The cross-dressing cabaret was a Christmas miracle.
Winter, 2009. I was living in Hong Kong, working as a TV news producer. Relationship on the rocks. In a last-ditch attempt to save it, I booked the two of us into an eco-resort on a remote beach on the island of Phuket, Thailand. A beach holiday isn’t exactly Christmas-y, but I knew my partner wouldn’t mind: Since she was a kid, she’d despised holidays. Me, well, I’m basically Mr. Christmas. So spending Christmas on a tropical beach was a kind of compromise, one that I knew would probably result in one of us being unhappy.
But to Phuket we went. Arriving in our Deluxe Pavilion Beach Front (it wasn’t) Treehouse (it was!), things started going south almost immediately. My partner came down with a headache, or an arm rash or a stomach bug. I can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. All I knew was that my companion was unhappy, and I was in a supposedly beautiful place that had been spoiled by a ton of chintzy-ass Christmas decorations. Oh, and there was no Wi-Fi.
Making matters worse was the fact that Phuket is a total tourist trap. Not only is it not at all “far from the beaten path,” it is the beaten path. It’s accessible by direct flight from Europe, and as a result the locals learned long ago how to bilk every last baht from every tourist they lay eyes on. The foreigners in Phuket are a liability, too. First-timers to Asia tend to stick to the company of other foreigners, and duly we found ourselves the object of attention of some German honeymooners who were eager to shake off their culture shock by speaking English with a couple Americans. Every time we descended from our treehouse or visited the buffet we had to look over our shoulders to avoid being drawn into a rigorous rundown of the ins and outs of Wolfgang’s factory.
We were also ducking Mr. Paisarn, the overly-talkative hotel manager who took every opportunity to remind us to attend the “Christmas Gala”?—?a compulsory event that every hotel guest was obligated to pay for whether they planned to attend or not. We’d paid for it, against our will, but we’d be damned if we were going to go.
We had other plans. On Christmas day, we wanted to get away from the resort, to see more of this reputedly-romantic island. I’d planned for us to go to the Phuket zoo, where I’d heard we’d be able to pet tiger cubs, and then hit up a local pub for trivia afterwards. Phuket is sprawling, however, and canny cabbies make traveling absurdly expensive. Like, more expensive than New York, which is no easy feat. Two days of haggling the price for a 10-minute ride down to $40 USD did little to lift our spirits, so we gave up. We decided we’d stay at the tacky resort for Christmas and attend the gala after all, though Mr. Paisarn appeared to be the only one who was made joyful by this prospect.
Though it’s the most Buddhist country in the world (about 95% of the population identifies as Buddhist) Thai people fucking love Christmas. Even more than Americans, it seems. I honestly don’t know why. What I do know is that the very first thing I saw when I landed at the Bangkok airport for the first time back in 1996 was a sign proclaiming “Merry Christmas.” Likewise, the first thing I remember a Thai greeting me with was “Merry Christmas,” though it was the end of February. And I know that for every Thai holiday I’ve ever witnessed, the country gets blanketed in Christmas lights.
Our resort in Phuket was no exception. Eager Mr. Paisarn had decked out the place in thousands of Christmas lights. My partner and I were nearly blinded as we entered the gala hall. Our ears, on the other hand, were immediately assaulted by electronic rip-offs of classic Christmas standards that were being blasted from the hotel’s PA system. The songs sounded like they’d been composed on a touch-tone telephone.
Then the live entertainment began. Scrawny, beardless Mr. Paisarn was dressed improbably as Santa Claus. He led the hotel staff in a medley of corny Christmas songs with the chiptunes as a backing track, and then began handing out cheap gifts to the children.
I was just starting to feel seriously depressed about how un-Christmas-y this Christmas was turning out when, entirely without warning, a troupe of katoeys, or “ladyboys,” marched into the room.
Cross-dressing and transgenderism are a relatively open part of Thai society. There’s little social stigma to men dressing as women; sometimes in the middle of rural Thailand I’d suddenly see a man in lipstick casually looking through newspapers at a local kiosk. And then, of course, in Bangkok and some of the other big cities, there are elaborate cabaret shows featuring full-blown transvestites dressed to the hilt. (NB: Don’t even think of coming to Thailand without catching one of these shows.)
That night in Phuket, the ladyboys were decked out in silk and satin in holiday hues, hair piled to the sky. They were Kris Kringle-meets-the-catwalk, and believe me they could’ve given any East Village drag queen a serious run for her money. They performed a combination of Christmas songs and cheeky disco numbers, and were accompanied by an impressive light show (considering we were at an eco-resort in the middle of the jungle). Boisterous, gleeful and bold, they laughed through whirling routines full of flash and pizzazz.
The crowd, which had only a moment ago been so lackluster, was now roused to shouts, no?—?roars of enjoyment. The tourists, the hotel staff?—?even my partner and I?—?were all clapping along. Suddenly we all felt like one community. All of us who’d come from these different countries around the world were now bound together by this strange and delightful spectacle. My partner and I toasted the ladyboys, we toasted the Thai staff. Hell, we even toasted the Germans. Suddenly, it felt like Christmas. Mr. Paisarn was beaming with pride. The gala he’d probably been planning all year was now a real, live, smashing success?—?just as he knew it would be.
The flashing lights, plinky Christmas tunes and the sheer din of drunken revelry carried on well into the night. My partner and I eventually stumbled?—?if not amorously then at least amicably?—?back to our treehouse and the oblivion of sleep sometime in the early hours of morning.