Meet Douglas Thompson, who crafts bespoke holidays for LGBT travellers
Douglas Thompson has had the sort of sprawling, eclectic life normally seen in a Wes Anderson film.
He trained to be a pilot as a teenager, raised tens of thousands of dollars for HIV/AIDS organisations at the height of the US epidemic, written advice columns in gay mags worldwide under his forthright alter ego, Darika, and started his own Asian tour operator, Purple Dragon.
This August, that project celebrates its nineteenth year of creating bespoke holidays for LGBT travelers. We caught up with him to hear how he’s managed to squeeze it all in, so to speak.
When did you fall in love with Asia?
My first experience in Asia was a ten-week bus tour from London to Kathmandu in 1973. It was one of the most awesome experiences of my life. We went to places you could not go nowadays, like Afghanistan, Iran and the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan. I eventually made it to Bangkok and was dazzled. I never expected it would be home someday.
How did Purple Dragon come about?
Blame it on orchids. I had two greenhouses behind my house in San Francisco where I grew hundreds, then thousands of orchid plants. I was invited to join the board of directors of the AIDS Emergency Fund, which required me to come up with an idea to raise money. Mine was an ‘orchid garage sale’. People heard about what I was doing and began to show up at my door with boxes of plants. Herb Caen, a prominent columnist, mentioned it and trucks from places like Stribling Arboretum and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park began to arrive at my back gate. OrchidMania was born. In the first sale we raised almost $10,000 selling donated plants. Eventually we had a commercial-sized greenhouse and about thirty volunteers. All the money we raised went to HIV programs that could not get mainstream funding.
I ran the organisation for ten years. We were getting large donations every year from commercial nurseries in Thailand, so I decided to return to Bangkok to find programs that needed financial help. I found more than I expected. In those days I was a management and marketing consultant and I found that many of these groups needed that kind of help in addition to money, so I was making three or four trips a year. One night I was in a go-go bar watching an AIDS-themed show being put on by a dance troupe that we had funded when God spoke to me and revealed that I needed to make my stay permanent.
I had owned several travel agencies in San Francisco. The Asian financial crisis caused the Thai baht to devalue steeply. I had a friend who owned a guesthouse and a popular gay website, and I wanted to earn dollars and spend Baht, so Utopia Tours, the first incarnation of Purple Dragon, was born online. It was an immediate success.
What makes it gayer than other tour operators?
We recognise that most LGBT travelers have special needs. They don’t want to have to explain why two guys want a hotel room with one bed. They want to work with travel planners who are discrete and not judgmental. Most of our guides in nine countries are gay. We carefully vet hotels so that our guests do not end up with a bad experience. Most want to experience local nightlife in the hands of a local person. And many of our guests want specifically to patronise gay-owned businesses. But they also send us their family members, co-workers and straight friends. We are happy to take care of everyone.
What incorrect pre-conceptions do you think people tend to have about Asian travel?
Something like ‘I will be swarmed by beggars, nobody will speak my language, and I will have diarrhea the entire time I am traveling there.’ Of course this is far from the truth, even in India. Nevertheless, we make it very easy to enjoy the beauty, the cultures, the history and the cuisines in our part of the world. We know our way around, have put a lot of thought into what kinds of experiences people will want to have, and we speak English (and Thai, Lao, Burmese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Hindi, Dzongka and Cantonese).
You run a boutique service and cater to all demands. What’s the oddest thing a client has requested?
Recently, I received an email from someone who had a fantasy about being detained on arrival by customs officers, who then would strip search him and inflict various punishments. Since we do not offer punishment, detention, or sex services of any kind, I had to decline his request. Most special requests involve bedding, dietary requirements, or to see something unusual they may have read about. In the case of the fellow who sent the email I would have recommended the Corrections Museum here in Bangkok. It’s like Madame Tussauds on Death Row. For reasons I cannot explain, it’s a favourite stop for Japanese honeymooners.
How has Asia changed in the 19 years since you’ve been running Purple Dragon?
As economies have grown, many cities in Southeast Asia have begun to look like big sprawling cities in the west. Bangkok and Los Angeles are much alike: traffic jams, towering buildings, freeways and elevated train systems. And 40% of the people speak English. Many cities in this part of the world are becoming homogenized. Down comes the historic architecture and up goes the towering steel and glass box. Beijing is bulldozing their hutongs. Bangkok is destroying little pockets of traditional architecture. Singapore did that long ago. See Myanmar while it is still culturally authentic. McDonalds and Starbucks are on the way!
Some places have avoided homogenization. I am especially fond of Siem Reap, the town where visitors to Angkor Wat stay. There are nearly 350 hotels in town, but Siem Reap has managed to keep its own small-town personality intact. We encourage our guests to get out of big cities and see life in the countryside, where traditional cultures still live. Take a road trip between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Explore crafts villages in the countryside surrounding Hanoi. Spend the night in a landlocked village with no electricity along the Mekong in Laos.
Of course, these changes have resulted in greater conveniences for visitors, improved transportation and sanitation. Street food in our part of the world is probably healthier than what you get on a commercial flight. Bangkok has restaurants representing just about every cuisine in the world. I just wish I could buy clothes off the rack here. Western sizes have not yet arrived, so I have my clothes made. That may be a good reason for some people to visit because it is remarkably inexpensive. Health care is another. We have some of the best hospitals in the world. You can get a face lift (or tummy tuck or knee replacement or major dental work ) at a bargain price and recover on a tropical beach.
If you could recommend just one country to visit in Asia for the gay traveler, which would it be?
You are asking me to choose my favorite child. I have nine of them, and they are all special in their own way. My recommendation would depend on the visitor’s own interests. Some want sun and sand. Others want temples, or shopping or history. Vietnam was my first love. I’ve been there 103 times. Vietnam has something for just about everyone. It’s inexpensive and very safe. Cambodia is a big surprise to most people who visit there the first time because it is actually fairly well developed, full of wonderful things to see and do, and the people are great. For me, Siem Reap is a lovely weekend getaway, even if I do not go near Angkor Wat. It’s laid back, sunny and has great shopping and restaurants.
My current love is Bhutan. Sadly, it’s a one-trip destination for most people who bother to go there. The scenery, culture, history and people are awesome. I’m also in love with a Bhutanese guy, which gives me reasons to spend time there.
How are you celebrating the 19th birthday?
I am thinking of ordering a pizza. My staff and I will probably go to ‘make merit’ at a Buddhist temple in our neighborhood by presenting gifts to monks and getting blessings. We are truly blessed to have survived this long in an industry that is pretty difficult to survive in. We have our customers to thank for that. Many of them have been traveling with us since our earliest days and have become dear friends. One couple will be making their 26th trip with us in September. That loyalty is very gratifying. Obviously we are doing things right. I also have to give a great deal of credit to our family in nine countries who make it all happen. Some have been with us since almost the beginning.
To find out more about the services Purple Dragon offer, please visit purpledrag.com or call +(66) 2-236-1776