Pattaya, Thailand | 2011 | © Mitch Cullin
I forget her name, and it bothers me now because I swore I wouldn’t forget. I met this ladyboy twice, encountering her around the bars where she loitered and offered her services to men. The first time was when I was walking alone one evening to the 7-11 near the beachside hotel where Peter & I were staying. She suddenly arrived beside me, smiling, and asked where I was from, where I was staying, the usual stuff. Then she touched my shoulder, nodded toward a darkened alleyway and asked if I wanted a blowjob. I politely declined, explaining that what I really wanted to buy was some beer to take back to the hotel and a baseball hat to protect my bald spot from the next day’s tropical sun.
But she was insistent. She tugged at my arm as we walked, smiling with a bit of a pout, and rested her other hand on my chest. She said that, if I wanted, I could go with her somewhere private and just talk. There was a place she knew that had beer and, also, a bed. Again, I declined, and I told her that if I saw her later on I’d think about it. “How long will you be here?” she asked. A few days, I told her. She kept smiling, but I sensed her disappointment in not snagging me. Her fingers left my body. She gave me a slight wave before turning around as I continued moving forward.
I was at the heart of ladyboy territory, in Pattaya, and the long street of bars sitting close to the hotel had names like Pretty Girl Boys, BJ Bar, Cum Inside, 69, you get the idea. In spite of the beautiful beaches and exotic locale, there was an aura of exploitation and desperation that was impossible to ignore. Tourists came from all over the world to see the magnificent ladyboy revues that Pattaya is famous for showcasing. The downside to that allure was the fact that an untold number of young Thai men, too, came to the city with dreams of becoming revered ladyboy performers in the Las Vegas-type spectacles, yet very few of them would ever reach those heights, with the majority finding themselves instead relegated to that other end of Pattaya’s notoriety: the nocturnal world of ladyboy backstreets and bars in which they could be purchased for a few minutes, an hour or two, or for the night.
To be honest, the sexual aspect of the ladyboy phenomena always struck me as a particularly straight male fetish, as I know of few, if any, gay men who are remotely attracted to the idea of chicks with dicks. I will confess, however, a moment of curious human beauty in watching from the window of my hotel room–which looked directly down into the alleyway behind the ladyboy bars–and spying on groups of young men (some no older looking than 16 or so) as they helped one another transform for the approaching night: long hair combed straight or short black hair tucked under natural-appearing wigs, padded bras fastened across frail boyish chests, jeans or shorts discarded for more feminine attire, makeup applied. There was something lovely in seeing this sort of shared intimacy, the amount of care they took in making each other presentable, the laughter and gesticulations which flowed effortlessly among their shape-shifting bodies.
While returning to the hotel from my 7-11 journey, wearing my newly purchased baseball cap and carrying a six-pack of Chang beer, I crossed through the security checkpoint gate that protected the hotel grounds from the ladyboy realm. But while walking up the long, steep driveway that lead toward the hotel entrance, I began hearing the faint sound of “psst—psst” which soon increased into a small chorus coming from just beyond the wall that separated the grounds from the alleyway where, earlier in the evening, I had watched the ladyboys getting ready. Since the inclined driveway gradually sloped to become level with the top of the wall, about five feet above the alleyway below, I was able to peer down into the shadows from which the “psst, psst, psst” sounds were beckoning. There below me, on the other side of wall, I could barely discern the forms of three or four ladyboys, all motioning in my direction.
“Are you calling me?” I asked, crouching for a better look.
Yes, one of them said.
“What do you want?”
Come out with us, another said.
I chuckled at the idea. “That’s okay,” I said. “I’ve got plans tonight, but thanks for the invite. I appreciate it.”
One asked my name.
Another asked where I was from.
And another one asked if I was married: “Nope. Not married.”
Did I have a girlfriend?
“Nope, no girlfriend.”
“Bingo,” I said, “and he’s waiting for me upstairs.”
Was my boyfriend cute?
“Oh, yeah, real cute.”
What was his name?
The shadowy ladyboys took turns uttering his name.
“Pee-ter,” one said.
“Pet-er,” said another one.
“Peter, Peter,” another one echoed.
With that, I wished them all a good night, and as I was starting to leave them a ladyboy said: “Peter is lucky,” which made me laugh as I headed toward the hotel lobby.
Later that night, Peter & I decided to take a romantic nighttime walk on the beach. No sooner had we left the hotel lobby when the faint sound of “Pee-ter, Pee-ter” reached us from the alleyway below. “Peter, Peter–,” was also heard, along with “Pet-er, Pet-er—“, growing louder as we descended the driveway.
“Wait,” Peter said. “Is that my name? What’s going on?”
Pee-ter, Pet-er, Peter, Pee-ter–
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s just the ladyboys calling you.”
“What do you mean it’s just the ladyboys? How do they know my name?”
“I told them. I’ll tell you about it later.”
The next morning I awoke early. Leaving Peter in bed, I headed into the morning to take some photographs of Pattaya at dawn. The streets were mostly empty, somewhat hungover in appearance. I photographed a used condom in the sand, a dog sleeping on the beach, a guy napping upright on his parked motorcycle. And after an hour or so, I began to work my way back toward the hotel. When passing the ladyboy bar street—which was desolate and littered with trash—I suddenly felt a hand touch my shoulder, and, to my surprise, I turned to find myself facing the ladyboy I had met the night before on my way to 7-11. She looked a little worse for wear, exhausted, and no radiant smile was forthcoming. I asked her why she was still up, and she shrugged, then said, “I’m going home now.”
“You must be tired,” I said.
She nodded. “You want to come home with me?”
“I can’t. My day is just starting.”
“Oh, okay. Maybe tonight?”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
I’m sure she knew I was lying, but she forced a smile anyway. “You seem nice,” she said.
“I’m all right, not all that nice.”
She shrugged, then started to go.
“Wait, hold on,” I said. She turned back to me with a hopeful look that seemed to anticipate a reversal in my consideration of going with her. I dug in my pocket and handed her all the change I had. “Take it. All I want is one photograph.”
She took the money but shook her head. “I look awful.”
“No you don’t. You look beautiful.”
She crossed her hands in front of her waist, tilted her head, and I took my one shot. “Thank you,” I said. She leaned forward and gave me a kiss. Then she fluttered her fingers in the air and wandered on down the empty bar street in a haze of sunlight.