Editor’s Note: We met Apple at Elephant Nature Park, where she lives and works as a guide. She shares her knowledge of elephants with visitors who come to the park to volunteer, teaching them about the lives of individual elephants as well as the plight of Thai elephants in general. Apple has learned non-violent techniques of interacting with elephants and shares them with others. She also has a degree in Hotel and Tourism Management.
Jun ka! My name is Chanatpapha Salangam, but you can call me Apple. I come from a village called Tha Klang in the Surin Province of Thailand. We are members of the Kwai tribe and have our own language, own culture and our own way of looking at the world. I come from a family of mahouts (elephant caretaker), like most families in my village. I wanted to be a mahout too like my father, but girls are not allowed.
As a lesbian in Thailand I feel accepted, however at home in my village I am not. “A woman can not be a man”, people there say. Women and girls are meant to stay home and boys and men go out to earn money. Not only can women not touch elephants, but they can not even touch the Pakam rope, which we believe holds the spirit of elephants. (Editor’s note: Pakam rope is made of buffalo skin that has been twisted to look like rope. It is ceremoniously placed inside the spirit house, which is a small house on stilts to dissuade spirits from entering the homes of the villagers.)
Life Before I Came Out
When I was younger I didn’t realize I was gay. There were no gay role models in my village, because they all leave to the cities. I even had a boyfriend…for three years. I was prepared to marry him. That is until I walked in on him having sex with another woman in my apartment on my bed.
This hurt me so much. Thankfully I had my friends around me for the following days because I drank so much alcohol and tried to kill myself several times by jumping off the 7th floor. My friends finally took me to a temple to meditate and to talk with a monk. When the monk learned why I had such sad eyes, he told me this story:
“One day a man was walking on the beach and came across a naked woman who had died. The man took off his jacket and covered her before he continued walking. A second man came upon this same woman and, using his hands, dug a hole and buried her.”
The monk advised me not to waste my time with someone who would only cover me with a jacket and instead to wait for someone who would dig a hole for me.
Coming Out to Myself
I was by myself for awhile after the break up and began to drink. In fact, I couldn’t go to sleep without it. And then I met a friend of a friend at a flower festival…
Her name was Aye and we became friends and spent a lot of time together. One night we went to a midnight showing at a cinema in Bangkok. When we got out it was so dark because it was very late, so I offered to walk her home. But instead of accepting my offer she suggested that she could spend the night at my place. This made me so happy but I didn’t know why.
During the walk home Aye got scared because of how dark it was so I held her hand. But I still didn’t think beyond a friendship. We fell asleep actually still holding hands. The next morning we talked about our feelings and discovered that we both felt “warm” towards each other. We became girlfriends and stayed girlfriends for four years. I loved her so much!
My Girlfriend’s Mother Came to See Me
One day Aye’s mother talked with me, telling me that her daughter could go really far in life if I would only let her go. I only had a job at a hotel at the time. What I came to realize is that she was right and so I decided, out of love, to let her go.
So Aye came to my house and I did not answer the door. I yelled for her to go away and said that I already had another girlfriend. But truthfully, my heart was breaking.
Several years later I explained to her why I did what I did and you know what? She did go far in her life. Aye is currently in the USA getting a Master’s degree. She is on her way to becoming a doctor. I am proud of her and I know her mother is too.
Coming Out to My Family
My mother still lives in my village and my father has lived in Japan for the past 15 years taking care of elephants. I told my mother and at first she didn’t respond at all so I knew that she was not happy. She began to be teased by other villagers about me, saying things like “You have a son, not a daughter”. She became angry and threw me out, so I left.
I came out to my father and the reaction was quite different. He was very accepting and said, “No matter what happens, you are my baby. Besides, many people in the world are gay.” I am hopeful that things will change with my mother.
After Aye and I broke up I became a playboy. I drank a lot again, was depressed and only had short, meaningless relationships with women. The women I met only wanted me to buy them things. And so I began to think that true love was not possible for gay people. And then I met Aoy…
She is bi-sexual and when I met her she was with a horrible boyfriend who stole from her. He was a drug dealer and dangerous. In the process of helping her get away from him, we fell in love. She is a very caring person.
Then we discovered she was four months pregnant. I told her I would take care of her and raise the child as my own. But a month before her due date I went a little bit crazy thinking, “That is not my kid. What am I doing?” But when the child was born, he grabbed my finger and I fell in love all over again. “He is my son”, I said. We named him Ajiang, which means “elephant” in my native Kwai language. I love my life with Aoy and Ajiang.
What Will the Future Bring?
Sometimes I worry about the future. Will my son get teased like my mother when he is older and become upset with me? And what if something happens to Aoy? I have no rights as a parent to Ajiang and I worry very much that he will be taken away from me. In Thailand, two women can not get married and I can not adopt him.
Advice for Lesbians Visiting Thailand
Thailand is a great country to visit for lesbians because you can be “out” anywhere. It is even ok to be lesbian in my village, as long as you are a foreigner. While in Bangkok, I recommend going to Si Lom Road, Soi 4 and 6 to find lesbian clubs and restaurants. Chiang Mai does not have any lesbian clubs per se, but we mostly like to hang out at Infinity, which is on Nimmanhaemin, Soi 6. But don’t get there until after 11pm. You can also try Monkey Club, which is also off of Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 9. Another place to meet local lesbians is the Tha Chang Cafe, located on Atsadathon Rd.
And my advice to lesbians everywhere is to be strong and like the monk said, wait for the right person. She’s out there!