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Published: November 20th 2007
I Heart Elephants Kate
When we were in Pattaya before our flight to Vietnam, they mentioned that the beginning of November was going to be very busy in the land of the elephant mahout project. They had 8 volunteers arriving in the same week, and Arnon had someone visiting the dusky langur project so he needed to be there. That only left Ao and Sam to take care of them at the camp, with Mrs Noi looking after them at the hotel. Being the lovely people we are, and never ones to pass up a week hanging with the ellies, our mates in Pattaya and meeting elephant mahout volunteers, we agreed to go and help them.
We flew from Hanoi to Bangkok in the company of Naomi, who we had to say goodbye to at Bangkok airport. Erica was on a later flight from Hanoi and then they were both flying down to Phuket for some beach time. So many goodbyes are happening at the moment, but as the song says "don't know where, don't know when, but I know we'll meet again some sunny day.....". We got on the airport bus to Pattaya and a couple of
hours later we were back at Green Jomtien Studios, being greeted with a cacophony of barking dogs.
Over the weekend the volunteers arrived: Vicky and Bob, a couple from America, Christine and Derek from the UK with their nieces Amanda and Cheryl, and mother-daughter pair Jane and Dia, also from the States. I've never seen it so busy! We spent the weekdays at the elephant camp, showing them the ropes, pushing them up onto elephants, taking photos, following them around as they rode their elephants and sitting around chatting.
We stayed overnight at the camp on Wednesday night - giving the new volunteer house its first real trial run. It's now had a coat of green paint, has electricity including outside lights and has an outside shower (4 corrugated iron walls sheltering a drum of water and a bowl to throw it over yourself). It's looking good. We put mosquito nets up in the 4 bedrooms and mattresses on the floors. Ao got food from the market and we had a fun night sitting around on the house veranda, eating food and drinking beer. The next morning at dawn (I mean really dawn, 5.30am, it was pitch black)
we all went out to fetch the elephants from the forest where they sleep. The volunteers rode them to the lake where they were given a bath, and then the rode them back to camp to begin their days work. Its really beautiful around the camp at sunrise.
Pattaya: Fun City Kris
Apart from all the lovely elephant action - we also had an odd night out in Pattaya, volunteers and all.
Mrs. Noi, the 60 year old Thai lady who runs the office of the project, had recently told us that she'd become part of a separate business venture, via one of her friends. She'd opened a bar in town and she wanted us all to visit. Now, technically speaking her friend is managing the bar but she's still involved with it. She explained it's a special type.
"It has dancing girls!" she said, adding "Except they not really girls, they are men."
"Oh" we thought.
Being good sports however and appreciating how surreal a night out at a ladyboy bar could be with Mrs Noi, we agreed to go along. We didn't think she'd be inviting the other guests at the hotel - but she did
and they all agreed to join us. So one night at 7.30, Mrs Noi picked us up and herded us all onto a pick-up truck taxi (song taew). She leaned over to me as we got in and laughed "The bar is on Soi 6" (a Soi is like a sidestreet here) "But we call it Soi Sex!"
Thailand and Ladyboys
Now for people not familiar with Thai ladyboys, here's a brief run down. Men who would rather be women are relatively common in Thailand - or perhaps they are just readier to be open about it! There's even an academic book on the topic called "The Third Sex" - literally, there are men, women and then there are ladyboys. These blokes basically dress as women. Now for anyone imagining a western style transvestite with jutting jaw, 5 o'clock shadow and a hairy chest sticking out of a padded bra - think again. They have the gender-crossing down to a fine art in Thailand. So much so that you often may be pushed to tell the difference. This is likely down to some main points - Thai blokes tend to be smaller than western blokes and they
also tend to be a bit lacking on the body hair department. I've never seen a Thai bloke with a hairy chest and rarely with hairy arms. Plus, most struggle to grow anything approaching a wolfman-like bushy beard - eliminating much of the 5 o'clock shadow problem. On top of all this - sex changes are cheap and cheerful here so a lot of the ladyboys are "post-op". Incidentally - I saw an advert in the Bangkok Post for a clinic offering male-to-female sex change surgery for only 800 quid. Bargain.
As testament to how convincing ladyboys can be we've already had a chat to a macho English roofer at a bustop who relayed the story of how he met a "girl" in a bar....and didn't find out she was actually a man until the last imaginable moment. He was most perturbed. We were amused.
Plus, I myself remember checking into a hotel once and being signed in by a seemingly attractive Thai woman...then being shocked when she handed me a pen with shovel-like hands. Suddenly when taking a second look I could see her jaw was too broad and eyebrows too plucked....
Anyway...in the "Fun City"
Derek the grafter
he was rarely seen without this wheelbarrow all week. When I took this picture we were lazing in one of the mahout houses, and all we could see was Derek going backwards and forwards, backwards and forewards with his wheelbarrow. Look out any elephant poo....!
(Registered trademark) that is Pattaya there are punters who seek out ladyboys over real women and therefore aren't deceived when they go to such specialist bars. We, of course, just went for a laugh and the weirdness of it all...
We filed into the bar from behind a curtain beneath a neon sign reading Tornado A-Go-Go. It was a pretty small place. You know...err...cosy. In the middle of the room there were 5 or 6 chrome poles on a little stage and on one wall a bar and on the other a row of seats. Yeah, just a row so you could sit within about 6 feet of the poles and watch. More or less as soon as we sat down several dancers appeared and began gyrating to music.
I think they were all blokes, but you can't be sure. Most of them were certainly "post-op" (judging by the g-strings - they were all in bikinis) but as mentioned above - it can be hard to tell. Mrs Noi seemed to indicate that some were really women by telling us to guess. 1st eliminated were the ones wearing miniskirts and not thongs as we pretty
Kris working hard...
well Derek was working so hard there wasn't much left for us to do!
much guessed they were hiding something.
Anyway, we ordered a beer each and sat awkwardly looking around the room. Luckily there were no other customers. I think a bloke who tried to discreetly slip into the bar from the street would have got quite a shock when he saw our unlikely group lining the wall and watching the show. Periodically, Mrs. Noi flitted between her guests asking if everyone was having fun. Kate was happily chatting to Dia, one of our American guests about the philosophical minefield posed by defining the sexuality of a woman who was attracted to a ladyboy. Would she be considered gay or straight...? While this was going on I sat by myself at the end of the row glancing round the room and finding that, as the walls were covered in mirrors, I seemed to make eye-contact with a gyrating person everywhere I looked. Suddenly Mrs. Noi pounced and asked if I could see properly and asked if I wanted to sit closer. I politely declined and drained my beer.
We finished our drinks and left the bar, bidding farewell to the entertainers as we filed out - polite to the last. From
Ao taking a sneaky nap
under the volunteer house!
there we just had to run the gauntlet of Soi Sex. This itself is an interesting feat as a lone man given the bar touts in hotpants that line the street "encouraging" you into bars - I swear they weren't all men in disguise (not that I was paying that much attention mind you...). Kate abandoned me at this point to continue her discussion of sexual orientation so I had to stroll along smiling and declining and generally acting like an embarressed 12 year old or someone out of a Carry On film being molested by Hattie Jakes.
All in all it was actually quite a bizarre, but funny night - and very Thailand! I guess it had to happen before we left. There is a severe shortage of ladyboy pole-dancing bars in the British Isles so the experience is not to be missed when it presents itself. Thanks Mrs. Noi and good luck with business!
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