Ladyboys of Phuket

By: James Spellman

When I first told my friends that I was planning an extended stay in Thailand, it is amazing how many times I heard the same stupid reply - "watch out for them ladyboys!" Again and again, I heard this inane comment until it really started to grate. Everybody making the same stupid joke as if it was clever and original. What a ridiculous stereotype of Thailand, I thought. As if there are ladyboys everywhere you go.

The funny thing is, once I moved to Thailand, I soon discovered that ladyboys, or katoeys as they are known in Thailand, really are everywhere. It is not just a handful of them working the tourist resorts. You will see them working in shops and restaurants. Even if you go out into the country, you will find katoeys. They really are everywhere.

In fact, I had not been here long before I had a personal acquaintance who was a katoey. One of the things I noticed was just how comfortable other Thais were in her company. Straight Thai men were quite happy to give her compliments such as telling her how beautiful she looked. They all called her 'she' as it is polite and made her happy.

Personally, I was initially a little uncomfortable in her presence. I wasn't scared she would jump on me. She was a pleasant and well-balanced person. I was just a little unsure how to deal with her. It was the charming way the other Thais treated her that soon put me at ease.

What is a Katoey?

What exactly is a katoey? I had this discussion with a couple of western friends recently. They both live in Phuket and both said that you can only call someone a katoey if they have had gender altering surgery; otherwise, you should use the term ladyboy. This I feel is a western invented distinction. Katoey is a Thai word and that is not how it is used.

Thais use the term much more loosely. They use the term for any man who acts like a woman. Transgender male is probably the closest English term. Men who have gender altering surgery are katoeys. So are those who take hormones to create female attributes such as breasts. So are those who dress up like a woman. In fact, even gay men who put on a bit of make up and flounce around are referred to as katoeys.

Why so many Katoeys in Thailand?

By this definition, there certainly are plenty of katoeys in Thailand. So why is this phenomenon so much more common here than in other countries? It seems unlikely that there is a genetic reason for Thailand to have more transgender males than other countries. I think the reason is much more to do with the tolerant attitude of the Thai people.

There are many katoey TV stars, singers and models. They even have katoey beauty contests. There have been several katoey movies such as 'Beautiful Boxer' which is the true story of a katoey who became a champion Muay Thai fighter. She would often kiss her defeated opponents.

Katoeys seem to be a widely accepted part of Thai society. This is probably partly to do with the Buddhist religion and its preaching of tolerance towards others. However, other countries with a strong Buddhist influence (Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Laos, Japan) are not known for their ladyboys.

There must be something else at work. I think one strong factor is the Thai belief that life should be fun (sanook). When they see a katoey, they think it is fun. They will laugh and joke about it but not in a nasty way. They certainly will not hurl abuse or threats as might happen in western countries.

So the main reason why there are so many katoeys in Thailand is simply that Thai society is open and tolerant to them. It makes you wonder how many transvestites there might be in western countries if our societies were a little more forgiving.

How Many Katoeys Work in Phuket?

In the wake of the tsunami tragedy and the media feeding frenzy that followed, a friend sent me an article from a British newspaper. The reporter was in Phuket and obviously struggling to compete for attention with reporters at harder hit areas. So he did what a lot of reporters in Phuket did and started focusing on the seedier side of the local nightlife. Quite what this had to do with the tsunami tragedy I am not sure.

This particular reporter seemed to be fascinated with the ladyboy scene. He made a few sweeping generalisations about Phuket's nightlife, suggesting the whole island was truly a cesspit of debauchery. He then claimed there were 5,000 ladyboys working in Phuket's sex industry and a huge demand for their services.

Where did he get this figure? It seems like a very bold claim. Is there a census? Do the authorities make a ladyboy count? I really doubt there was a reliable statistic available to this reporter. Like most of his report, I think he just made it up but he obviously saw enough ladyboys around to think it was a reasonable guess.

Phuket's high season population is estimated to be around 500,000. If 5,000 of them are ladyboys then that would be 1% of the population. That would seem very unlikely but not totally inconceivable. But he said 5,000 actually working in the sex industry. Where was this army of available ladyboys?

At Soi Katoey in Bangla Road, Patong, there are always a few dancing at the front of the soi. There is another katoey bar at the back and Moulin Rouge ladyboy show. But surely even at the highest estimate, there could not be more than 50 ladyboys working in Soi Katoey. There are maybe another 30 performing at Simon Cabaret Ladyboy Show - does that even count as the sex industry? For the sake of argument, let's say it does. Then there is the gay area around Soi Paradise. There are quite a few ladyboys around this area but I think an estimate of 100 would be very generous.

There are a few ladyboys freelancing along the beachfronts where they annoy passing drunks. But really, they are not there in very high numbers. Let's be generous again and say 100. Have I missed any? Maybe there are a few dotted around other sex establishments.

So even if we round up my figures, we have a very generous guesstimate of 300 ladyboys active in the sex industry. I actually think that is probably extremely generous. A lot of the above figures are probably the same katoeys moving from location to location and I think I have overestimated all my guesses. The total figure could be as few as 100.

So I would say somewhere between 100-300 katoeys working in Phuket's sex industry. Certainly not 5,000 but then a figure of 100 would not make good press.

Men and Katoeys

So what about the demand for Katoeys? Are there really lots of men looking for their services? Since their most common approach seems to be trying to fool very drunk men, I would guess that their services are not massively in demand. I have met a few men who have had sexual encounters with katoeys. Most of them claim it was a drunken mistake.

I did meet one guy who happily proclaimed he had just been 'blown off' by two katoeys in his hotel room. He was rather proud of himself and certainly not claiming it was a mistake. You do meet some funny characters in Patong.

I guess there is some genuine demand for katoeys. Although they are active in the gay area, I do not think it is strictly a gay thing. Although they are made-up as women, I do not think it is a straight thing. But there is a hard-to-define group of men who do find katoeys attractive. Certainly, there is a lot of curiosity about them. Every month, the word 'katoey' is in the top 20 list of search keywords that have led people to our Phuket website. And we only have a small section on katoeys.

Negatives

Although katoeys are generally well accepted in Thai society there is still a negative side to their reputation. They do have a reputation for being spiteful and untrustworthy. I have personally met a few during my years in Thailand and I have to say that on the outside they all seemed well adapted and happy. However, I have also heard plenty of stories of katoeys involved in criminal activities such as pick pocketing and other thefts. They have also been known to harass and threaten passers-by late at night while looking for customers along the beachfronts.

These things certainly do happen but the scale of the problem is not clear. Whether katoeys really commit crime on a scale greater than other Thais is hard to judge.

They also have a reputation for being emotionally unbalanced. As I said, all the ones I have met have seemed fine. However, I think it is fair to say that the strains of their lives are very demanding and it is not surprising that many of them lose emotional control easily.

The tolerance of katoeys in Thai society is not absolute. Their families, particularly the fathers, sometimes reject them. Men who in most other ways are tolerant of katoeys, can still find it shameful to father one.

And the authorities' tolerance also has its limits. When a katoey volleyball team won the national championship, two of the team were selected for the national team. The government stepped in and blocked their selection. They did not think it was good for the country's image.

Saving Private Tootsie

In 2002, there was a Thai movie given the English title 'Saving Private Tootsie'. In this movie, a plane crash strands a group of katoeys in the jungle of a war torn neighbouring country. A group of macho Thai soldiers is sent to rescue them. The story revolves around the personality clashes between the flouncy katoeys and the macho soldiers as they try to escape this neighbouring country.

In the end, they all pull together to make the final crossing back to Thailand. The soldiers put aside their dislike for the katoeys and their leader returns home to finally accept his son, who is also a katoey.

The movie's message is one of tolerance that is typical of Thai society. At the end of the movie there is a nice quote from one katoey. "I may have been born in the wrong body, but at least I was born in the right country."

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