My first experience in a Ladyboy cabaret show in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
An experience you must not miss.
An honest confession — I have always been fascinated by ladyboys, beautiful feminine creatures who dance like butterflies on delicate high heels and elaborate headgear. They look nothing less than a peacock in the rain.
But, I never thought I will see them since I had promised myself to stay away from the areas in Thailand where sex tourism is rampant and normal girls and ladyboys work for sex, like Pattaya and Patpong.
Chiang Mai is a historic city in the northern mountains of Thailand and is a safe bet. The massage parlours here are not discreet places and offer authentic Thai massage. I did not find anything seedy in Chiang Mai. I found it the most beautiful city in Thailand.
At night, as we were strolling around Anusarn night market, I suddenly heard my friend get excited and shriek, “See there? A lady boy!”
At this moment I was haggling with a kind lady over a ripped jeans short. I immediately purchased it from her for 300 Baht and asked my friend, “Where?”
In excitement, we ran past shops selling handcrafted leather notebooks, Chiang Mai elephant t-shirts of all sizes, key-rings and souvenir stalls, coconut ice-cream and Satay stalls, until breathless, I arrived at the street junction where I saw them at last.
Four Ladyboys stood there, but I saw only one in the centre. She took my breath away. If you have seen Katrina Kaif of India, I can safely tell she looked a far better piece of Goddess than Katrina. From some angles, she looked like an angel, from some other a delicate Apsara. She was wearing a white sparkling, low neck dress and was perched on 6-inch heels. Me and my friend stood there, gaping at her for an eternity. At some point I noticed the others, there was a ladyboy who looked like she was a man, another girl and a fat, slightly comic looking fat lady who was talking very funnily to pedestrians. They stood there like a troop, pouting in selfies, very conscious of their beauty. I was amazed, I wanted to know their inner feelings, how they felt being looked at like that. They were handing out pamphlets to people. A few families passing by posed with them and left them tips of 100baht for the selfie generosity.
I nudged my friend to go ahead and collect a pamphlet. He retorted, “Where are your guts? You go and say Hi.” We mustered some courage and I walked to them. The comic lady said, “Hi! I am Lily, and we have opened the first cabaret show of Chiang Mai. It is at Anusarn market from 9pm. Drinks free, only 350Baht. Thank you.” Her English was impeccable compared to the rest of the people I met who hardly knew any English. I took the pamphlet, stole a glance at my Katrina who had not uttered a single word except a vacuous smile all the time.
We went back home, and I read their pamphlet top through bottom, front to back. I am a product marketer with an expertise in content, so I read it with additional care. I found their pamphlet very professional. Once, I got a pamphlet in Wat Pho, which is a famous Wat in Bangkok and possibly run by the government. It was full of spelling and grammatical errors. But this pamphlet was surprisingly good and an example of thoughtful marketing.
It said, “Chiang Mai Cabaret Show” in the first page with aesthetic pictures of their crew. They highlighted their brand value as a unique cabaret by an all-transgender troupe.
In Thailand, transgender people are called Kathoey but the outside world simply refer to them as ladyboys. Here, they are far accepted in the society than in other countries, for instance in India. We even met a tattoo parlour receptionist, who dressed like a normal lady and led a very normal life. The impression we have, that all ladyboys must be working in go-go bars or cabaret or prostitution is wrong. Ladyboys in Thailand are an accepted part of their culture.
I told my friend, “Tomorrow night, let’s go to this show. We may experience a different thing altogether. He was excited obviously. The next day after a day trip to the Doi Suthep mountains and Hmong village tribes, we arrived at 9.30pm to Anusarn market.
It was out of the world. Just for 350 Baht, priced low because they were just starting out in the city, we received a free Chang Beer and were led inside. Remember that you have to tip the waitresses, since they live pretty much on our tips. We arrived a bit late, so we didn’t get the best seats. My friend remained in the dark back, while I stole a front row seat near a Western couple. I was excited and they didn’t mind. The best thing about my seat was that it was perched near their dressing room, so I had an inside view of the ladyboy performers lives that the other people enjoying the show didn’t have.
I can’t tell you how perfectly they all danced. My Katrina appeared in the first dance, and along with her there were other beauties too. One after the other, the dances kept going, enthralling the audience. I took a video of all their performances that I will share with you.
After the initial round of surprises the biggest surprise came.
Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez
Suddenly the screen lifted and while we awaited more apsaras to dance to American Pop songs, Rihanna appeared. I rubbed my eyes. Surely it was Rihanna! And then I realised it was a ladyboy who looked like Rihanna. Her makeup, gestures and dance resembled Rihanna so much they could be twins for all I know. She came to the maddening crowd and picked a guy onto the stage. She blindfolded him, and as if I was not shocked enough, out came Jennifer Lopez, another lady-boy clone. They entertained us too well. There were some adult gestures, but it never went extreme.
Jennifer Lopez hosted the rest of the show smartly in her Thai English. Her voice was manly and betrayed her Jennifer Lopez aura.
Lily the fat lady came. She was the owner of the show, and like any true CEO she took it upon her shoulders to be the real entertaining piece. She wore absurd dresses, made over exaggerated moves and had a self- deprecating humour that not only entertained the audience, but also earned her respect. She was the Star, because only a true performer doesn’t mind making a fool of themself on stage for the sake of their show’s success.
The penultimate act was a fun act where they chose male volunteers(I had asked my friend to volunteer too, but he is the shy type), and dressed them up as ladyboys and brought them to the stage. The friends of these guys went mad with laughter. They even danced along with the ladyboys and didn’t mind cross-dressing. Jennifer Lopez was the marketing head because she kept asking friends to post pictures of their now scantily clad friends on Facebook and to tag their page too. I thought, “Wow. Everyone uses social media marketing these days.” She apologised to the men sweetly, that it was just for fun and she was sorry if any of them were hurt by the cross-dressing act.
The ultimate act was a dance performance by the whole crew in colours of all possible hues. I was getting sad that it would all end too soon. After two hours of entertainment, I still wanted more. Jennifer came out, thanked us and announced that it was selfie time. All the crew came to the tables to take selfies with the audience. At this point we came out, because we knew selfies may mean extra tips and also we didn’t want to see any ugliness once the show ended.
Behind the scenes:
I told you that as I was sitting near the dressing room, and had not sipped my Chang Beer, I was fully aware of my camera and my eyes every so often wandered from the stage to the back stage area. Because it is only the back stage where you can glimpse behind the make-up and pretty dresses of the performers lives. I saw rows and rows of pretty clothes, makeup strewn on desks. After every performance, the lady-boys would rush to this area and change to their next attire. Sometimes, they shut the door, but mostly it was open to my eyes. I felt a bit of shame to thus look at their lives, but I could not help notice them. I was so curious. Lily who smiled so brightly while performing and collecting tips, frowned in this room. When she came out the door, and I smiled at her warmly, she didn’t even respond. There was another lady boy who seemed to be in her 30s. She had the most sternest expression of them all. She sat staring at the wall, with an almost hostile frown to the world. I realised that behind all the dazzle and smiles, they are just normal human beings like you and me, who get tired of their work. If to some, they seem excited to be wearing elaborate clothes and smiling in selfies, it was because that was what their work entailed. At the end of the day, they were just another bunch who wanted to get clean, remove their makeup and sleep in a warm bed.
Ok, people that’s not all. I have recorded videos for you, perched from my viewing point.
Check all of them. In between the videos, you will see my camera linger over them doing funny things in the back stage too.
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All photographs are taken by Rohith Krishnan and can not be reproduced.