The world’s most unrivalled beach scene—and the nearby Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse—are just two of the multitude of reasons that Pattaya and adjacent Jomtien Beach, Thailand, continue to be sought-after destinations for gay men everywhere.
I’m completely hooked on Pattaya, Thailand after several visits in recent years so I decided to have my 2008 “summer sabbatical by the sea” in the resort community where I was an “artist in residence” at the Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse. I should add that when I say “Pattaya” I’m referring to the greater area which also includes the community of Jomtien Beach about a 10-15 minute away (or longer because of traffic in the high season). While Pattaya offers something for everyone, this story is about the experience available for gay men.
Right out of the gate, I love Pattaya because it has so much in common with the hometown of my heart, Palm Springs, California—attracting an openly gay international crowd, hobnobbing in an affordable resort setting in which people from all walks of life welcome them with open arms. Gay men travel to Pattaya from all over the world because they can be themselves, let their hair down so to speak (if they still have it!), and truly relax. During my sabbatical, I was reminded how, for many, a visit to Thailand is an escape from harsh realities back home.
In a van ride from Bangkok I met three gay tourists who themselves had become friends in Bangkok. Two were from Malaysia and one was from China. They did not know where to stay when we arrived in Pattaya, so I gave my friend, Punya Ratana—the owner of both the Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse and Howard’s Guesthouse and Bar—a call, and we booked the gentlemen into Howard’s, only 500 baht per night for a standard room in the low season (more on Howard’s later in the story), which was more within their budget than the still very reasonable off-season rate of 1,500 baht per night at the Sansuk (2,000 baht per night in the high season).
The next day we were at Dongtan Beach, also known as Jomtien Beach, in the gay section. I saw two guys holding hands while walking toward the water and I pointed this out to one of my new friends from Malaysia. His mouth dropped open. He asked if he could take a picture. He had never in his life seen two men holding hands. It occurred to me in that moment that I have taken being openly-gay for granted having lived the bulk of my adult life in places like West Hollywood, Palm Springs and the San Francisco Bay areas of California, and more recently in Bangkok.
Sure, a handful of people who come to Thailand live in these accepting communities, but the vast majority of gay tourists visiting Thailand come here so they can experience a few days or weeks in their lives when they can truly be themselves. The harsh reality is that in many countries around the world, you can still be imprisoned and/or executed for being gay. In fact, weeks before I wrote this story, I read at Fridae.com of gay Muslim participants in the Miss Universe Asia 2008 contest who were arrested and fined in Malaysia for dressing as women for the pageant. Other participants barely got away, and 300 people had gathered to watch the festivities.
In July, 2008, a Turkish student was murdered in what is believed to be a gay honor killing. Also reported at Fridae.com, “According to a report in the UK Independent newspaper…Ahmet Yildiz, an openly gay physics student was shot as he was leaving a cafe' near the Bosphorus strait. He tried to flee in his car and was pronounced dead in the hospital. Known as Turkey’s gay poster boy, he had represented his country at an international gay gathering in San Francisco last year.”
Sobering thoughts I know, but anyone of us blessed enough to experience a seaside vacation in a gay-friendly resort where we can walk on the beach holding hands need to remember those who have gone before us to earn such acceptance, and those still giving their lives for the cause elsewhere in the world. Now, back to the lighter side of things!
THE SANSUK SAUNA AND GUESTHOUSE
Staying at the Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse is like staying in a palatial countryside villa where every day your host throws a pool party on your behalf so you can meet and mingle with new friends and fellow travelers. Located a pleasant five-minute walk from the main road connecting Pattaya and Jomtien Beach, the Sansuk may have “guesthouse” in its name but it is really a resort pretending to be a guesthouse, so well-equipped that if you never want to leave, you don’t have to.
For disclosure purposes, I did arrange to stay at the Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse in order to review it—I was spoiled and stayed for a month (so I know what I’m writing about!)—but this is not an advertorial. This is my honest assessment, and I will offer suggestions for improvements at the Sansuk as well.
Quite simply, the “Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse” is the answer to many questions you might have about your Pattaya vacation, including:
Where can I go to meet gay men of all ethnicities?
Where can I go to meet gay men of all ages?
Where can I meet a mature Thai man who likes mature men?
Where can I go to meet a man for romance who does not want to charge me?
Where can I go, day or night, if I do not want to be in a bar?
Where can I relax in a private, gay, resort-style setting?
Where can I stay if I don’t want to be in an urban, congested, noisy area?
Where do I go after the beach but before I go out at night?
Where do I go on the religious holidays when most of the bars are closed?
Where can I stay that is new, modern, stylish, and offers great value for my money?
“Palatial countryside villa” is truly an accurate description of the Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse. Far away from traffic and nightlife noise, the resort is built on a large parcel of land between two roads, one which leads to the sauna and the other which leads to the guesthouse. The three-story guesthouse features 19 spacious rooms built around an open-air, plant-filled atrium. On each level of the atrium are comfortable lounge areas in which to sit and read.
The rooms themselves are spacious, most of them L-shaped with pleasant views, especially from the upper floor. The luxurious handmade hardwood furnishings include a king-sized bed frame (with a fantastic, comfortable mattress), two love seats, marble-topped end tables and matching coffee table, a large wardrobe, a coat rack, a marble-topped cabinet containing the refrigerator with additional shelving, a desk and chair, and another table holding the cable TV and DVD player. Each room also has a ceiling fan, recessed halogen lighting with dimmer, remote-controlled air conditioning, bedside reading lamps, hot water pot (refreshed daily by staff) with coffee and tea service, and a plug and play ADSL high-speed internet connection. An in-room safe is also standard with double locks on the room doors, and closed-circuit TV has been added to keep an eye on the public areas of the guesthouse.
The bathrooms are also quite spacious and most importantly, since the building is new, you won’t have any issues with hot water or water pressure, and the plumbing works very well. The large walk-in shower is big enough for a party; the bathroom floor has beautiful, dark, Italian-style ceramic tile; and the main suite has cream-colored large square tiles. And everything is spotless! Also, since the guesthouse is in a countryside setting, the area is very quiet at night and in the morning, quite conducive to sound sleeping.
Forget anything you know about the word “sauna” as it typically applies to gay men. What the Sansuk offers is really much more like a country club without the golf course. Located immediately adjacent to the guesthouse, the area includes on the ground level a swimming pool with a gorgeous waterfall-style fountain at one end; a Jacuzzi, dry sauna and steam rooms; large shaded lounge areas with sofas and tables; chaise lounges and chairs for sunning; a fitness room with weights and cardio equipment; plus several showers and two locker rooms. Also on the ground floor is the large indoor-outdoor restaurant, with adjacent living-room style seating complete with big screen TV and surround sound, usually playing a major Hollywood movie or a great concert, such as Celine Dion, Kyle Minogue or P. Bird.
Quiet, serene, peaceful and solitary describes this area before 3:00 p.m. each day, when residents of the guesthouse have it all to themselves. And frankly, I do not know of any other commercial property in this part of Thailand that offers a private pool in an all-gay setting. Sure, you can stay at a four or five-star resort with their mammoth lagoon-style pools, but you may very well be surrounded by people who do not want you to simply be yourself on your own vacation! Poolside at the Sansuk, in the morning, read the newspaper, enjoy coffee or tea and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and your choice of three Thai-style or three American-style breakfasts (included in your room rate).
Yes, I’ve declared that “every day on your behalf your host throws a party so you can meet and mingle with new friends and fellow travelers.” Let me tell you why this is so spectacular.
Thailand for the most part does not have traditional bars where you can see someone you like across the room, start a conversation, and presto, a new friendship or liaison ensues. Most of the “bars” in the area offer commercial opportunities for you to meet the man of your dreams, and by the time you’ve bought drinks, paid the establishment, and tipped your date later that night or the next morning, you’ve spent at least 2,000 baht or more (Over $60 USD). In addition, the men you’ll meet in these bars tend to be in their early 20’s. These establishments can be quite fun, but they’re not for everyone, including me (although I enjoy watching many of the cabaret shows).
The beach scene is also fabulous, which I’ll describe later in the story, but you really don’t have an opportunity to meet your fellow travelers at the beach unless you go regularly and are very outgoing, and most of the other people who will talk to you have something for sale, sometimes even themselves.
When on vacation, I like to meet people from all over the world who are also on vacation, and if sex or romance is in the cards, I prefer a man closer to my own age who wants me for my heart, soul and body, and not my wallet—which unfortunately is one of the least-bulging things about me. On another note, I am personally not interested in anonymous sex. I much prefer to at least have a conversation with someone first, if not at a proper date! Also, while Asian men are stunning and I have dated my fair share, I like men of all ethnicities.
Another important part of this equation is that there are countless wonderful, independent, employed Thai men of all ages who are interested in meeting each other and tourists for friendship or more, but where are they to go? You clearly, by now, know the answer to this question!
As a resident of the Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse, I stake out with a towel and a book, the best-placed chaise lounge—before the sauna opens, even if I then return to my room for a bit. The admission to the sauna varies but on average is 180 baht (just over $5.00 USD). Upon entering, you are given a key to a locker in which are towels and some added items to assist you in having a “safe” time.
On the ground floor of the sauna virtually everyone is wearing a towel, and underneath, a swimsuit, as the place is not clothing optional. Another thing I love about the sauna is that there are very few public displays of affection, and while the establishment is not open to women, if your grandmother was at least gay-friendly, she would feel quite comfortable on the ground level of the “country club.” In other words, the “sexual temperature” is very low, and there is nothing in view that would be offensive to anyone with conservative or even prudish sensibilities.
Your locker key is on an elastic wrist or ankle band and has a number on it which you show to the waiter when ordering beverages or food—added to your bill which you pay upon leaving. Speaking of food, which is one of my favorite subjects, here is the lowdown.
Even after weeks of eating in the restaurant, I am consistently surprised and delighted at the quality, variety, and affordability of the food coming out of the Sansuk kitchen, including your favorite Thai dishes, but also a not-to-be-believed four-course, nightly dinner special for only 199 baht (around $5.50 to $6.00 USD). While not served on the same night, among the various nightly special options, my favorite soup is the French Onion, favorite appetizer the shrimp cocktail, favorite main course the meat Lasagna (they had Tuna Lasagna one night, and on another, filet mignon!), and favorite desert, apple pie, which I requested be heated and paid extra for a scoop of ice cream. During the high season they offer an all-you-can-eat buffet!
For those who drink, there is an extensive bar menu, and for those of us who do not, a wide variety of fruit shakes, juices, and other non-alcoholic beverages. All of this food and drink is brought to you by very friendly staff dressed in crisp white shirts and shorts with black bow ties, exuding the ultimate in authentic Thai hospitality. Speaking of staff, there is quite a “family feeling” among them and as a guest you are part of the family. Another reason for that family feel is that many of the staff members are in fact part of the extended family of the owner, Khun (Thai for Mr. or Mrs.) Punya Ratana.
The second floor of the sauna has a terrace overlooking the pool, with another bar, and a massage room where a handsome masseur will give you a traditional Thai or oil massage starting at 500 baht per hour. Also on the second floor is a series of in-door private “relaxation rooms” with appropriate mood lighting, and more showers. The third floor offers more of the same, plus an additional steam room and a “disco” area.
The second and third floors resemble what you might more readily associate with a gay men’s sauna, but if you don’t venture to these floors you wouldn’t even know they existed. I am a self-professed prude and prefer not to venture to the upper floors. This has not prevented, me, however, from meeting men the old-fashioned way, over drinks and good food, on the ground level.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MAGIC
What annoys me the most is that when a successful gay Thai man is in business, and happens to have close Farang (foreigner) friends, people assume that the Thai is simply a front man for the talent and money of the Farang. This is very often not the case, especially as it applies to Khun Punya, very much a self-made man who has for his entire life demonstrated a great work ethic, loyalty to friends and family, a keen business sense, and the ability to risk moving ahead in life with a genuine entrepreneurial spirit.
From a family of seven children, Khun Punya dropped out of school at age 12 and entered the work force. By age 17 he was the primary cook for 50 fishermen. He saved and saved money, finished high school of his own volition, and at age 21 worked for a year in a major Bangkok hotel. He then took some of his savings, stopped working, and attending a hotel institute operated by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Later, when working at another hotel and tending to the buffet, Punya met Howard who would become one of his closest friends and a life companion.
During this time in Punya’s life, he also learned to invest in the stock market. He would ultimately move to the United States with Howard but knew all along that he would not be included in Howard’s will (Howard’s wealth was already in trust for his children from a previous marriage) and never surrendered his independence. Punya was motivated by love and friendship, and not money. In fact, after caring for Howard for many years, within days if Howard’s death, Punya was evicted by Howard’s family from the home he and Howard had shared, and he returned to Thailand about one month later.
Punya’s business sense had left him with his own hard-earned wealth, but not blessed completely with the touch of gold, he lost three million baht in a business venture in Krabi before ultimately settling in Pattaya where he opened, with his own money, Howard’s Guesthouse and Bar—named in tribute to his late friend and life partner.
As the years went by, Punya was consistently asked by world-traveled gay visitors to Pattaya, “Where’s the sauna?” There wasn’t one! Punya’s entrepreneurial spirit alive and well, he ultimately decided to fill this void in the local market himself, and he secured a suitable property—what was the Le Colonial Hotel—but soon learned the structure would need to be torn down. Thus, a brand new villa-like structure was built, the Sansuk Sauna and Guesthouse was born, and a good time is being had by all.
HOWARD’S GUESTHOUSE AND BAR
Located in Soi VC (“Soi” means “street” in Thai and V.C. refers to the name of the hotel at the mouth of Soi V.C.), Howard’s has been described as “Pattaya’s friendliest guesthouse” and Punya has been described, and rightfully so, as “personable, with loads of charm and charisma.”
There are several reasons to stay at Howard’s, including the price (as low as 500 baht per night in the off season), the location (walking distance form Boystown and Walking Street), and the first-floor bar where you can “enjoy a drink and the company of the delightful young freelance lads (no bar-fine) before venturing out to explore the many delights night-time Pattaya has to offer.”
Howard’s has an elevator which is most unusual for a guesthouse for those who cannot or choose not to navigate stairs, and the standard rooms (600 baht during the high season) have queen-sized beds, air conditioning, shower, cable TV and refrigerator. The VIP room (1500 baht per night year-round) has all of the same features plus a spacious seating area with sofa, chairs and coffee table, as well as a private balcony. There is also much to see and do in the nearby neighborhoods.
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