Ah, Thailand! The Southeast Asian country that has been most heavily affected by Western tourism. As the plane prepared for landing I peered out the window to find that Bangkok looked no different from any other major metropolitan area back in The States. It was a far cry from the more authentic experience I had previously been seeking out, having just traveled through India and Bhutan. Then again, as much as I was enjoying being rustic and rural, at my core I’m a city girl, so I couldn’t complain too much about taking a break from the challenging backpacker life in a place where virtually everything is at your fingertips.
Unfortunately, between the bougie, overpriced cocktail bars, Spring Break-esque madness of Khao San Road, and trashy Red Light District vibes of Patpong, it was a bit difficult to find enjoyable nightlife. Local music was virtually non-existent in all four cities I visited. Instead I encountered one mediocre cover band after another. Thailand loves their cover bands: Guitar Hero style. If you’re hyped up on a Long Island iced tea bucket in an attempt to get yourself liquored up enough to be able to sleep through your hostel bunk mate’s horrendous snoring, then OK, but otherwise… What’s a gal to do?
Well, puppets are a big thing in Southeast Asia. Yep, you read correctly, puppets. Quite a step up from your average Pinocchio though. I bopped over to the Askra Theatre in an attempt to catch some traditional Thai puppetry only to discover that the shows were completely sold out for several weeks to come. Who would’ve thunk it? There was also the Guinness Book of World Records placing show, Siam Niramit, but that happened to come onto my radar a bit too late. And then, shining bright like diamonds, in sashayed the lovely ladies of Calypso Cabaret!
Foreigners know them primarily as ladyboys, but in actuality the proper term is kathoey, which is a man who assumes the characteristics and identity of a woman. In fact, much of the local community recognize them as a third gender. Due to the predominantly small frame of most Asian people, kathoey have a leg up in pulling off being a woman.
Calypso Bangkok Theater is located in an open-air mall called Asiatique The Riverfront and has been around for 28 years. The venue is covered almost entirely in red and velvet, is filled with early 1900s New York style cocktail tables and lamps, and boasts plenty of shine and pizzazz. It seats 480 guests and there are two shows, seven nights a week, with the girls only having a 15 minute break in between. Pretty impressive!
I will preface the rest of this by saying that as a former longterm resident of Midtown Atlanta, the center of the city’s gay community, I have pretty high expectations when it comes to drag shows. The Atlanta Pride Parade took place annually right outside my front door with Baton Bob leading the pack (see video below). My mother and I would don glitzy bejeweled crowns, drink copious amounts of mimosas and throw rainbow beads at the passersby. Any of my ATLiens remember Nickiemoto’s Dragamaki? Every Monday night, that was my shit! And my house was half a block away from the Outwrite Bookstore (R.I.P), where I once waited in a mile-long line to get an autographed copy of Workin’ It! from Miss RuPaul herself, mmmmk?
That being said, the Calypsettes did a solid job at bringing some of our most beloved women empowerment jams to life. From En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” to Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” to, DUH, B’s “Single Ladies.” The most visually captivating numbers featured traditional music and very elaborate costumes that represented the cultures of China, Korea, Japan, and Thailand. My personal favorites, however, were the old school tunes such as “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes, Ethel Merman’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and, of course, Sinatra’s “Luck Be A Lady.”
Now, if you’re going expecting super on point lip-syncing don’t hold your breath; obviously English is their second language, which makes this understandable and slightly endearing, but Ru would definitely be saying, “Sashay... away.”
However, while Calypso lacks in this area, they make up for with their impeccable getups (I was truly mind = blown by how pretty and womanly they all were), very well coordinated dance numbers, and consistent air of happiness - Thailand is the Land of Smiles, after all. If you ever visit Bangkok I would absolutely encourage you to spend one night getting in touch with your feminine side with the ladyboys. Yas Queen!