Finding the Art in Phuket
Anthony S. Cameron
Dancing on the Fringe
Misfits come in all shapes, colours and sizes in Phuket, and the most colourful of all have to be the Katoeys; the ladyboys. Far more colourful than the criminals on the run, more fascinating than the guy in witness protection on a yacht anchored in Patong Bay, far more interesting than all the guys avoiding divorce lawyers or the failed entrepreneur trying to escape his creditors, more magnetic than the Nigerian coke dealers, more revealing than the Tuk Tuk drivers that take you to places you never would have found on your own. Katoeys are an accepted part of the matted social fabric that makes this island so special.
People come from all over Thailand to make it big here. Some come to ‘expand’ their business operations, such as the criminal gangs that hail from Nakorn si Tammarat. Others arrive on their own from Isaan, usually young girls on the lookout for old ex-pats to marry. Some come to free themselves from the bonds of family, others to escape a life of dead-end streets, tired of eking out an existence in the sprawling chaos of Bangkok. Still others come trapped in men’s bodies, and Phuket is the place where they can be who they wanna be.
I am sitting in Sunshine Bar, Rawai, on the southern tip of the island looking across the street at the tour operator touts and fishermen drinking Thai whisky under a huge casuarina tree on the water’s edge. It is around midnight and the floor show is getting into full swing when our drinks arrive, delivered by a six foot two Katoey my wife and I affectionately call ‘Tits McGee’ due to the size of her breast implants. She leans in close and says to me, “Come back later …alone” so my wife can hear. We all laugh for a moment, then with a dramatic head tilt and flick of her long hair, she is gone, back to centre of the horseshoe shaped bar that is her Moulin Rouge.
Sunshine Bar is unique, even here in Phuket. Sure, there are places like Simon Cabaret where you can see extremely talented Katoeys on a big stage, with lots of stage lights and frocks that dazzle, á lá Priscilla Queen of the desert, but there is something mechanical about it, something soulless. It is no accident that there is ample bus parking because this is the acceptable, family friendly ladyboy experience. Sunshine Bar is different. The ten or fifteen Katoeys that take turns on the pole or vie for centre stage are the fringe dwellers of the scene. Some have had boob jobs, some haven’t. Some have gone all the way, the full sex re-assignment surgery, but these are few due to the $12,000 US price tag. Some are struggling with it all, some aren’t. Some are dancing on the fringe, caught between worlds, between bodies, and some just stand there dumbstruck. Scattered amongst them are a couple of gay boys that of course out dance all the ‘girls’ and create the on stage tension that makes the show so watchable.
What makes Sunshine Bar so special, though, is the lady who owns the place. She is the heart of it all. Like a den mother she takes all these lost souls in, gives them a job being who they wanna be, nurses them when they are sick and confused or recovering from their operations, lets them drink as they work. She just lets them BE.
And because of this we forgive her for her dated choice of music, which comes blasting out of the roof either side of the pole. Sometimes she grabs a mic and sings along and, lucky for us all, it is mostly unintelligible and laden with effects. We forgive her for the cheap vodka that makes your brain rattle in time with the music as you watch another drunk tourist try to climb the oh-so-slippery pole, at the top of which resides the magic bell: if he makes it, it’ll be drinks on the house.
Over the years we have watched the misfits come and go. We have watched them grow and change with each operation, we have watched them fly mama’s coop, to make their own way. We have sat and talked and laughed into the early hours, until the real world became some kind of aberration, a moment of pristine madness that, thankfully, passed quickly as another dawn smashed the darkness away.
So where is the Art in all this?
Like always on this mad little island, it is where you would least expect it.
It is in the face of Tits McGee as she shoves another 100 baht tip between her ample cleavage, gives a confident and well-practised head tilt and dreams of being released from the body-prison that has had her trapped all her life. It is in the cut of the surgeon’s knife as he re-sculpts a penis into a labia, leaving a small bump as a clitoris. It is in the awkward gait of a gangly Katoey, new at the business of moving like a woman, nervously checking that her unwanted, even despised, genitalia remains hidden in the crack of her arse. It is in the maternal grin of the den mother as she watches her girls synchronise their moves until the place starts jumping, the whole street resonating with the swollen laughter and cheesy bass lines spilling out into the night.
For this is the Art of Transformation, the greatest Body Art of all. The surgeons are the great sculptors of our times, the unsung heroes who are liberating thousands of girls trapped in men’s bodies. And with every frontal bone shave, every breast implant, every tracheal shave, comes a little more happiness for an incarcerated few. And if you can’t afford the $20,000 US price tag for the full re-assignment, you can always make do with a perky set of ‘Pamela Andersons’ and keep your eyes on the bar door in the hope that one night, maybe tonight, Mr Right will stagger through with a smile on his face, a pocket full of Euros, and a wife sleeping in a hotel room somewhere far away from here.
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here.
Pics by Roxy Cameron