Thailand’s ladyboy culture is infamous, and it is fascinating to many people from all over the world.
The commercialization of ladyboys by the tourist industry in Thailand has made this culture visibly ever present, and ladyboys that are seen by some as even more beautiful and exotic than ‘regular’ women are a huge tourist attraction.
But, of course, they are people — not a tourist attraction — leading mostly normal lives.
Bangkok is home to one of the largest ladyboy communities in Thailand, and they can often be spotted at work or out walking the city streets.
What is a Ladyboy?
The Thai people sometimes refer to ladyboys as ‘kathoey’, which basically refers to someone of a third sex — although many ladyboys themselves prefer their western nickname.
Essentially, they are young men who transform themselves into women, either by simply dressing in women’s clothing and wearing makeup, or in more drastic and permanent ways via a series of surgeries and hormone treatments.
Thai ladyboys are an accepted part of Thai culture, and are generally widely regarded as something usual — particularly in the cities of Bangkok and Pattaya.
In the west, the ladyboys of Thailand have become synonymous with sex tourism, but this is not necessarily an inevitable life path for them, with many leading their lives in normal, 9-5 jobs.
Ladyboys in Bangkok
Ladyboys are far more integrated into Thai society and culture than most westerners realise, and whilst it’s true that many can be seen plying their trade in bars in Bangkok’s notorious red light districts — either as entertainers or sex workers — in fact a high proportion of ladyboys are employed in a wide range of different jobs all over the city.
Some Thais go so far as to maintain that ladyboys have a fairly easy time getting work because with both male and female attributes they can do the work of both a man and a woman — they are generally regarded as good workers.
They can commonly be found in beauty salons, hairdressers and working on makeup counters, presumably thanks to their developed mastery of these skills through their experience transforming themselves into women.
The Bangkok ladyboy community are also generally credited with speaking a relatively good standard of English, so they often land jobs in hotels, or working as tour guides.
Ladyboy cabaret is a common tourist attraction in many of Thailand’s major cities: a performance featuring singing and dancing by impeccably made-up entertainers. These are often touted as family-friendly too.
The physical changes that these transgender women make are certainly not an alien concept to the Thai people — nor is changing sex often seen as a major concern.
Tourism has also played its role in the popularization and acceptance of ladyboys. They’re a popular crowd-puller that generates big incomes for those in the tourist industry.
However things are not quite as they seem. Whilst it is true that ladyboys are accepted and even respected on one level, they nevertheless remain excluded from certain aspects of society.
Some Thais believe that being a ladyboy is punishment for bad deeds in a previous life, and this leads to ladyboys occasionally being rejected by their families — at least initially.
Also they are often thought less of in school (many receive a lower standard of education as a result) and they are sometimes excluded from higher class professions. Perhaps this is one reason why so many choose to work in the sex industry.
Legislation is not in their favor, they are neither one sex or the other, and even using public toilet facilities can pose challenges. Marriage for ladyboys to someone of the same sex is out of the question.
Despite this, ladyboys do manage to find love, and many find happiness in long term relationships. It is not uncommon for married Thai men to take a ladyboy as a mistress, and naturally there are ladyboys who enter into relationships with foreigners too.
Sometimes these relationships can be a ticking time bomb — particularly if the foreign man met his ladyboy girlfriend in the red light district, where relationships always start — and often continue — with a financial focus. Cross cultural relationships can be hard to nurture and maintain in the easiest of circumstances, but there are lots of different factors that can come into play with a ladyboy; doubly so for a sex worker.
That’s not to say that a successful relationship is impossible, and there are plenty of stories to be found online of lasting love with a ladyboy.
The most important thing to remember is that ladyboys are their own individual persons — not a tourist attraction, regardless of how they make their money — and as deserving of respect as any other human being.