It was one of those hit-you-like-a-lightning-bolt relationships. I'd been planning to go on an extended backpacking trip to Southeast Asia — there would be no return ticket, I would figure it out as I went. My sister was teaching English in Seoul and booked a flight for me and our mom to meet her in Bali for Christmas, which gave me four months to save up money. The day after the flight was booked, things started with Ariel. Our relationship developed so quickly that we laughed about being stereotypical lesbians (ever hear the joke about what a lesbian brings on a second date? Spoiler alert: it's a U-Haul); in two months we were going on a road trip to Texas for her sister's wedding, where I would meet her entire extended family. We spent almost every day together, but my trip loomed over us; I'd promised a good friend that I'd meet her in Seoul in March, so I'd be gone for at least three months. It felt impossible.
When Ariel's parents got her a flight to Thailand on their flyer miles as a Christmas present, things started to feel slightly less apocalyptic. We would only have to spend a month and a half apart, and then we would get to spend two weeks together on palm-lined beaches before going to visit my sister in Seoul. After a tear-filled Christmas Eve goodbye, I was off, and we were on opposite sides of the planet. Because email feels sterile to me and we live in the age of instant communication, Ariel entertained my suggestion that we write letters and text photos of them to each other. I even wrote her a few pieces of erotica. Some days we would talk on the phone for hours, and I felt like I was finally getting the teenage romance I'd never had, counting down the days until I would see her again, while going from Bali to Seoul to New Zealand and, after parting ways with Mom, finally to Thailand.
Valentine's Day in Bangkok offered the same hearts, plush bears, and chocolate that you might expect to find in any global city. I bought roses and Champagne and brought them to the hotel I'd booked for us — a luxury after two weeks in a noisy hostel close to Koh San Road — it had a pool on the roof and free breakfast and wasn't too pricey, so it was perfect. When Ariel arrived, everything changed. I'd spent two weeks alone but surrounded by people. I went from sitting in bars, writing in my journal (which I love doing in small doses) to exploring the city with someone I adored.
I was used to being careful while traveling alone, but traveling as a lesbian in a relationship presented new things that I'd never thought about before.
Ariel suggested that we stop holding hands in public, just to be careful. Walking down Bangkok's busy streets, I doubted that this was necessary and felt hurt that I couldn't hold my girlfriend's hand after being apart for so long. But it made her feel less anxious and at the end of the day it never hurts to do whatever makes you feel more safe.
One great thing about traveling while queer is that it opens up a whole new genre of destination: the gay bar. We went to one near a night market called Telephone Pub, which was giant and had multiple floors. The karaoke room upstairs was empty and most people were sitting outside in humid air that rested on your skin like a hot, wet blanket. We were the only lesbian couple in the place, but I still felt like we were in an oasis, where we could be ourselves and not have to worry about people staring. I'm short-haired and sometimes boyish-looking, and Ariel is a gorgeous, often red-lipped, femme. Even in New York we'll get occasional stares, but it was already hard enough to be in an unfamiliar place without some random person ogling us.
We were only in Bangkok for a few days before we were on a flight down to Krabi, where Ariel tried to teach me how to swim in a saltwater pool at our hotel and I ate the best fish I've ever had in my life. After two nights there and being wary of the trash-strewn beach, we took a bus and ferry over to Koh Tao. This required nearly a full day of travel, which to be honest I did not accurately warn Ariel about, and for which she still hasn't forgiven me (when I asked her to read this story over, she reminded me that there were loud European tourists on multiple boats and it was so hot that she got heat rash). Luckily for me, Koh Tao was the tropical paradise we'd been dreaming about. We rented a moped from a place that had puppies running around (this is Ariel's most vivid memory of the island) and I drove us to a different beach every day. The water was so calm in some places that Ariel was able to continue my swimming lessons. We also saw our first other lesbian couple while we were at Koh Tao, which almost ended up being really awkward, because as soon as Ariel spotted them, she kept tapping me until I looked around and loudly said, "What?" in a way that was completely obvious. There was something comforting about seeing them, even though we never interacted; it made me feel like less of an anomaly.
Most of our time in Thailand was spent in Chiang Mai, a landlocked city to the north, which is smaller and less chaotic than Bangkok but bigger and less touristy than the beach towns. The main attraction for us was the Elephant Nature Park, which rescues elephants that have been abused so that people could ride on them or watch them do tricks at the circus. The elephants felt huge as we walked up the side of a mountain with them, feeding them bananas from a bag. We'd been warned not to keep food from them, or we might get a shove. Of course I was too slow with my banana offerings. All it took was one lazy swing of an elephant trunk to my chest and I was careening backward toward a steep slope. I got caught up in brush and was fine but I was glad to have Ariel there — exaggerated near-death experiences just aren't the same when you're traveling alone and don't have someone to share them with.
When I think of Chiang Mai, I remember walking for hours just to see what we ran in to (a cat cafe!), playing pool (and losing) at open-air bars, eating green curry almost every day. One night we found ourselves at a market where some teens selling jumpsuits became so convinced that Ariel was Selena Gomez — something that will occasionally happen in New York as well — that she gave me a look and whispered, "Time to go. Now." We were there for karaoke, anyway. It was the type where you have a room to yourself and, after we figured out how to get songs in English, we spent hours drinking cheap beer and singing pop songs to each other.
When I think of Chiang Mai, I'm also reminded that there are times when I'd have to step back and not let paranoia of homophobia get the best of me. We stayed at the same hotel the whole time we were there, and I thought it seemed pretty obvious that Ariel and I were traveling as a couple. The hotel staff were great to us, but we still wondered what might happen if they had a thing against gay people. On our last night there, as we were leaving for dinner, a sweet older woman who worked there and spoke spotty English approached me, looking nervous and slightly distressed, asking where we were going and then when we were getting back. We were on our way to dinner, so we continued on our way out, and it wasn't long before we found a spot with WiFi and looked up LGBT laws for Thailand. Even though we found out that there are no legal ramifications against lesbian or gay couples, we intentionally stayed out until the late evening, playing pool again at a bar nearby. When we got back to the hotel and saw people cleaning up after what seemed to have been a party, I realized that the woman had probably just wanted to invite us to join them, and I felt like a huge idiot.
I was emboldened by the lifting of our veil of paranoia, now knowing that we had at least every legal right within Thailand to exist in public as a couple, and our trip ending without us having any weird experiences at all. We had a good hour to wait for the overnight to Seoul. I found an empty spot in the airport by a pillar that we could lean against. Ariel sat in between my legs and leaned back on me so that she could sleep for a little while. We were fine until a big group of men — there were no women or children with them — came to wait for the same plane.
At first a few of them walked around us, pretending not to stare at us. Then some of them stopped and just stared.
There wasn't anything dangerous about what the men were doing, but it felt incredibly inappropriate. So I stared back at them until they stopped. In the plane later, Ariel was sleeping on me again, her head in my lap. A man one seat in front of us on the other side of the aisle turned around and stared at her. Annoyed, I demanded, "What?", which made him mumble something and turn back around in his seat. No one bothered us after that.
Seoul was a different world, similar to New York but with way cleaner subways, less diversity, and more cafes. One night my sister took us to a neighborhood that was supposed to be pretty hip. There were lights and food and people walking around everywhere. You could tell which spots were the popular nightclubs by the line outside. Sleek, expensive-looking sports cars were driving around casually. No one seemed to notice us. We tried to find a lesbian bar in the neighborhood but were confused by the streets and gave up; there was plenty to see without spending all night looking for an oasis. Months later, I was talking to my sister while her boyfriend was visiting and she told me how they'd found the lesbian bar and, before they were able to get their first drink, were kicked out. She was surprised and offended. But the people who ran that space had decided that it wasn't for them. There are so few spaces, no matter where you are in the world, that are just for LGBTQ people. So remember: the gay bar is sacred.
I was so nervous before Ariel came to meet me in Bangkok — I wanted everything to be perfect for our first trip abroad together. I not only wondered if we would be compatible travel companions, but there was also the additional strain of wondering if we would be judged, or treated differently, or ultimately unsafe, when people realized we were a lesbian couple. Being extra careful to not show even little PDAs like holding hands felt like the right thing to do, and so it was for us because we felt more comfortable and enjoyed the trip more.
So, if you're in a queer relationship and thinking about traveling with your sweetie, I'd say go for it! But do a lot your research beforehand about the LGBT laws of whatever countries you're visiting. Make sure to have a conversation with each other about what will make you feel the most safe. And then, of course, have fun!