From the moment you set foot in the Land of Smiles, it’s possible you might notice something amiss…something slightly off-kilter with an element you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s not a dark or dangerous thing, simply a curiosity that builds with every passing moment, as you increasingly get the feeling there’s something odd about Thailand…
Don’t panic. You’re simply acclimatizing to the phenomenon of the ‘third gender’ population of Thailand, namely katoeys – more commonly known as ‘ladyboys’ – transsexual men who have decided to live their lives as women.
Perhaps more than any other country in the world, ladyboys are a widely accepted part of society. Whereas in the USA and UK transsexual men would be restricted by the social acceptance of their status, in Thailand, a Buddhist country, the boundaries have been largely broken down already. So, instead of working only in the fields of entertainment in the ‘West’, ladyboys in Thailand have, for want of a better word, infiltrated numerous professions rather than being limited to simply cabaret or another area of entertainment.
Ladyboys can be found working in almost any job you can think of in Bangkok, from standard 9-5 office jobs to industries like fashion. They are so accepted in fact, that Thailand is one of the few countries in the world to have three official sex classifications – men, women and third gender. With such a wide acceptance, the number of ladyboys in Thailand is considerable, so much so they have become somewhat of a national icon of The Land of Smiles.
Famous ladyboys of note include kick boxer Nong Tum, known as the ‘Beautiful Boxer’; Bell Nantita, a singer who can sing in both man’s and woman’s voice; and Treechada Poy, the beautiful transgender actress who won Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2004 and Miss international Queen 2004.
Whilst you are likely to see an abundance of ladyboys on your travels around Thailand, you might not even notice. Medical procedures in Thailand to make the change permanent are amongst the most advanced in the world and the naturally lithe frame, hairlessness and bone structure of Thai men mean that it’s incredibly difficult to tell if you’re looking at a man or a woman given a clever application of make-up and long hair. Breast implants are common, but some also shell out for painful reconstructive facial surgery as well as surgery on their hips, buttocks, Adam’s apples, and vocal chords…and of course ‘genital reassignment’.
Despite the seemingly liberal acceptance in cities like Bangkok, there are still some big limitations attached to becoming a person of the third gender. For example, it’s still impossible to marry a person of the same sex and it’s impossible to change the gender of birth on a passport or birth certificate.
Should you have the express desire to experience this cultural phenomenon on your travels, ‘ladyboy cabaret’ is an extremely popular attraction on most of the islands and Bangkok and are attended by all types of traveler with most being family-friendly, larger-than-life shows. Last time she was in town, Lady Gaga took in a show at Calypso Cabaret and apparently enjoyed the show that’s almost as outlandish as she.
Otherwise, simply pay close attention as you wander the streets, or especially when you take a break in a park, bar or café and do a spot of people watching. If you’re already in Thailand, take a good look around…the chances are there’s one nearby and you don’t even realize it…