On a seven-day trip to Thailand with my sister Junkiri, the official tour took us to the beauties like temples and beaches. Unofficial trips that we adventurously took ourselves showed us a different side of Thailand that was just as vibrant, complex, and mysterious.
First of all, gender fluidity is an interesting and visible aspect of Thailand. We noticed many individuals whose gender seemed indeterminate: short hair, androgynous features, unisex clothes. There were people who were clearly men, with perhaps a shade of facial hair, wearing women’s clothes. The number of men wearing lipstick and eye makeup was equally high.
On our first night, Junkiri and I decided to go to a cabaret because we had nothing to do. The performers were very graceful, but most of them were six feet tall. “Their heads could almost touch the roof,” I exclaimed! “Obviously, they are lady-boys!” said my well-researched sister.
After the show, the performers were lined up outside the theater, posing for (paid) photographs. They were all talking in male voices. I had to accept that these beauties with perfect figures that could put any Miss Universe to shame were men. Our research later told us that it is quite common for men to identify and dress up as women in Thailand. Known as “lady boys,” they worked in every sector, including the formal sector, though it was entertainment they were most famous for (at least to outsiders like us).
On our way back, the road alongside the beach was lined with girls wallowing around doing nothing. Some of them heavily made up and obviously waiting for customers, some of them not so easily identified. It became a kind of game for us—we would look at couples and ask each other: what’s their relationship? A young couple walking hand in hand we labeled “romantic,” and an old white man with a young Thai lady we relegated to “professional.”
Our taxi driver confirmed our views. “They are lady friends, you pay,” he said in polite terms. We wanted to know if they were all women, and he replied that half of them were lady-boys. How to tell them apart? The driver seemed too shy to tell, but we figured from other sources that you look at their breasts and Adam’s Apple. (Since both can be operated on, neither is foolproof.)
We were walking along the next day when a tuk-tuk driver accosted us. “I take you around the city, ten baht per hour only,” he said excitedly. He then pointed out a Buddha temple that he could take us to. We had been told that that particular ride would cost us around 100 bahts, so we were suspicious.
“Ten baht only because it’s Sunday,” he explained. “But first we make one stop. A tailoring store. You look, you look, then we go Buddha temple.” We had no intention of going to a tailoring store. He had other options for us: “Factory, madam? Jewelry store? You only look look, no buy. Then I take you to Buddha.”
Finding the driver quite fishy, we dismissed him and walked on, only to be accosted by another driver with the same low price offer. This one we accepted, because he did not make any unreasonable demands.
“First we stop for five minutes, where I’ll get free gasoline,” was the only request he made. We agreed to it.
It turned out that the “stop” was the very same one that the first driver wanted to take us to: a tailoring store. We went in, looked around at swathes of fabric, and came out. It was clear to everyone that we were not interested in tailor-made suits, and the salespersons made it clear that we weren’t their favorite customers.
What’s the deal, we asked the driver. “I get three liters of petrol for every customer I bring in, and five liters if they buy something,” he replied frankly.
Since he was so honest with us, we decided to be nice to him and go to two more stores. But he seemed to have mistaken our niceness for enthusiasm. “Buy something for me, get me more petrol,” he pleaded. He seemed to have forgotten that he was taking us to a jewelry store where the smallest item was beyond our entire shopping budget.
The second store was even more painful, stretching our bounds of niceness. “We’ll bring our mother here,” we tried to pretend that we were genuine customers. But they were not to be taken in. “You buy one for your mother now, she be happy,” said the saleswoman with an expression like a pinched lemon. We ran out of the shop and promptly canceled our third appointment, but our driver convinced us by saying that it was nearby.
At the third store (a tailoring store again) we lucked out, and found Nepali speaking people from Myanmar (which shares a border with Thailand). They told us there were many Nepalis from Myanmar in Thailand who had come for the higher wages and better living conditions. Some of them were recent arrivals, and some had been there for several generations.
“Barshaipichhe ghar janu hunchha?” we asked the salesperson who had been there for only seven years.
“Janu ta hunchha tara hami jadainam,” came the reply. We realized their Nepali had developed in quite a different stream from ours, and they had lost some expressions. Or maybe it was we who had acquired new ones.
Outside, out tuk-tuk driver wore an expression like a cat that got the cream. But from the next day, we ran far from any driver who offered a ride for 10 bahts.
Animal tourism is quite prominent in Thailand. We signed up for an underwater walk where we were given a roll of bread to hold. Catfish came and ate them from our hands! We touched corals, and dipped our fingers into shells to find the soft flesh inside. You can take pictures with pythons draped around your neck for a mere 100 bahts.
The zoo houses giraffes (the largest herd in the world) which can be touched from a terrace. The crafty giraffes know where to find food, and if you have nothing to feed them, they turn away. Colorful parrots come to feed from your hands (and claw at you if you have nothing.)
Dolphins, seals, and elephants are said to be easy to train, and the zoo has shows featuring each of these intelligent animals. But Thais have even managed to train orangutans. The orangutan show (marketed as the only such show in the world) has orangutans pretending to play music and enact a boxing match and a short skit, quite entertaining for children.
But the most striking animal was definitely the tiger. At a place called Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, about 10-15 tigers were chained to the ground. Visitors could pose with the tigers for photos, guided by trainers. The tigers neither growled nor roared, nor showed the slightest bit of interest in the visitor. They seemed effectively dead.
When I asked why they were so passive, a volunteer replied that it was because tigers slept for 16-18 hours everyday. Plus these tigers were raised by humans from infancy, so they were not very aggressive. But just the previous day, we had seen baby tigers at the zoo. The cubs had been restless in their cage, pacing to and fro, in complete contrast to these adult tigers which lay like drugged.
Later, we found out that the place was highly controversial for these very issues. Many people alleged that the tigers were tranquilized, but no one had been able to prove it, even after several individuals had gone undercover as volunteers and workers for months. The officials do admit that the tigers are fed chicken and milk, and not red meat which would make them more aggressive. But still, nothing we know about tigers matched up to tigers being passive in the vicinity of humans, even in the daytime. At the end, though I touched the tigers and took photos with them (bigger than me, rougher than a cat, as mesmerizing in real as in pictures), I don’t think I got to the essence of tigers!
After a seven-day trip to Thailand, Junkiri and I had only thing to say about it: “the land of incredibles.”
Perhaps the most incredible thing about Thailand is its food, which caters to all your senses and takes you to a different world altogether. We realized how much we loved when we nearly picked a quarrel with a co-traveler who complained about the food. If the Thai restaurants in Kathmandu are half as good as Madam Suzy’s outside our hotel, I know where I am spending my Dashain bonus!