Merge & Al's Excellent Adventures

5 min read

School girls and ladyboys in Pattaya, Thailand

In November 2023, the MS Westerdam stopped at the port of Laem Chabang in Thailand, the cruise ship gateway to Bangkok.  It was a long stay, with the ship docking at 7 AM and an all-aboard departure time of 1 AM in the wee hours of the next morning.  With so many hours at my disposal, you would think the big question would be “What to do?”  But for me, the answer was easy.  Four of my schoolmates from my teenage years live in the Bangkok area, and my plans were for a mini-reunion.  Rather than have me make my way to Bangkok, which is about a 90-minute car ride, the gang offered to pick me up from the port and then spend an all-girls afternoon in Pattaya, a mere 30-minute drive away.  At the end, only three of them were able to make it, but the four of us had a fabulous day laughing and catching up, and we even managed to squeeze in some sightseeing, primarily for my benefit!

From the left: Indra, Merge, Gopika and Renu

Renu, Indra, Gopika and I go back to the mid-1970s when we were all classmates at our boarding school in Nainital, India.   Just teenagers then, we lived and studied together for several years, only apart during school holidays when we went back to our families wherever they were in the world.  Renu and I last met at a school reunion in India back in 2010.  Indra and I last met in 1990s when she lived in Vancouver.  And the last time I had seen Gopika was in 1979, the when we passed our O Levels.  But the years magically melted away in moments, and before we knew it, we were back in the dorms, talking and laughing as if we were still young girls.  We lingered far too long over a delicious lunch, but absolutely no regrets, it really was a fantastic and memorable time!

Finally, we decided that it was important for me to get to at least one tourist sight that day, so we made our way out of the restaurant to the Sanctuary of Truth Museum, a stunningly beautiful wooden (mainly teak) structure, dedicated to the preservation of traditional Thai craftsmanship, as well as the promotion of ancient philosophical and religious ideas stemming primarily from Hinduism and Buddhism.  It was initiated in 1981 by Thai businessman Lek Viriyaphant, who wanted to create a living museum, aimed not just at preserving traditional arts, but also at imparting profound philosophical and spiritual messages to its visitors.  It is designed to represent the traditional Thai architectural style, which does not use any metal nails in its construction. Every inch of the structure is covered in hand-carved wooden sculptures that illustrate various themes and narratives from mythology and ancient teachings. The project is ongoing, with the completion date perpetually pushed forward as continuous repairs and additions are deemed necessary due to the nature of wood degradation. This ongoing construction process is part of the philosophical message of the sanctuary itself, symbolizing the endless cycle of human life and the idea that truth, beauty, and goodness are works in progress.

The Sanctuary of Truth Museum and its grounds are spectacular

Sightseeing goal accomplished, the girls had one more treat in store for me.  I had told them several weeks ago that I really wanted to attend a ladyboy show while I was visiting, so they had made plans to take me to the best one in town – the Alcazar.  Clearly its reputation was well-known, because when we got there, the parking lot was packed and there were people milling everywhere waiting to get in.

The area around The Alcazar was very crowded!

In Thailand, the term “ladyboy” colloquially refers to transgender women or effeminate gay men, more respectfully known as “kathoey.” Thai society exhibits a notably higher level of acceptance and visibility of kathoeys compared to many other cultures, reflecting a broader tolerance for diverse gender expressions. Kathoeys are an integral part of the Thai entertainment industry, particularly renowned for their roles in vibrant cabaret shows that feature dazzling costumes, dynamic choreography, and skilled lip-sync performances. These are not only great entertainment (as I discovered) but also serve as cultural showcases that celebrate the fluidity of gender identity, challenging traditional gender norms and promoting a message of acceptance and diversity. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted during the performance, but after the show, the cast gathered in the parking lot for visiting and photography.

Selfie of us girls in the theatre!
My favourite kathoey!
Isn’t she gorgeous?!

By now, it was past 9 pm, and I knew that my wonderful gal pals not only had to return me to the cruise ship, but also then make their way back to Bangkok.  So with much sadness we decided to wrap up our evening with a quick snack, and then we made our way back to the port.  It took us at least another 15 minutes to hug and wave goodbye, but then they were finally on their way to Bangkok, and I made my way back to the ship, heavy with tiredness, but light with happiness.  Thank you my Bangkok girls for your love and affection, and our wonderful time together!!

The school girls saying good bye!

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