Our first morning in Thailand followed a jet-lagged, sleepless night in a decent Bangkok hotel. Sure, the faucet in my shower broke, allowing it to run all night. But the rooms were comfortable, and the lobby boasted shiny floors, large pillars, and plush furnishings. The hotel also served a satisfying breakfast in their homey dining room.
Without a wink of sleep, I got up out of bed, put on a fresh change of warm weather clothes, and walked down to breakfast. They offered two types in the buffet trays at the front of the room: rice/noodle dishes for the Asian-style eaters and scrambled eggs & diced potatoes for the Western palate. I dug into the eggs.
Meanwhile, hotel workers–young men and women in attractive grey/green work attire–refilled the food and wished guests morning greetings. When I had first entered the room, one worker had caught my eye. She was thin and tall–almost as tall as my 6′ 1″ frame, in fact. A woman of this height is rare anywhere; for Thailand it’s unheard of. Typical though, was her long, shining black hair flowing down her back and following her like a trailing shadow whenever she changed direction to go about her job.
After I filled my plate, I walked over to the beverage table. She stood behind it attending to the guests. When I approached, I looked at her from across the table and noted a face of strong features. Contrasting the petite femininity of the female faces in this part of the world, she had a stronger jaw and deeper eyes.
“Is this orange juice?” I asked her pointing to a pitcher.
She looked at me a blankly for a moment.
“Is this one grape?” I continued while pointing to another.
Pointing to the first one, she said, “This is orange.”
Her voice mimicked her facial features.
“Oh wow,” I thought. “She’s a man.”
Just to confirm, I walked up to her after I finished eating. She not knowing English, I asked via a phone translator: “Are you a lady boy?”
The translator perhaps not too good, she couldn’t decipher it. So I tried a simpler question. “Are you a boy or a girl?”
She uttered back to me, “ladyboy.”
After traveling for two weeks through the cities/country, rivers/hills, parks/museums of Thailand, our group made our way back to Bangkok. At a shopping center food court featuring probably 15 little kitchens lined along the wall, I stopped at one with a food display that looked the most appetizing.
The female worker standing behind the counter fit the stereotype of the young employee unenthusiastically wearing the work uniform while preoccupied. Unlike many modern youth, though, it wasn’t a smartphone in her hands but a pen on paper. She drew. She drew pictures of sexy women.
And when I got a closer look at her and her art, I realized she may have been drawing that which she hoped to become. She too was a ladyboy.
Thailand is known for their ladyboys–typically young men or even teenage boys who assume the female gender.
Though I had known about this class, and had recalled such individuals outside nightclubs in Phuket a few years earlier, it took seeing these individuals intermingled with the daily activity of Thailand for me to really appreciate the prevalence and acceptability of this way of life here. It’s not just a tourist attraction or something designated for the clubs on a weekend night. It’s simply an open way of life.
The public realm of America has largely been welcoming the transgender community with legal protection and even awards for bravery in recent months. But I gather that the overall acceptance and the sheer numbers of transgender people (by percentage) is significantly less in the US than it is in Thailand.
Why is that? And why Thailand?
A modern factor is that once something is popular in one place, it perpetuates the behavior. Why are all movies made in Hollywood?
There’s also economic incentive to assume this way of life through the entertainment and sex industries. And this trend, according to one Thailand traveler writing on Quora.com, was spurred on by American troops on R & R during the Vietnam War. Perhaps this put Thailand on the map for this culture, and it took off from there to what it is today.
Another traveler, though, states that the origins of transgenderism in Thailand goes way back, and an acceptance of this way of life–even a historic veneration for this group known in the Thai language as kathoey–has allowed this community to live their lives with relatively little friction from society.
In all, most people cite the external reasons for the numbers and freedom of ladyboys in Thailand–the economic, the cultural, the tourism. But these contributors neglected the obvious–that there are virtually no women-to-men to be found. This observation helps point us to a factor that offers a deeper cause for this class: biology.
A male’s innate feeling that he is a woman or vice versa is often a conflict one is born with. Apparently, this biological gender-identity clash happens more to men in Thailand than to women.
Human DNA is a library whose books are mostly unread by researchers. We simply don’t know which genes, and in what ways, they work together (and interact with the environment) to make people act in the ways they do. But one may infer that a society with a propensity for individuals born with male-to-female potential, coupled with an openness toward transgender identity, would nurture the kathoey culture. Throw in the economic and the tourism, and we have the booming population of ladyboys in Thailand that we have today.
While it’s fun to postulate, it’s just as interesting to sit back and watch a society with different features and norms than one’s own. It stretches the potential for humanity, the potential for what we can experience.
For me, that’s the whole point of travel.
Thanks for following me along as I traveled Thailand. I look forward to sharing in future Sundays future travels I take. Until I set off on another adventure, the next Sundays will feature “reruns” of my favorite travel stories from China, East Africa, and Southeast Asia.