LGBT City Breaks
Words by Katie Aitken
Whether it’s a well deserved mini vacation, a visa run or simply a predisposition to a European lifestyle, the phenomenon of the city break is sweeping across Asia providing yuppies everywhere with a way to get their travel fix.
While the first places that spring to mind for LGBT city break havens are likely to be American or European based, there are plenty of gems hidden around Asia, providing flavours that cater for all pallets.
Here are a few Asian LGBT city break ideas for you to mull over!
Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh
This city combines South East Asian culture with injections of a European vibe. The influences from the French, who occupied the area for nearly a century from the mid 1800s, are still present in the beautiful architecture, a huge portion of the expat community and the exquisite bread!
Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, Saigon Central Post Office are but a few buildings worth checking out if soaking up the atmosphere of times gone by and appreciating the grandeur of these somewhat out of place buildings is what floats your boat. If you are prepared to also whip around the busy streets and admire these places from a rented motorbike, you can easily and affordably epitomize what the city represents.
Also a city worth visiting if you are in need of a spot of pampering. NaDam Spa is arguably the best gay spa in the city, offering everything you would expect of a quality sauna (swimming pool, hot tub, steam room, sauna, salt-scrub room and massage services). The clean, lavish atmosphere leaves the 195,000dong (approx. $10) charge to use the facilities at an absolute bargain. Alternatively, if you are looking for something a little less indulgent, you should check out Nguyen Tri Phuong swimming pool located in district 10. The changing rooms are supposedly the place to be between 4-6pm!
The food is certainly not something to be missed out on. A foodie’s paradise, with a variety of cuisines available. One restaurant that comes highly recommended is Quan Thuy Linh, located in district 3. This small, unpretentious restaurant offers quality Vietnamese/Chinese style dishes but the essential thing that differentiates this place from the surrounding eateries in the area, is that it is mostly staffed by transgender waitresses. The restaurant boasts fresh food, a great selection of wines and notably excellent service.
Thailand – Bangkok
The capital of this South East Asian country, commonly referred to as ‘The Land of Smiles’, is a mesh of contradictions, where the modern and the ancient stand side by side, as well as the revered and the debaucherous.
A hot spot for LGBT partying. ‘DJ Station’ on Silom Soi 2, is an institute, with gogo shows and drag performances. Unsurprisingly, it is packed almost beyond capacity on Friday and Saturday nights. A more recent addition is ‘The Stranger Bar’ on Silom Soi 4. A New York style bar spread over three floors, offering cheap drinks charmingly named things like ‘golden shower’, a glitzy interior and a mixed crowd of locals and tourists of all ages and backgrounds.
The city is also famed for its various, sprawling markets. Patpong is a famous night market worth visiting for knock-off designer clothes and accessories as well as an abundance of interesting characters. Chatuchak is the largest market in the country and a real maze to navigate, so if you spot something that you like, you would be well advised to take the plunge and buy it there and then since chances of you retracing your steps to find the right stall again are slim.
Since your holiday budget will go pretty far here, it is also worth considering if you need any dental work! Silom Dental, located on Silom Road, has become a regular practice for many expats based all over Asia. They have a reputation for being professional and hygienic and due to having been mostly trained in America, speaking English isn’t a problem.
Taiwan – Taipei
Considered to have the most vibrant and openly gay scene in Asia, perhaps even more so than Thailand. There are several contributing factors for this, one of which being that throughout Taiwan’s history, it has been occupied by various nations, which has resulted in the island adapting to different cultures over the years. Consequently, Taiwanese society is particularly diverse within Asia since the people come from a variety of different origins.
In Taipei there is a concentrated gay area, which is located in the Red House District. This area is hot for designer and high-street shopping, restaurants, bars and clubs. If nightlife is a high priority for you, this is the place to be. While Saturday nights are unsurprisingly the busiest, Wednesday nights are referred to as ‘little weekends’ so you can expect clubs to be slightly busier on this night compared to other weekday evenings. If you can schedule yourself to be there during a national holiday, chances are you can find a G5 circuit party going on, which are some of the biggest LGBT parties in the whole of Asia. However, there are plenty of other options should you miss out on a big one, including some rarities in Asia. For example, Taipei is also home to ‘Commander’, a S&M bar for the leather and fetishists out there.
Due to Taipei’s overall chilled and welcoming atmosphere, it is a good choice of destination if you are looking to combine your city break with a romantic get-away. Every style of holidaying can be catered for here, from relaxing in hot springs (such as Chuan Tang Hot Spring) to being a bit more active and soaking up some culture around the city. Highlights include catching a ferry to Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf to see the landmark Love Bridge, complete with rainbow colours and watching the changing of the guard at the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall.
Japan – Tokyo
Tokyo inspires thoughts of cleanliness, conservatism and expense. While those impressions are not a million miles off the mark, there is a pleasant upside which has come about in more recent years. There is no getting away from the fact that Tokyo is an expensive city but when set alongside cities such as New York, London or Paris, where the standard of restaurants, hotels and shopping are on a par, it is more affordable by comparison. Similarly, the conservative culture is an undeniable aspect of Japan but there is also a new wave of enthusiasm for gay liberation.
The sense of style and individuality that is encouraged in Japan makes Tokyo a good spot for boutique shopping. A particularly dense ‘Ku’ or ward of Tokyo to investigate for such shops is Shibuya, which is home to popular boutiques like ‘Faline’ and ‘Candy’.
If you prefer to spend your evening in a bar rather than in a club, Tokyo has plenty to offer on that front too. Ni-Chome in the Shinjuku ward has the highest concentration of gay bars of anywhere in the world so definitely worth a visit. Popular spots include ‘Dragon Men’, which is one of the largest bars in the area. It has a laid-back feel to it, and is accommodating to all. ‘Advocates Café’ in the same area is another popular choice with a bit more of a party buzz due to clientele spilling onto the street to drink and mingle.
China – Shanghai
The largest city in the world; influenced, resided in and operated by the nations’ youth. Due to its rapid developments over the past 20 years, Shanghai has become a global center for media, fashion, business and finance. The city itself is split by the Huangpu River, separating East from West and the old from the new. Unlike many other Asian cities, Shanghai doesn’t have a specific gay district. However, the Old French Concession area, one of the richest neighbourhoods, has several popular gay venues.
Shanghai boasts Asia’s biggest LGBT dance club, ‘Icon’ located in Shanghai Stadium. Parties are thrown on weekends by entertainment brand, Angel, bringing in huge crowds and an electric vibe! Another hotspot is ‘390 Bar’ in the Changning district, offering great cocktails and live music. While the décor is typical, the relaxed bar area in the front area with the heavier clubbing area at the back where the live performances happen make it a worthwhile place to go.
In between the inevitable sightseeing and shopping that Shanghai invites travelers to while away their time doing, there are several highly recommended saunas to kick back at. One such place is ‘Hero Man Spa’ located in the Putuo district is a large men-only spa, offering foot massage, Thai style full body massage, traditional Chinese massage and hydraulic massage.
Indonesia – Bali
Accounting for the vast majority of Indonesia’s tourism, this island is renowned for its beautiful landscapes consisting of stunning beaches, rugged coastlines and a backdrop of magnificent mountains. A popular area to visit and stay in Bali for visitors keen to be near the LGBT scene that has developed, is Seminyak. Considering the size of the island (144km x 80km) along with the good public transportation system, it is easy enough to get around to try out different areas specialties.
The first thing that springs to mind has got to be the white sandy beaches with different spots attracting different crowds, be it young families, hardcore party animals or nudists. For those looking specifically for beaches reeling in gay sun worshippers, there are two firm favourites. These are Batu Belig Beach and Double Six Beachboth of which are located in the Seminyak vicinity. The area around the café on Batu Belig Beach is frequented with gay men while Double Six Beach has an area marked out with rainbow flags which attracts both locals and tourists alike.
As for the nightlife, the LGBT area may be small but it is certainly lively! Popular bars are ‘Mixwell’ and its neighbor ‘Bali Joe’ which most people bar-hop between, enjoying reasonably priced drinks and the nightly drag shows. These two bars along with several others are concentrated around an area called Jalan Camplung Tanduk, known as Dhyana Pura.
Bali also offers some exclusively gay guesthouses to stay at. One example of these places that comes highly recommended is ‘Villa Angelo’ in Seminyak, very close to the nightlife. This guesthouse is decorated in the Balinese style and appeals to both Indonesian’s looking for a staycation and single or coupled up travelers. Most notably, this guesthouse is one of the several in the area that has a ‘clothing optional’ policy.
Hong Kong – Hong Kong, China
One of the most densely populated areas in the world! Hong Kong is truly unique and due to being a British Colony up until 1997, when it was transferred over to China, there are many visible cultural influences. As well as the shopping, culture, saunas and a vibrant nightlife, Hong Kong is also home to Disneyland if you are looking for an injection of innocent fun!
The gay scene is focused on Hong Kong Island in an area referred to as Soho. Noteworthy bars include ‘T:ME’ which has an exposed, industrial-chic décor and is a favorite spot for a cocktail with friends. ‘Volume Beat’ is a bit more of a party venue attracting a young, hot crowd. If you are looking for a chilled but fun evening, check out their monthly ‘Big Gay Quiz Night’.
Hong Kong’s uniqueness means that you can have a totally different day planned for each day of your holiday. For example a beach day (Middle Bay Beach being the most popular beach for gay travelers), followed by a fun filled theme park day at Disneyland, followed by a day of shopping and dining out in the city surrounded by all the spectacular high rise buildings but with the option of visiting places such as ‘Nan Lian Garden’ when you are in need of some greenery and a quiet retreat away from the city buzz.