I could hear the outdated techno music from the street just outside of X-Size. It was go-go bar on Soi Twilight, Bangkok’s gay red-light district. The sound was reminiscent of a ’90s rave, so boisterous; I was expecting it to be packed inside but from the entrance it seemed like there was hardly anyone there. I guess in a place like this, the size of the audience really doesn’t matter.
Andrew, one of the guys I’d met earlier at a street bar on Soi Twilight, had recommended this place over the others on the strip. He claimed that it had the hottest guys to pick from for sex.
Andrew and his boyfriend visited the city often from Australia, for the vibrancy of the city, the food and the Thai men; they were bona fide sex tourists from what I gathered, so I trusted them on this one.
As I entered X-Size, the host at the door kept saying, “Ladyboy, ladyboy,” which confused me. I assumed that all the bars along Soi Twilight featured cis men but at the same time, I wasn’t against the idea of going to a ladyboy bar.
At first I thought that “ladyboy” was a derogatory term, but it’s not. Ladyboys, or kathoey in Thai, are a category that includes transgender folks, though not specifically (not all ladyboys identify as trans, or even understand the meaning of it.) Ladyboys take on a female gender identity, expression or sexual characteristics, but were designated as male at birth. They are very visible in Thai culture.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 kathoey in the country, and although they’re widely accepted — more so than trans or non-binary folks are in North America — they’re also stigmatized and many Thai people ignorantly believe that this identity is bad karma from past life deeds.
“It’s a ladyboy bar?” I tried to confirm, but the host couldn’t speak English well. He just kept saying “ladyboy” over and over again.
I was led past the stage in the middle of the room, which had seats all way around it. There were only a couple of people seated, but the techno was still blasting.
Despite the host’s repeated emphasis on ladyboys, there were only two ladyboys there who seemed to be employees. On stage, however, there were about 20 young men in red Calvin Klein or Addicted brand underwear with numbers pinned onto their underwear, like they were in a beauty pageant.
None of them were dancing though — they were standing around, on display. Every few seconds they would side-step to their right, moving in a circular motion around the edge of the stage like they were on a conveyer belt. It reminded me of cattle being auctioned.
I was led up to one of the seats, and ordered a beer. The host retrieved it and sat down next to me, trying to sell me on one of the young men on stage.
Andrew had mentioned that if I liked someone, I could rent them and bring them back to my place, although I’d also read online that you need to pay a bar fine, which was about 500 to 700 baht (around C$19 to $26). You also need to pay for the sex itself, which is generally 1,000 to 1,500 baht (approximately $37 to $56). I tried to ask the host about the specifics, but he simply said, “You pay money and go to hotel.”
In Thailand, prostitution has been regulated by the state since 1908 and illegal since 1960. As a result, owners and workers of such venues must pay off corrupt police and local officials regularly to keep these places going.
I’d never paid for sex before but I didn’t necessarily have a problem with it. However, in a country like Thailand where there’s far more poverty than say Canada, it feels exploitative For these guys, this work is more of a necessity rather than a desire. Given the number of men onstage at once and considering all of the go-go bars on Soi Twilight, I was only just starting to understand the magnitude of this industry.
Whenever the guys side-stepping on stage would get my attention, they’d smile like they were glad to see me and wave. They were all pretty twinky, which was likely more of Andrew’s type and why he had suggested I come to this bar. I’ve always liked older, beefier guys, which I tried to explain to the host.
“I just want to drink this beer,” I finally said, but he kept asking me who I wanted, telling me how nice they all were.
Since the place was so quiet, it seemed like I was getting all the attention of the guys on stage. I waved back a couple of times but when I finished my drink I thanked the host and left alone.