Gay Travel Asia: South East Asia Guide

[Updated 02/12/2019]

Gay travel in Asia can be confusing to say the least. A lot of people will look up gay rights in Asia and for the most part be disappointed. However, don’t let this discourage you!

Back in 2012, we spent 3 months travelling from Thailand through to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Bali. We experienced this part of Asia as a gay couple and only had positive experiences.

We returned to Asia again in 2017 for our honeymoon, where we spent 3 weeks in the Philippines. When it comes to gay travel in Asia, the Philippines is one of the more advanced countries. There is still work to be done, like anywhere, but overall we had a wholly positive experience.

Quite simply, often the laws of the country don’t match the reality of being there as a tourist. While some people may say not to travel to countries until they have better laws, as long as you are safe as a tourist, you could be helping by representing the local LGBT community.

We have compiled our ‘Gay Travel Asia Guide’ to help you navigate the countries we visited.

We want to compare the laws to the reality as a gay traveller in Asia. Read on to find out more, and feel free to share your own gay Asia travel experiences in the comments.

Gay Travel Asia: Thailand

When it comes to gay travel in Asia, Thailand definitely stands out.

It is not only one of the most popular tourist destinations in South East Asia, we also found it to be one of the most gay friendly destinations in Asia.

Where did we travel?

We spent a full month in Thailand, during that time we visited the following places: Bangkok, Koh Tao, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Lanta, Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket and Chiang Mai (if you want a more detailed itinerary take a look here from a fellow blogger!)

Gay travel asia thailand: Gay asia travel
Our first gay Asia travel destination: Relaxing in Koh Tao, Thailand.

Gay Rights in Thailand

  • Same Sex intercourse: Legal (1956)
  • Gender identity: Sex changes are legal
  • Discrimination protections: since 2015
  • Marriage: Not recognised
  • Adoption: Not recognised

The current laws in Thailand do not recognise same sex couples, as such they do not have the same legal protections as their non-LGBT counterparts. Same sex intercourse has been legal since 1956.

When it comes to discrimination protections, Thailand has comprehensive anti-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, things are moving forward and in December 2018 Thailand’s military government backed a bill to recognise same-sex civil partnerships.

This will require further approval and although it is not fully/legally equal to marriage, it is a step in the right direction.

This is a similar path to countries like the UK who started with civil partnerships before moving on to equal marriage.

We also interviewed a gay local from Thailand to find out more.

Gay Travel in Thailand as a Tourist

It’s well known that Thailand is a very open and accepting place, and this is reflective of our experience.

In fact, Bangkok was named the second most gay friendly city in Asia in 2017. If you want to know more about what to do in Bangkok, take a look at this Bangkok 3 day itinerary!

There was no point during the month where we felt being gay was going to cause a problem.

We did not feel the need to hide our relationship when meeting people or checking in to hotels. We faced the usual question of “Are you brothers?” a few times, but encountered no issues when explaining that we were in fact a couple.

In the very touristy areas we felt safe to show affection, however we believe this is not so much the case outside of the tourist areas and showing too much affection could attract unwanted attention.

The only frustrating thing during our time, was that when we tried to find a gay club in Bangkok and in Phuket, both turned out to be glorified brothels – there was a lot of focus on the sex trade and less on the club/nightlife experience.

From what we have been told, this is even more proliferate in Pattaya.

However, after some research it does seem that in recent years more actual bars and clubs have opened.

In fact, Bangkok now also throws an official, annual “White Party” in December. We will definitely be going back one day for this”!

If you want to know about what its like for Lesbian tourists in Thailand take a look at our friends Lesbian Travel Guide.

There is some conflict between how gay travel is for a tourist, with the tourism board promoting it, and the locals almost welcoming gay foreigners and tourists, and the reality for how the locals respond to an LGBT local. However, we found that in areas such as Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya that local Thai same-sex couples tend to be publicly tolerated.

We can’t finish talking about Thailand without mentioning how tolerant the country is when it comes to gender expression in the form of ‘Ladyboys’, however we will let our friend Bailey tell you more about that in his article ‘Ladyboys of Thailand: A Ladyboy Guide’ (you might also want to check out his Ultimate Thailand Packing Guide!).

What not to miss in Thailand?

Learning to dive in Koh Tao. This is the best thing we have done to date.

We can’t quite articulate how amazing it is to scuba dive. It can be incredibly relaxing, allowing you to completely disconnect from the world above. The places we have dived have been stunning.

In Koh Tao the water was so clear you could see at least 20m in any direction. The training we received was top class and made us feel confident and in control at all times. At the time we paid about £200 for transport from Bangkok, 4 nights accommodation and the scuba diving course itself !

 

Gay Travel Asia: Cambodia

We didn’t know much at all about Cambodia before we went, let alone what gay travel would be like here. We spent two weeks travelling through Cambodia and found some surprises along the way!

Where did we travel?

Over two weeks we travelled to Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. These are the main 3 tourist areas and the easiest to travel to. Siem Reap in particular is known for the iconic Angkor Wat temple, Sihanoukville for its beaches and Phnom Penh for being the capital city.

gay travel asia
Exploring Angkor Watt

Gay Rights in Cambodia

  • Same Sex intercourse: Legal
  • Gender identity: Sex changes are legal, no surgery required
  • Discrimination protections: No
  • Marriage: Not recognised, the closest thing currently is the ‘Declaration of Family Relationship’, see below.
  • Adoption: Technically only married couples can adopt, however some same-sex couples or LGBT individuals have been able to adopt.

Same-sex intercourse is legal in Cambodia and although there aren’t any laws in place for protection and marriage is not legal, the attitude of the people is positive.

The people of Cambodia are for the majority, very tolerant and even recognise and support those considered to be a third gender.

The closest thing to gaining the legal advantages of marriage is the ‘Declaration of Family Relationship’.

This is a civil contract between two people who are willing to be together and share responsibility taking care of the family, children and distribute the joint asset, as legal spouses do.

Something we found reassuring to read was a statement from the King during 2004. He wrote that he was impressed by marriage of same-sex partners in San Francisco, and that if his people wished for same-sex marriage to be legalized in Cambodia, he would do so.

King Sihanouk also stated that he believed that “God views homosexuals, as well as transgender individuals, as equal”.

Clearly, LGBT rights are a hot topic in Cambodia and legal progress (albeit slow) appears to be being made to catch up with the more progressive views of the people.

Gay Travel in Cambodia as a Tourist

Being gay in Cambodia as a tourist felt very similar to Thailand. Everyone was extremely friendly and we never encountered any negativity. Ultimately, we felt very safe.

Gay scenes do exist in Cambodia with gay bars and clubs etc being found in the capital, Phnom Penh and the popular backpacker town of Siem Reap. We even came across a gay sauna in Siem Reap which we were not expecting to see!

Pride is held in Cambodia every year in Phnom Penh, the first was in 2003. It is not a huge Pride but attracts a younger, more accepting crowd of Cambodians showing their support.

There is a similar contrast between being an LGBT tourist and a local here.

While you are very unlikely to encounter any issues as a tourist, local do report some discrimination within their own communities.

There are organisations working within Cambodia to help improve the situation.

gay travel asia cambodia
One of the gay bars ‘Space’ in Phnom Penh

What not to miss in Cambodia?

The Killing Fields. This was a very significant part of our trip because to fully understand the country, you need to learn about what it has been through and faced during the Pol Pot Regime.

Without going and learning about the Killing Fields we could never have truly appreciated the atrocity of what happened during the 1970s.

It is something that simply cannot be put into words. It’s terrifying what humans are capable of doing, and if you are going to spend time in Cambodia, it feels like attending and learning the history of the country is the respectful thing to do.

P.s check out our interview with gay local Sopheap to get his point of view. See Gay Cambodia:Local Gay Stories.

 

Gay Travel Asia: Vietnam

We were very excited to visit Vietnam. We had seen so many beautiful pictures of places such as Halong Bay, Hoi An and Dalat, and we could not wait to explore for ourselves. Like everywhere else we travelled during our trip, we had no idea about whether there would be any issues as a gay traveller in Vietnam.

Where did we travel?

We spent 3 weeks in Vietnam. We entered Ho Chi Minh city travelling from Cambodia, before heading to Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hanoi for Halong Bay.

gay travel asia vietnam
The stunning Halong Bay

Gay Rights in Vietnam

  • Same Sex intercourse: Never been made illegal in the first place
  • Gender identity: Ability to change legal gender post surgery
  • Discrimination protections: No
  • Marriage: Allowed but not legally recognised
  • Adoption: No

While same-sex sexual activity has never been criminalised, same-sex couples do not have the same legal protections as their straight counterparts. Like most countries in Asia, the awareness of LGBT issues has increased but some families still find it socially unacceptable with discrimination being fairly common.

However, on the topic of discrimination, while Vietnam has no protections, they did vote in favour for appointment of an independent expert to raise awareness of the discrimination faced by the LGBT community and to find ways to properly protect them.

When is comes to marriage, Vietnam has seen a number of changes over the years. Back in 2013 the ban on same-sex marriage was lifted, as were fines, but then later that year marriage was defined as only between a man and a woman. The stance in 2015 was that same-sex marriage was allowed but not legally recognised. Hopefully, this is just a stepping stone in the right direction.

Gay Travel in Vietnam as a Tourist

We found that as tourists, Vietnam was very similar to Thailand and Cambodia. The people were very welcoming and friendly and we felt safe as a gay couple. Like the other countries, we didn’t hold hands walking down the street as we were not 100% sure how this would be received but had no problems requesting double beds at hotels.

Looking into this further, we have read reports from UNESCO that bullying towards the LGBT community in Vietnam is high. This is across local communities, and in schools. What was quite concerning is that some of the bullying comes from school staff. This is probably an indication that outward displays of same-sex affection are not going to be well received here.

Vietnam does have pride events, the first was in Hanoi in 2012. Since then this pride has grown in terms of sizes and number of locations. Like many countries in Asia, nothing is perfect but we are seeing lots of positive steps.

What not to miss in Vietnam?

You must go to Dalat.

After spending almost two months in ‘Typical Asia’, with the hot and humid climate, it was refreshing to have a complete climate and culture change.

Dalat was unusual in that we felt like we were suddenly back in Europe. The climate was much cooler, the buildings were reflective of European architecture, and there was even a monument of the Eiffel Tower!

We hired a driver who took us to see all that Dalat had to offer on the back of a motorbike. From strawberry fields, to tea plantations and beautiful countryside, it was an incredible change of scenery and definitely somewhere we would recommend.

 

Gay Travel Asia: Laos

Laos is perhaps the least known or least popular country we travelled to – or it was when we visited in 2012. This might be because at the time it was very difficult for us to get here. We spent over 24 hours on a bus to get in to the country which was not fun!

However, it was absolutely worth it. Laos offers stunning scenery, adventure activities and an escape from the hustle and bustle we had experienced elsewhere.

Where did we travel?

We spent just over a week in Laos, split between Vang Vieng, known for the popular backpacker activity of ‘tubing’ and Luang Prabang.

gay travel asia laos
Let’s not forget the beautiful views of Laos!

Gay Rights in Laos

  • Same Sex intercourse: Legal
  • Gender identity: Unknown
  • Discrimination protections: No
  • Marriage: Not recognised
  • Adoption: No

Laos is a difficult country to assess. While homosexuality is legal, it’s hard to determine the local opinion. Most reports suggest that it is generally frowned upon. They had their first pride in 2012 (very small) however putting things like discrimination protections in place, or even discussing same-sex marriage just does not seem to be on the agenda.

Gay Travel in Laos as a Tourist

The locations we visited were very touristy. The towns were small, and predominantly full of backpackers from all around the world. As a result, we did not have any conscious thoughts about being a gay couple here (which is a good thing!). It was a very similar experience to the other countries we have written about here and locals seemed comfortable knowing we were a couple

What not to miss in Laos?

Go and party in Vang Vieng.

There will be plenty you may have read about this place having a bad reputation for being overtly hedonistic. However, Vang Vieng is a small, pretty town surrounded by striking mountains – the scenery in Laos was some of the best.

This is a party place and we had a lot of fun. We only had one night out, and it was nothing like we expected. We were told to follow a dog who took us across a bridge and to the party where we drank cheap drinks and did the fire limbo. Retrospectively, fairly dangerous but it was an experience to say the least! Drink responsibly!

This was also the place where you can go tubing. The has changed a lot over the years from being very dangerous, to completely banned to being reintroduced with better safety. Stay safe and take part responsibly, and you will have lots of fun.

 

Gay Travel Asia: Malaysia

Malaysia was beautiful and very diverse. It has everything on offer from cosmopolitan, modern cities like Kuala Lumpur, beach bum destinations like Langkawi, and cooler mountain destinations such as the Cameron Highlands. We also found it to be less touristy compared to places like Thailand for example.

However, the situation for the LGBT community in Malaysia is absolutely appalling and a complete infringement on human rights. We did not realise this prior to travelling to Malaysia and now with this knowledge in mind, would strongly think twice about returning. However, we did not encounter any problems ourselves albeit perhaps people may not have realised we were a couple, or because we were always with other backpackers.

UPDATE December 2019 – there have been a number of news stories suggesting that the problems are getting worse. These stories have included local men being caned in public and a tourist couple from Vietnam being arrested in their hotel

Where did we travel?

We only had twelve days in Malaysia. We still managed to visit a few places in this time, the capital Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands, the coastal town of Penang/Georgetown, and Langkawi.

gay travel asia

Gay Rights in Malaysia

  • Same Sex intercourse: Illegal
  • Gender identity: Unknown
  • Discrimination protections: No
  • Marriage: Not recognised
  • Adoption: No

Same-sex intercourse is illegal and can be punished by jail time, fines and just this year (2018) two lesbians were publicly caned in a courtroom after being caught attempting to engage in same sex intercourse. One of the most notable cases regards former Deputy Minister Anwar Ibrahim being convicted in 1998 of sodomy and being sentenced to 9 years in prison. The case was contested, Anwar was released and then convicted again later on, this year he finished his sentence.

In 2018, a club in Kuala Lumpur known for being open to the LGBT community was stormed by authorities and twenty men detained and ordered to go for counselling for what was deemed ‘illicit behaviour’.

The actual law stems from British Empire colonial era rule but is supported by Sharia Law as the official religion here is Islam.

Laws around LGBT people extend to banning LGBT people from appearing in the media, serving in the military, government positions, and even censorship of films! In 2010 the film censorship decided to allow LGBT characters to appear only if they repent or die. There was even a lot of controversy over ‘LGBT moments’ in the most recent Beauty and the Beast – the bestiality part they were ok with somehow…..?

Sharia Laws exist to prevent gender expression. It is considered public indecency to dress as a woman and you can be arrested for it. There are reports that transgender people are often beaten and mistreated.

As if this was not awful enough, there are now many government funded programmes sending LGBT people on seminars or to conversion therapy to put them on the ‘right path’. Those in power need to find the right path to find their humanity, it is well documented that conversion camps or similar have no basis and are incredibly harmful to the individuals.

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg and there is much more to read out there. There is a high level of discrimination, prejudice and danger to LGBT Malaysians and it is happening here and now.

Gay Travel in Malaysia as a Tourist

In all honestly, we had no issues. However we were only there for a short time, always with friends and perhaps were lucky that no one noticed we were a couple. We are not saying that we definitely would have had a problem if we had been identified as a couple because sometimes there are different social rules for tourists, however we would seriously proceed with caution if we were to return.

UPDATE: As noted above, in November 2019 two tourists from Vietnam were arrested in relation to their sexuality and as such, the rules for tourists and locals may not be that different after all.

What not to miss in Malaysia?

After writing the above we are conflicted to say what not to miss, but there is no denying we enjoyed our time and there is always merit (bearing in mind safety) in travelling to these countries as an LGBT couple to show support.

If you read here you will see that one of our top tips was about talking to people. We met a fellow traveller on the journey to the Cameron Highlands called Fleur. In Langkawi she talked to some locals who offered her a sunset cruise for free. She said yes, but only if she could bring us along! There was incredible food, an open bar and a beautiful sunset – all for free. This was easily our top experience and it ended with us all drunk and dancing on the boat as the sun went down.

 

Gay Travel Asia: Indonesia

We have travelled to Bali and the Gili islands twice and loved both our trips. Bali is known for its beaches, nightlife and jungle, Gili for being a beautiful island with some of the best snorkelling we have ever encountered. However when it comes to gay travel in Indonesia as a whole, it’s a more complex story.

Where did we travel to?

Within Bali we travelled to Seminyak, Kuta, Ubud and Uluwatu. We then got the boat across to stay on Gili Trawangan and did a day trip to Gili Air and Gili Meno.

Gili gay travel asia
Beautiful beaches in Gili

Gay Rights in Indonesia

  • Same Sex intercourse: Legal for most provinces
  • Gender identity: Changed with surgery and approval
  • Discrimination protections: No
  • Marriage: Not recognised
  • Adoption: No

Indonesia is troubling because while same-sex intercourse is mostly legal, some provinces such as Aceh uphold Sharia Law making homosexuality a crime punishable by prison. This year, certain governmental parties are actively trying to criminalise homosexuality across the whole of Indonesia. It seems this country is actually regressing when it comes to the treatment of its LGBT people.

It is therefore no surprise, that same-sex marriage does not exist and neither do any discrimination protections for LGBT people. In fact, in 2018 alone a man was publicly caned in one of the provinces that criminalises homosexuality and a group of transgender women taken, stripped, had their heads forcibly shaved and were publicly humiliated. This kind of behaviour is beyond reproach and from our research, we can’t see it improving.

Gay Travel in Indonesia as a Tourist

Indonesia is a very large country with many islands. As a tourist you are probably going to visit the few touristy islands and for the most part be safe and have an amazing time (as we did). We would be very surprised if you had any problems in the main tourist areas of Bali. For example, take a look at this Gay Guide to Bali by the Nomadic Boys for more information.

However, as we have also said, Indonesia as a whole appears to be regressing and this is discouraging people from travelling here at all. Keep up to date with the laws of the country before you travel and stay safe.

What not to miss?

This has to be snorkelling in Gili Trawangan. You just need to walk up to the top of the beach and get in. Take your time floating down and you will be sure to see plenty of turtles, tropical fish and the odd octopus.

We spent days just doing this over and over again. It was incredible to see so much sealife within metres of the beach.

 

Gay Travel Asia: The Philippines

We want to finish on a high! The Philippines is one of the most progressive countries when it comes to LGBT rights in Asia which is why we chose it for our honeymoon! We had the most magical time here and can’t talk highly enough about it as a destination. Take a look at our full guide to ‘The Most Romantic Places in the Philippines’ for inspiration, you will want to get straight on a flight.

Where did we travel to?

We spent 3 weeks in the Philippines. One week on Cebu, one in El Nido on Palawan and one in Boracay. Read more about each of them in our Philippines guide.

El Nido Itinerary

Gay Rights in The Philippines

LGBT rights in the Philippines are more advanced than the majority of Asia, albeit there is work to be done! What really comes through for the Philippines in their favour is the social acceptance. A survey completed in 2013 by the Pew Research Centre reported 73% of adults agreed homosexuality should be accepted in society – this is quite incredible.

We always say that how a tourist experiences a place is quite different to a local. This is why we interviewed Brix to find out what is was like to be an LGBT local in the Philippines.

For more, take a look at our guide more information on LGBT rights in the Philippines.

Gay Travel in The Philippines as a Tourist

With social acceptance being so high in the Philippines it is no surprise that you will be warmly welcomed as an LGBT traveller. The people may be more curious of you, but that is probably because you are foreign.

We spent three weeks on our honeymoon here and felt confident to be open and loving as any honeymoon couple should be. We experienced no negativity or awkwardness at all, we truly had the best experience.

What not to miss in The Philippines?

Everywhere we travelled to was beautiful but El Nido really stood out. The small town on Palawan has previous been voted one of the most beautiful places in the world and it is easy to see why.

The best activity we did here was the daily boat trips exploring the nearby islands, coves and coral reefs. It was incredible and the whole day cost about $20. Get yourself here asap!

 

Romantic places in the Philippines

When people ask us ‘what is gay travel’ everything we have talked about in this article is a big part of it. Knowing and understanding the local laws and social opinions is very important to make sure you stay safe and have the best experience.

On the whole, we found gay travel in Asia to be very positive. For the majority of these countries the laws are fairly weak, but the laws of a country do not always represent how the people of that country think. Often we found the majority of people to be open, tolerant and friendly. There is also a good amount of progress being seen in many of these countries which we hope continues!

Go travel and enjoy Asia, it has so much to offer! If you want to put you own perfect itinerary together, whether for 2 weeks or 6 months, check out this guide to South East Asia Travel from a fellow travel blogger.

If you want to know about our favorites and get inspired for more gay travel, check out:

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gay travel asia guide

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dino J. Baricanosa

    Hello! Thank you for visiting these places here in Southeast Asia and sharing your experiences with honesty, and placing better light on the positive while maintaining balance as you account for the potentially negative. Being from the Philippines, I’,m overjoyed that your destinations here captured your hearts and wowed your eyes and minds. I sincerely hope that you can come back here, maybe for your anniversary, and have an even better experience! Recently, our government has passed into law the Extended Maternity Leave. I know it does not cover any LGBTQ concern, but this law recognizes and grants the 105-day leave for pregnant women, and so hopefully, in the near future, perhaps, laws for the protection and recognition of more rights for us in the LGBTQ will follow suit.

    Once again thank you for letting us in on your spectacular journeys, and all the best to both of you! <3 <3

    1. The Globetrotter Guys

      Hi Dino!
      Thank you so much for your lovely comments!
      We really hope to make it back to the Philippines one day; we are sure there is still so much for us to see there! As you say a visit for our anniversary would be very nice, especially as we went for our honeymoon!
      It’s great to hear that the laws and rights are constantly improving – we are keeping our fingers crossed that laws for the LGBTQ community keep improving too!
      Thank you again for reaching out, take care!
      Sion and Ben

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