Happy to be gay, especially in Thailand!

gay 1 - Men kiss during a pro-gay protest - Reuters (2)_1.jpg.crop_display.jpg

They soak in the romantic settings, walk hand in hand and cosy up to each other without a worry in the world. Faced with social stigma in their own country, members of the Indian queer community are thronging Thailand, thanks to its open culture and accommodating reputation.

"We chose Thailand as our holiday destination because there is no discrimination of queer or social isolation that we would have faced if we had gone to the holiday somewhere in India," 24-year-old Tushar Sethi, an engineering student from Kolkata, told the media.

According to Sethi, cultural similarities, affordable pricing and openness about sexual orientation are some of the reasons that brought him and a batch of seven gay friends, which included his boyfriend, to the island nation.

Sethi's definition of the southern Thailand province of Phuket as a paradise for Indian LGBT, an acronym for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community is backed by Kolkata-born Aaffzal Khan, the proprietor of the largest Indian food chain in Phuket.

"I have witnessed a boom in the Indian tourist inflow here. People come for various reasons. The gay community being present here is no surprise as the culture is fairly open here and everyone minds their own business," Khan, 39, said.

Sethi says one of the key reasons for him to choose Phuket as a holiday destination was because of marketing of the place as gay friendly something India doesn't offer thanks to a very medieval outlook towards alterative sexuality.

"In India, we face a lot of challenges like acting straight, not holding hands. Even when two guys stay together, you have to register your relationship status. Everywhere you go, there are prying eyes, other tourists questioning who you are and why you are with another guy," said Ashok Raj, another member in Sethi's group of friends.

"We want a hassle-free environment. Over here, no one asks us who we are and what are we doing because these things don't matter to them. I don't understand why in India people try to get into our private lives," says Raj.

A casual walk around the famous Bangla street known for a Thai kickboxing stadium, nightlife and thriving massage parlours gives a glimpse of many Indian men holding hands or coming out of gay bars like Boys Inn, Lion Gate or Phuket's Finest.

"Gay men usually come in groups from Western Europe, the US and Canada for massages and have a gala time here. Recently, a lot of Indian men have been coming in too," said Mantikan Kundhari, a masseur at Lion Gate club.

However, renowned documentary filmmaker and former journalist Ranjit Monga says members of the Indian queer community have been travelling abroad for many decades to escape prying eyes and to be themselves.

"On holidays, people want to relax. They want to be themselves. Where in India can a gay be himself... where? That's why the community goes to places like Thailand. They have been doing that for many years," says Monga, a gay himself.

Sensing a business opportunity, travel agencies are also organising special gay trips to the tourist destination.

"Yes, we do organise such trips for our clients. Recently we had a package tour for Bangkok and Phuket. Eleven Indian gay tourists visited theses places through us," said Sanjay Malhotra, founder of gay travel agency Indjapink.

Keyur Joshi, chief operating officer and co-founder of MakeMyTrip.com, agrees with Malhotra.

"This is a niche travel segment which I expect will grow in the coming time. If we see a major opportunity in this business in the future, we too will defiantly provide our services," he said.

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