Answering naturism's call
Thailand has a fledgling nudist scene, and those who are comfortable in their skin are keen to strip away the misconceptions.
In an isolated area of Ram Intra in Bangkok, a typical two-storey, modern Thai house sits at the end of a quiet street. House number 85 is situated in a dead-end soi with little traffic and there is not much to distinguish it from the few neighbouring homes apart from a large wooden door at the entrance to the white building. But ringing the doorbell at Baan BareFeet opens the door to a whole new world.
"Welcome to BareFeet Resort, please study our rules before entering the premises and using our facility," says a professional and well-mannered man before explaining the conditions of entry.
Once inside it doesn't take long to figure out what kind of resort it is as naked guests walk nonchalantly around the reception area. Some guests are seated at computers, others relax in the pool or sunbathe. No matter what they are doing, all of them seem comfortable being totally naked. The greeter has retired to a back room, taken off his polo shirt and slacks, and returns in a towel.
The BareFeet Naturist Resort is the first and only dedicated nudist resort in Bangkok. It is not a place for shy or conservative people who feel uncomfortable revealing their naked bodies in public. The nudist community of Thailand is growing at a rapid rate, fuelled by both locals and foreigners who are happier to ditch their clothes. But, as many of the naturists explain, it is difficult task to change the perception of many of the general public who equate it with some form of sexuality.
BECOMING A NATURIST
Disraporn Yatprom, 46, is a graphic designer who works a nine to five job. Her life changed completely when she met her Danish husband, Gregers Moller, 63, 14 years ago.
Disraporn: Didn't understand at first.
"He likes to be naked around the house," said Ms Disraporn. "I didn't really get it at the time but I got used to it after a while. However, my family didn't understand and were a bit uncomfortable whenever they came to visit me. It was a bit difficult to explain about this kind of lifestyle to those who have no knowledge about it."
Even though her husband is a part-time naturist who always take off his clothes whenever he is in a private residence or where opportunity permits, Ms Disraporn isn't the same. She was shy about being naked in front of other people, but her husband slowly introduced her to the new lifestyle.
In 2006, Mr Moller took her to Denmark on a vacation. Without telling her in advance, he took her straight to a naturist camp in a forest. When she arrived, Ms Disraporn was shocked by what she saw.
"Seeing my husband walking around with no clothes on is one thing, but seeing complete strangers walking around all over the place naked got me very nervous at first. But after a while I started to feel more comfortable since they were quite friendly and welcoming."
While everybody else was wearing nothing in the public area, Ms Disraporn kept her clothes on. She said it was quite cold at that time and she didn't feel like stripping in front of everyone just yet. But when it was time to take a shower, she had no choice as it was located outside. She took off her bath robe and felt free.
"No one really looked at me," she said. "They didn't care if I was fully clothed or naked. They looked at me as a person. That was when I started to become more comfortable being nude in front of other people, even until today."
THE NAKED LUNCH
After returning from Denmark, Mr Moller talked to his wife about organising a party for other like-minded people. They started talking to friends, including some neighbours who were interested in the concept of naturism and agreed to throw a nude dinner party at one of their friend's homes.
Mr Moller was born into a naturist family and sees nudism as a lifestyle rather than a perversion. The dinner party he organised was attended by eight people. Some of them got naked while others didn't. They used the backyard of a friend's house which was surrounded by tall vegetation and obstructed the view of neighbours.
After the first event went well, Mr Moller wanted to organise something on a more regular basis. He gathered a group together to discuss the possibility of setting up a proper club. Taking into account Thai cultural sensitivity and trying not to have a negative impact on other people, Mr Moller consulted his lawyer.
After discussions with the lawyer and other future members, they agreed that Mr Moller could establish an association backed by the International Naturist Federation. After registration and certification by the INF, Mr Moller founded the Naturist Association Thailand, the first official nudist club in Thailand, in 2007.
Mr Moller organised multiple events both at private residences and outdoor venues which they rented to guarantee privacy. Many times the club has travelled to Pattaya for private beach parties on secluded islands offshore.
Once they arrive they contact a local fisherman and ask him which island is the best place to hang out for a day, taking their own food and drinks.
Island outings are one of the highlights for the nudists.
"Some of the islands are not even listed as tourist attractions," Mr Moller told Spectrum. "There are almost no other people except for us and sometimes a few divers. We spend the whole day on the beach doing things that any tourist would do except for the clothing. We then clean the area up, pack our stuff and go back to the mainland."
Other outdoor excursions have been made to waterfalls and lakeside camps at a dam. Mr Moller says irrespective of what location they chose, they make sure that they don't offend other people.
After the establishment of the club, Mr Moller set up a website which attracted growing interest. From the initial gathering of eight people in a backyard, the club has attracted hundreds of new members who participate in monthly organised events which are limited to 30 people. Mr Moller says whenever they publicise a new event they have fresh enquiries. After meetings in Nakhon Nayok, Khao Yai and Pattaya, the group became better known and has even received enquiries from overseas naturists about events.
In 2009, one of the most active members of the association, American Bruce Kendall, took over as the main organiser. He created a new website for the association on Meetup.com. The naturist website is closed to non-members.
When the group got together, one of the most frequently asked questions was why they didn't open a dedicated naturist resort. Mr Moller started to think about the possibility and found a solution when a member in Pattaya invited the club to stage monthly events at a resort that was going out of business.
The group went to the resort and had the place to themselves for a weekend. Inspired by the experience, Mr Moller eventually negotiated the opening of the Chan Naturist Resort in 2011 with the owners.
The resort owners came to realise naturist guests were better quality tourists who did not drink all night and return to their rooms with escorts as many "sex tourists" did. In contrast, the naturists are respectful and well behaved. Mr Moller said the owners said that since the naturist resort opened they had never had any problems with guests.
In 2012, another club member opened a naturist resort in Chiang Mai called the Oriental Village Chiang Mai. Last year, Ms Disraporn decided to open the BareFeet Naturist Resort in Bangkok due to the high demand. Another naturist resort opened last year in Phuket is attracting guests from around the world, while there are plans for a new one in Phetchaburi province.
All the resorts are located in major tourist cities, which makes it easy for each resort to transfer their guests. After 10 years, the club has 3,000 members based both in Thailand and overseas.
'I AM NOT CRAZY'
Non Kampaengsan, a 35-year-old businessman from Ratchaburi, believes he was born a naturist. His greatest pleasure is being nude at home and feeling free.
He was raised in an understanding family who accepted his lifestyle. Since he was young, Non has hated wearing clothes. He could get away with it when he was boy, but as he grew up people in his community started to suspect he was mentally ill.
The neighbours slowly accepted his nudity. But on one occasion he walked outside the family residence to put the garbage on the street while naked and was spied by a neighbour. The neighbour called Non's mother and told her what she had seen, raising concerns he might harm teenage girls in the community. She told Non's mother to send him to a hospital adding she thought he was crazy and needed professional help. But the mother explained Non's "personal lifestyle", after which no one bothered him.
Natural state: Naturist Association Thailand members during one of their visits to an island.
"I'm not crazy. This happens to be my preferred dress code and I am comfortable with it," Non explained to Spectrum. "I want everyone to know that we are harmless people. Just because we are not wearing clothes doesn't make us bad. This happens to be my lifestyle and I want everyone to respect this, the way I respect others."
When Non met his wife, he had to explain his lifestyle before they discussed marriage. He says he hasn't forced his lifestyle on her and she always wears clothes when she is at home. But when she goes out with naturists she feels comfortable enough to be naked with her husband.
Tor, 36, is also a club member who can't wait to get out of his office clothes when time permits. Whenever he is at home, he is naked. His girlfriend is not a naturist but says she understands Tor's lifestyle. His office is not far from the BareFeet resort and every time he has a few free hours away from work, he takes his laptop to the resort and strips off. He pays 80 baht an hour to use the facilities.
"I don't do anything wrong here. When I am in this type of premises, I know it is open for a naturist like me to do what I like. But when I go outside, I usually wear proper clothes that are appropriate with the place, time and occasion," Tor said.
Earlier this year, the club promoted a nude run at Wang Nam Khieo. But it was cancelled due to negative feedback from locals who thought it was against cultural beliefs to run naked in the woods. They eventually made the run clothed.
KEEPING IT CLEAN
Despite their naturist philosophy, Ms Disraporn said the resort occasionally attracts the wrong kind of people who associate it with the "swinger" lifestyle. BareFeet and other naturists resorts in Thailand are under police supervision. They are fully legal and registered as resorts, not sex clubs, she said.
"We sometimes have single male guests who come here and expect us to order a lady for them to have fun with," she told Spectrum. "But as soon as I hear about such a request, I invite them to leave the resort and politely tell them that this is not the place for them. It's important for us to maintain a clean image, otherwise people will misunderstand us."
From time to time, couples try to engage in sexual activity in public areas. Mr Moller said he deals with the situation by distracting them, by doing things such as jumping in the pool and splashing them with water to cool them down.
"Some resorts in Thailand take the concept of naturism and use it to promote a lifestyle resort for swinger couples," Mr Moller said. "We don't want to fall into the same category, we are true naturists. These groups of people who claim to be one of us are not certified by our association. I don't want to have anything to do with them at all. That's why maintaining the image is very important for us. We have to keep our house clean and keep it away from the sex business."
Thailand's warm all-year climate makes it a perfect destination for overseas naturists, Mr Moller told Spectrum. The majority of foreign naturists are from Australia, India, the Middle East, China, Singapore and Malaysia. Mr Moller sees it as a tourist market growing every year.
Mr Moller will be travelling to an event organised by the INF later this month in Wellington, New Zealand, to promote the Thai resorts. It is one of the world's biggest naturist conferences and aims to promote the naturist lifestyle and communities globally.
The naturist community within Thailand is also growing. Many Thais have been interested in the lifestyle but previously had no place to go. Once the club was established, it quickly become popular.
"The biggest challenge is the perception of local Thai people toward nudism," said Mr Moller. "If they understand what it is and separate it from the sexuality issue, the naturist community will grow even bigger. That's why we are trying to keep our standards and set an example for being a clean and friendly naturist community."