“The Bangkok night heaved with the pumping noise of 90’s dance music, the oppressive heat caused my cheap cotton shirt to stick to my un-climatised body. My eyes danced back and forth from the overstimulation of crowds, bright neon lights, banging trance, young English men chanting and swilling cheap beer. Here I was on Soi Cowboy road, a road an hour earlier I had never heard of, and now I will never forget. I was in pursuit of experience, the experience spoken of by legions of travellers before me, and now seemingly so passe . I had become part of the sex trade in Bangkok, unwittingly so as I had never fancied myself as a human trafficker or paedophile but nevertheless here I was. All of a sudden the 60 year English male can shake off the taboos of his desire and walk down the street hand in hand with a 14 year old from a 3rd world country, head held high and without shame. But I had my mental tick-list in place. I had things I was here for. A purpose for being in this human zoo. I am here to see two things: a woman with a dick and a lady shoot a ping pong ball out of her vagina. Once this is done I can rest.”
— From the journal of a Kiwi bloke in Bangkok
Ladyboys are a curious thing for a male, a gorgeous girl (genuinely these girls are usually stunning) but with different parts. Do we cast a sexual eye upon them? Look at them with desire? Or do we laugh and jest with our friends, and disregard as objects of fun? Personally I was there because it seemed to be the thing to do, go and check out a ladyboy show.
Our little foursome was greeted at the door of the Cockatoo Bar by a horde of about 15 ladyboys, beckoning, smiling and encouraging us to come in. Inside was much the same as any other strip club I have been in: loud, dim, stage in the middle, seating spread out around. Cheap drinks were brought and then the fun began. Or so I thought. Once seated the “ladies” hopped on the stage, dis-interestingly grinded upon each other and generally tried to attract our attention for tips, or maybe a bit more if we wanted to go back behind the curtain. It’s always the same with these sorts of scenarios, the concept outmatches the reality vastly, you just need a catalyst to make it all kick in. For me that catalyst was some old dude sitting opposite us caressing a lass easily 40 years his junior. He was by himself and was not there for entertainment, he was there for sex. Like a train wreck I found it difficult to look away as he undid the girl’s bra and slipped his hand in. I think it was shortly after that we decided to get out – strangely it gets boring fairly quickly. Bangkok has a knack for desensitizing you to everything you would normally consider otherworldly.
It was not for another few days that I got my second taste of ladyboys. On our Stray tour we stopped in Chiang Mai for the evening. We had two options for the evening, kickboxing or a ladyboy show. Having already had my ladyboy experience I was not too fussed on doing that again, however the group I was with was about 70% female and they were overwhelmingly in favour of the ladies. Off we trudged, me feeling like the elder statesman with all my worldly prior knowledge of ladyboy shows. Oh how I was wrong.
We entered a large hall with a stage lit up with glittering balls, hanging confetti, and a bunch of other stuff looking like it had just been used to shoot a Boney M video. Massive speakers sat beside the stage. Slowly the room filled with tourists, maybe 200 in all, and because of our special tour guide connections we had the best seat in the house, right in front. At that stage I must confess, it had been a few days of travelling, I was feeling tired from the heat and the drinking, and would of quite happily gone back to the hotel and curled up in bed at that point. Except for one shining saviour, a nice cool mega Chang beer, was planted in my hand, and then another, and another, and another. Feeling a bit better I sat back and awaited the drop of the curtain.
The room went black, the jeering crowd shushed, and in that moment it would not have mattered if they were completely silent of hollering at the top of their lungs because the mega sound system kicked in. And in the best way possible, by playing the theme of Space Odyssey over the top of some flashing lasers. Daaaaah, daaaaaah, da-da!!!!!!! And the curtains swept back, and three beautiful ladyboys took to the stage, proud and fabulous with glittering costumes, spectacular feather headdresses and some sort of crazy dance choreography exploding upon us! At once the crowd was swept up in this explosion of light and colour and, yes, laughter. Not the laughter of a drunk tourist at a freakshow on Soi Cowboy, but the laughter of someone who has embraced their identity, and now was displaying it in a proud, uplifting and positive way. Ladyboy Rhianna, Ladyboy Nicki Minaj, even a Ladyboy Celine Dion were all pumping us up and making us feel part of something incredible.
Within minutes we were on our feet, dancing, singing and caught up in the rapture. A two hour show shot on by and spat us out the other end. Walking out of the hall we hummed the tunes to ourselves, smiled, tipped the ladyboys as they came out and stood in a line to see us off.
Such a distinctly different experience to my time in Bangkok. But that is the beauty of Thailand.
I think I have reflected upon my experiences a fair old bit since these travels and one area where I do not think I lent enough consideration was ethical travel. Big thanks to Stray who showed me such an amazing positive ladyboy experience. This show was one of the highlights of my trip and done is an extremely respectful, fun fashion. I am glad that I got to experience it, and if I could scrap my initial foray into the seedy underbelly of Bangkok I would gladly do so.
Written for Stray by Jo ‘Beanz’ Crickett, who can usually be found wandering the downtown streets of Auckland, New Zealand.