Intangible heritage generally designates oral traditions, customs and/or the characters shaping a country’s identity. So, if ladyboys, transgenders and drag queens were considered an ‘intangible heritage’ of Bangkok, then they’d go some way in defining what the city is, which they undoubtedly do, part of Bangkok’s fabric and just as iconic as the Chao Praya River
Foreigners often refer to the sense of tolerance of Thai people in their daily life. The most visible aspect of this tolerance is undoubtedly a large number of ladyboys, people who identity fluctuates between a man and a woman.
For some Thais, oscillating between a male and female identity is part of people’s karma. Feeling different from his or her original gender is not uncommon and will likely become a sign of destiny. Some very religious Buddhists think that people pay in their present life sins of their past, returning to earth with weakened sexual identity. “It could happen to anybody, and we consequently must show comprehension for those people,” explains a young gay Thai.
Pattani-born Naeya Umar, an openly transgender who has made a career as a successful model and actress, believes that the modern interpretation is wrong. “I do not agree with this interpretation, as I believe that Thais are often shy to express what they deeply think inside openly. They keep quiet although they might disagree about the existence of a transgender or a ladyboy. We need now to show that ladyboys are not just into entertaining and be funny. They need to climb the social ladder as well.”
Whatever the perception, the so-called “third sex” is part of Thai modern society and Bangkok offers the sort of anonymity and normalcy that ladyboys and transgenders are looking for. “I do not know any other places in the world where I can walk in open space as a drag queen and feel totally safe,” says Pan Pan Nakprasert—aka “Pangina Heals” at night—one of Bangkok’s most famous drag queen performers.
At least, ladyboys are at ease in the entertainment industry. What would Bangkok nightlife be without the presence of drag queens and ladyboy shows? A very different scene, indeed. The Silom district concentrates most of these shows, and for a traditional cabaret performance—with its abundance of boa feathers, rhinestones and sequins—the best remains Calypso Cabaret at Asiatique The Riverfront. There are two performances a night, matching some of the very best cabaret shows in Paris. Shorter performances are also on stage at gay club DJ Station (Silom Soi 2) and gay bar The Stranger (Silom Soi 4).
However, praises must definitely go to the iconic Maggie Choo’s, located at Novotel Silom. Designed by Bangkok based star of bar and restaurant designer Ashley Sutton, Maggie Choo’s is already a trip into Bangkok history. Pass the entrance which evokes an old Chinese-style restaurant from the 1930s and enter into the vaulted ceiling of the East Asiatic Company—echoing the old warehouses—and graced by busts of an emotionless Queen Victoria. Every Sunday, a drag queen show time ensure that the place is packed, mostly with Thai upper-class kids, celebrities and a mix of tourists and expats.
The fame of Maggie Choo’s has much to do with the personality of its main entertainer, Pan Pan Nakprasert, who during performances, becomes Pangina Heals. “When we looked at producing a drag queen show, I wanted to shape it as I would love to enjoy a night party in Bangkok. It should be fun, outspoken, interactive, something between performers and the public. And this is what we managed to do. At Maggie Choo’s the public can talk and cheer with us, play games with us and just have a fun time,” says Pangina Heals.
Theme nights, extravagant costumes, fun talks—“outspoken is not to be rude,” stresses Nakprasert—and great music to dance to are filling Maggie Choo’s on Sundays. “It took us three years to really get successful and establish our weekly event. But now, people are coming back, and there is even a strong sense of belonging to the Maggie Choo’s family!” adds Heals. To some, the idea of such elaborate, colorful and vibrant characters may seem smutty or crass, but the community here is loving and strong and defines Bangkok.
So, intangible? Not really. Out and open, yes, and happy to live, perform and thrive, yes indeed.