If there is one thing that I have learnt in the past ten years cavorting with the homosexuals, is that gay bars sort of look the same everywhere. Like entering a Mark and Spencer’s department store anywhere in the world, you can have some confidence about what you will find and what you won’t. Cheap-ish polyester and cotton clothes and huge snack selection shall be waiting for you regardless of whether you are in Milton Keynes or Kuala Lumpor (although I hope for you, dear reader, that you are not in Milton Keynes).

Stepping into a gay bar you can expect decent music (usually either 70s and 80s vintage disco or more contemporary pop beats, which nowadays will alas involve some Lady Gaga crap). Patrons will most likely fall in the either good, the beautiful and the bad type; there will be people that realised they were in a gay bar only after having been seated (and its corollary of straight men partly flattered by the attention and partly freaked out). Drinks won’t be too expensive, some guy will be wearing a sleeveless t-shirt even though it’s January and around midnight all the single men will turn into post-modern cinderellas waiting for a charming prince to take them home, for nothing is more bitter to a dapper gay man than enduring hours of bad pop music only to end up going home alone.

Save for a pool table (boy have I seen weird stuff in gay clubs, but a pool table??!), I didn’t feel like I was venturing out of my comfort zone. Weird if you consider that Luang Prabang is yes the tourist capital of Northern Laos, but is also in a place that until 1990 was linked with the outside world by unpaved roads. It was the only bar in Luang Prabang where there were as many locals as foreigners, maybe because the Lao customers were not expected to get a drink but could just hang out in a gay friendly space.

The owner, a very friendly Laotian in his 20s, explained to me that he had left his business in Vientiane to move to Luang Prabang because he liked the vibe. He said he expects to open a wine bar on the main street, a bar that would be ‘same same but spicier’. I looked around: a clingy couple holding hands and sighing at one table, a girl kicking everyone’s ass at the pool table and wondered how such a welcoming space could exist in a town of 26000 inhabitants, in one of the poorest Asian countries (Laos is supposed to graduate from low- to middle-income country by 2020, insh’allah). Laos simply defies all explanations I have for its tolerant attitude towards homosexuals. You tend to associate the gay rights movement with affluence (but some countries that are twice as rich as Laos are not nearly half as open), religion ( nearby China shares the same religion and even the same one-party communist system, but it is not a champion of gay rights), political pluralism (did I mention that Laos is a one-party state?) or social fabric (Laos is a multi ethnic society where ethnic affiliations can be important). Also, Laos is not a freewheeling place on the sexual side of things: sexual relations between a foreigner and a Lao can only happen through marriage and public display of affection is frowned upon. Laos does not seen to have as bad a prostitution problem as nearby Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand (and trust me, as a single white male travelling solo you don’t have to do much effort to find some ‘part-time companion’).

I cannot claim that my short visit allows me to speculate as to why Laos society is so accepting and where the exceptionalism comes from. I can only wish that more sleepy provincial towns (in developed and developing countries alike) had more places like the bar I went to in Luang Prabang.

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