Thailand like best: air conditioning and camp. Believe it or not, Ripley's has opened a franchise of its museum there, one among a number of attractions. Gao swears by the bumper cars.
Pattaya's gay scene is more commercial than Phuket's. While the money-boys mostly stay in the Paradise Complex in Phuket, in Pattaya, the whole city feels like it's up for grabs. There are many boys for sale in many areas. The scene here is much older and more thoroughly developed than it is in Phuket, and there's an active gay community here. (Recently, it held the Pattaya Gay Festival football tournament - that's soccer for people who speak American; many bars sponsored teams which played in an open field behind a furniture store in front of a crowd of football fans and sport-kit fanciers.)
But Pattaya has a down-side as well. Because the commercial scene is so well developed there, and because the place is so deeply associated with sex, it can be hard for some people to relax. "I felt like I was an enemy there," says Nut, who spent one weekend in Pattaya and isn't hurrying back. Some Asians feel that there's a competition going on for the attentions of Caucasians, and that it even drags in those who don't care and aren't interested. For Nut, who was just visiting with friends, it felt like he was being measured: "It was like, 'This is a new product!'" he said. For those with lesser sensitivites, though, or a hot bod, this might not be a bad experience.
More than any other city in Thailand, Pattaya makes sex visible. On the beach every day are sexually-active couples: older foreign men kissing and touching young women, young men, and very young children. Pederasty and pedophilia are illegal in Thailand (as is prostitution, technically) but it does happen there. And even for those who like to see and be seen, the omnipresence of sex can become overwhelming. A little bit can be enough. "If you go for one day or two days, I'm sure you'll be OK," Gao says as he makes plans for this weekend's jaunt, "But if stay for too long and it wears on you."
So, where to go for that weekend getaway? That depends on what you're looking for: an intense sex-on-the-beach experience, or a comfortable place to be gay and a place to get away from all that, too. There's no consensus about which spot is better; best to toss off that suit, grab your swimsuit and check both places out yourself.