The Original Best of Phuket Awards
PHUKET: Phuket's famous ladyboy katoey show, Simon Cabaret, is all grown up. In 2012, she raised the curtain of her second theatre for the first time in Phuket City and celebrated her 21st birthday.
Now with 140 dazzling performers entertaining audiences of up to 1500 people every night, Simon Cabaret is taking centre stage as Phuketwan's Best of Phuket Business of the Year 2013.
Each evening in Patong and Phuket City, the stars of Simon Cabaret begin a transformation with makeup, sequins, feathers, and fabulous colorful costumes (all made in Phuket) before taking to the stage.
''Our performers [are] more of a man than you will ever be and even more of a woman too,'' boasts Simon Cabaret's website.
Sometimes, the performer's family are in the audience. The response from them has been very positive, says Pornwit Rouyrin, Vice President of Simon Cabaret.
''[Their families say] it's so amazing that their children have a proper job, look nice, their salary's good, they have good friends, and a good boss. I think they trust us that we can take care of their children,'' says Rouyrin.
Simon Cabaret has been a part of Rouyrin's life since he was a child. In the early days, before moving to Phuket, his parents ran the business together in Pattaya, but he didn't always appreciate the performances as he does now.
''Actually, the first time I was scared of [the shows], because they were kind of noisy, but later I fell in love with them because they are funny, they are creative, and just very fun to be around.''
Rouyrin's mother, Khun Wirat is ''still the big boss'' he says, ''especially with the ladyboys,'' but in the future he will take care of most of the business.
Most of the performers do not have any prior dancing or acting training before they join Simon Cabaret.
First and foremost, Simon Cabaret's management looks at the faces and figures of potential recruits. The latest performers to join the theatre in Phuket City were discovered at beauty pageants in Chiang Mai and Udon Thani.
''But they don't have to be perfect,'' says Rouyrin. ''They might have a particular look that means they could play a certain singer or character.''
It takes from three to six months to train the new beauties. They learn basic ballet and other forms of dance, and practice yoga and strength-building exercises.
These days, Simon Cabaret employs two professional trainers, but for the first decade it was the job of the more experienced performers to instruct the up-and-coming stars.
Simon Cabaret's youngest performer is about 20 years old. Their most experienced has been with the show since its early days, before the show even came to Phuket.
Rouyrin's parents and uncle, Si (known as ''Simon'' in English) started the business 30 years ago on Pattaya's Walking St.
At the time, there were a handful of clubs that had similar shows, and also featured famous singers and pop performers. His own father was a deejay, ''with vinyls, 70s style.''
Tourism grew in Pattaya, and his parents' show consisted of 30 to 40 performers, but it was basic without props or elaborate costumes like the act today.
His parents then decided to move to Phuket, believing that the area would someday grow to be a popular spot like Pattaya.
''But at that time there was nothing in Phuket, it was just sea and forest. It was a really difficult time twenty years ago when we started.'' Rouyrin says.
In those days, Rouyrin says, they had performances in the forest. The ladyboys came from different places in Thailand and his mother acted as a guardian to them.
They had a difficult time living in the forest and sometimes struggled to find food, so his mother would often drive a car around Phuket to pick fruit off trees.
''Nobody cared in those times,'' says Rouyrin.
Other times they would catch crabs and cook them on the beach. But several years later, tourism in Phuket began to boom.
''That's how we could survive that time.''
In October 2012, they took Simon Cabaret to the ITB trade show in Singapore.
''I think we attracted a lot of people at our Phuket booth. Of course we had beautiful performers that everyone wanted to take pictures of.''
In February 2013, the show will go Down Under for a series of performances in New Zealand - an opportunity that Rouyrin says will open lots of doors for them to continue overseas shows.
But the overseas market is not their main target for now.
They want to expand their business in Phuket, and perhaps build a new theatre in Patong. The current theatre has been there for 20 years and is no longer large enough to cater for the crowds. The plan is to build a 1000-seat theatre to open in three years.
These days, the demand from the European market has decreased, and Simon Cabaret's show is most popular with Russian, Chinese, and Korean groups.
Rouyrin believes the expansion of Phuket International Airport will be good for business.
He would like to see Simon Cabaret expand to become a large entertainment district, ''like Las Vegas,'' with an acting school, hotels, restaurants, a big night club and pubs ''with performers and customers in the same place.''
But for now, the best feeling for Rouyrin is when the audience applauds, or shouts.
''It's a feeling that they're enjoying the show, that they love the show.''
The latest addition to the show is a rendition of 'Gangnam Style' by Korean pop sensation, Psy.
After the show, for a tip of around 40-100 baht, the audience can take photographs with the performers.
''I think it's more acceptable to be a ladyboy now,'' Rouyrin says.
''I think the media helps as well. So many gays and ladyboys are on TV all the time. Thailand is quite open, nowadays.''
A ticket to Simon Cabaret costs 800 baht for adults and 600 baht for children.
Sophie Brown, a journalism masters student at the University of Hong Kong, is currently an intern at Phuketwan. She is a former communications officer at the anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International.