Why are there so many Ladyboys in Thailand?

Why are there so many Ladyboys in Thailand?

Thailand has the highest rate of Transsexuals throughout the world. According to some academics, the numbers differ from about 10,000 to (unofficially) 300,000. Even if the number of 10,000 is an accurate one, it would still represent an incidence substantially above that estimated for transgender people in most other parts of the world.

Annie wearing orange and white dress David Bonnie Bangkok Thailand davidbonnie.comTo explain the case for this high number of transsexuals, some academics refer to the impact of Buddhism in Thailand and how it leads to an understanding of transsexuals in the current day.

The terms ‘transsexual’ or ‘transgender’ are rarely used in Thailand. Instead, “Kathoey” is a common term. It was originally used for hermaphrodites (human being who have both sexes- male and female), but nowadays it is mainly used to describe the transgender male. Looking up the word “kathoey” in a Thai language dictionary, we get the following definition: ‘the characteristics of a kathoey is someone who cross-dresses (lakka-phet), a male who likes to act and dress like a woman and has a mind like a woman”. Ladyboys themselves favour the term, Ladyboy over kathoey, considering it a politer form of address. Interestingly they use the catch-all term to include males who behave in a feminine way that in the West would be described as ‘camp’ this regardless of whether the individual has undergone surgery or not, has long hair or not or wears make-up and female clothes or not.

The number of kathoey in Thailand is surprising to the American or European traveller and the reasons for their number may, at least in part, lay in religion and religious attitudes in Thailand.

The main religion in Thailand is Buddhism. About 95% of the population are Buddhists who follow the rules of this religion in their everyday life. Thai- Buddhism is called Theravada Buddhism and it is a localized form of Buddhism which has it’s origin in Indian Hinduism. The Thai form of Buddhism is not so much interested in the moral message of the Theravada as it is in auspiciousness, worldly continuity and the manipulation of saksit; supernatural or sacred power.

It is animistic and primitive and certainly pre-dates formal Buddhism. Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, trees, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.

Nang Tanee, the banana tree ghost, pictured below is sometimes depicted as a sexually voracious kathoey

Phil Nang Dtani Banana Tree Ghost David Bonnie Bangkok Thailand davidbonnie.com

 

According to practises in animistic folklore knowledge of a true name allows one to affect another person or being magically. It is stated that knowing someone’s, or something’s, true name therefore gives the person (who knows the true name) power over them. This explains a peculiarity of bullying amongst Thai children in the bully repeating the first name of the father or mother of another child. Thai children take this very seriously and can become very upset when this takes place.

Buddha and Ganesh images became seats of power because they are believed to carry a ‘tep’ or angel/spirit inside them and the practice of merit making has become a way ensuring prosperity and storing up ‘bhun’ or good kharma.Traditional Thai Statue David Bonnie Bangkok Thailand davidbonnie.com

It is important to outline the beliefs of Thai-Buddhism to relate it to transsexuality in Thailand. Taking a look at he basic scriptural canon of Buddhism in consideration of the high number of kathoey, one already notices that it differs a lot from the Christian religion that denounces all kinds of non-normative gender behaviour.
In Buddhism, there are at least 3 genders, not only male and female, but also bhatobyanjuanaka or hermaphrodite. Two scriptures mention an original man, woman and kathoey. The appearance of these 3 genders in scriptures considered holy could explain the toleration of kathoey and gender ambiguity in Thailand.
Buddhism believes, that all doings of the individual have an influence on his Kharma. Kharma can be described as a form of spiritual bank account with entries representing one’s credits and debits that are the consequences of an individual’s actions. The aim of every Buddhist is to gain enough Kharmic credit, or bhun so he or she will reach Nirvana and be enlightened.

Buddhism believes in the system of reincarnation in which each individual is reborn many times (up to several hundred times), until he reaches the final state, the Nirvana. This concept of reincarnation and Kharma is adopted from Hinduism and has been newly reinterpreted by Buddhism. Another reason for the acceptance of kathoeys could be the fact, that there is a reason why people are born as kathoey. A person is re-born kathoey because they performed actions that violate sexual morals in their previous life (e.g. being a female prostitute or sexually abusing one’s children) or failed to fulfil an expected role in the reproductive process, such as a man not caring for a woman who is pregnant by him. Thai Buddhists believe that a person becoming kathoey is predetermined from birth and is the direct result of karmic debt or ‘gamm’ accumulated through misdeeds committed in a former life. Being born a kathoey is inevitable and is not a person’s fault, at least in the life into which they are presently born. Kathoeys are commonly believed to be the victims of karmic consequences, consequences that may befall all of us in other lives. It is very important to notice, that the common belief says that there is no escaping from the karmic consequences, and that everyone has been or will be kathoey. He should accept his fate since there are no further consequences arising from desire and actions that arise out of the state of being a kathoey. It might be acceptable for Buddhists to be born kathoey, because even Buddha must have been born as one at least once.

Homosexual activities are not considered sinful and do not affect a person’s kharmic account.

There exists a paradox between Theravada Buddhism and the original Buddhism as in Theravada Buddhism it is also possible for a kathoey to reach Nirvana in his/her present life. However the animistic Buddhism says, that for a person to be enlightened after his present life, he or she has to be a male? A paradox indeed!
A general Thai view on transsexuals says, that they should be treated with compassion and that they should rather be pitied than judged, because of the account of suffering they have to endure by being born a kathoey.

Thai-Buddhism believes in the existence of spirits. They believe in the communication between human beings and spirits. Normally, this communication is only two-ways- either a female human contacts a female spirit, or a male human being contacts a male spirit. Being born as a kathoey means that one comprises both sexes, hence, is a male and a female at the same time. This fact leads to the assumption, that a kathoeys spiritual, communication skills are superior. The transgender person can contact both- male- and female spirits. This leads to more prestige for the kathoey in the Thai-society as a mystic, witch or shaman.

I should be clear that anomalies exist within the general acceptance of kathoeys in Thailand as this article discusses: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/07/16/monks-try-to-teach-maleness-to-thai-ladyboys/

Schools also often discourage young gender ambiguous boys from exploring their femininity further.

So there are several reasons to explain the large numbers of Kathoey in Thailand. Due to the belief in the existence of Kharma and ones helplessness being born in a certain way, those people who feel they are gender ambiguous are free to pursue the gender role that is fulfilling for them without persecution. This tolerance exists because of the general belief in reincarnation and specifically that every person is born a Kathoey at least once in his or her many lives. And lastly, although I would question the widespread belief, that Kathoeys can reach nirvana after the present life as well as the belief in the existence of spirits, leading to a greater reputation of ladyboys.

Although these ideas offer an understanding of the tolerant attitude of Thai’s towards transsexuals, it does not address their visibility in everyday life. Tolerance is not visibility. Even though the number of Kathoey is surprising, and they are broadly accepted, they could also be invisible. Globalization and information awareness has perhaps led to an increase in tourism, virtual or physical in this region. Entertainment centres in the tourist areas of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket are key to an understanding of the Ladyboy profile.

Ladyboy Making V Sign in Red Dress David Bonnie Bangkok Thailand davidbonnie.com

The commercialization of Transgenderism in Thailand makes the phenomenon visible in a socially acceptable form. Thailand’s Tourism Authority lists Alcazar and Tiffany’s Ladyboy cabarets on their website and the novelty of seeing men who are even more beautiful than actual women is a major family friendly draw for tourists.

Prostitution, although illegal is highly visible and is a result of the economic disparity between the west and Thailand that despite the global depression still exists. Kathoeys are simply a part of the larger whole that is prostitution in Thailand.

Ladyboys Cover David Bonnie Bangkok Thailand davidbonnie.com

So while Thai-Buddhism is the reason for the acceptance and tolerance of kathoeys, as well as the ambiguity regarding gender in Thailand, it is globalisation and tourism that have precipitated the visibility of kathoeys in the region.

24 Comments

  1. Hello. First, I’d like to say thanks to you for this website.

    Have you ever thought of translating some articles into Thai?
    I think it would be great if there is information for Thai ladyboys about westener men – how to date them.

    Thanks again for this website and documentrary series.

    I wish you happiness, for you and Annie.

    one small correction.
    Male to female person: trans woman
    Female to male person: trans man
    Ladyboys are trans women.

    Reply
    • Hi Matthew,
      I have thought about translating some articles and when we begin to make our own films Annie will speak in Thai and speak about ways to date/find a western man, although they are pretty good at that already! I think she has to be the one to do that. I can’t presume to tell Thai people about their own culture and so I think speaking from a Thai ladyboy’s perspective is perhaps the way to go forward. I agree about ladyboys being transwomen, did I make a mistake? If so , thanks for spotting it!

      Reply
      • Most are likely to be prostitutes to meet the demand of foreigners. They money they make is far more than working in a factory or ploughing a rice field.

        Reply
        • The money they make is far more than a lot of other jobs, that much is true. Only a tiny proportion of ladyboys become prostitutes and the demand from Thai men was there long before foreigners discovered Thailand anyway. I don’t think we can generalise all ladyboys into prostitutes even if it may seem that way to foreigners. They are just highly visible.

          Reply
        • Lets face it. Tourism has been good for development, however deviant scumbag sex tourist westerners have screwed Thailand, giving its street culture a bad wrap.

          Reply
          • Well, Preacher, prostitution has been around longer than Thailand tourism has existed so Westerners definitely did not give Thailand it’s reputation. Sex tourists are the favourite target of the liberal left and of feminism but buying sex is no different than buying a cheap hotel room or cheap food surely. One of the major tourism draws is that Thailand offers a lot of experience for little cash in comparison to the west. Sex, Food, Hotels, Travel, Shopping.
            While I may not agree with the behaviour of many tourists when in Thailand, I don’t think a guy who cannot get sex in the west should be looked down on because he comes to Thailand for it.

      • David, I think Matthew was referring to the sentence near the top of the article ending “but nowadays it is mainly used to describe the transgender male.” I noticed it too; you meant transgender female.

        Reply
        • Yes, I think I corrected it now?

          Reply
    • Excellent article. But 10,000 – 300,000???? 20% of the population is walking around in lipstick. And that would be a conservative estimate. But an excelent article, nevertheless.

      Reply
      • Hi David,

        The figures are not mine but they represent much less than 20% of the population. Thailand has a population of a little less than 70 million people so 20% would be 14 million. 300,000 represents about 0.5%. Glad you enjoyed the article though David.

        Reply
  2. Dear Mr, D.Bonnie:

    I hope this email arrives to find you well. My name is Arjet Shazi and I am currently studying at Capilano University in Canada, for tourism management diploma.
    I read your article “Why are there so many Ladyboys in Thailand?” and I chose it as my topic for my Cross Cultural class assignment I have.

    I really loved your article, and to add more value to my report paper I will hand in this upcoming week, I would like to ask you a question that may really help me to do that.
    My question relates with Kathoey culture, and I would really appreciate it if you briefly explain in one sentence even, about your own opinion about what a Kathoey values, beliefs and attitudes are!

    I hope to hear from you soon, and I wish you the best.

    Best regards,

    Arjet.S

    Reply
    • Hi Arjet,

      I am pleased that the articles helped you and hope you do well with your paper. It is probably difficult to find primary sources as no anthropological studies have been done as far as I know. My ideas are just supposition/speculation but feel free to quote them as you please. The question is a difficult one as ladyboys are all different and yet also similar to many Thai people and the biggest differences lay not in the area of gender but in economics.
      Poor people, who make up the majority of Thailand have almost zero social mobility and so the only way to improve one’s lot is financially which is why prostitution is such an ever present factor in Thailand. So the hopes and dreams of many ladyboys are the same as most poor, rural Thais; to elevate their status through wealth and by almost any means available to them. Owning property and cars, gold etc are outward signs of that status and are important to the concept of ‘face’.
      Looking beyond the economic factors at play I feel that Ladyboys want to be accepted as feminine, attractive, sexy etc. They do not want to be admired by gay men, which generally, they are not, but by straight men as this puts them on equal footing with genetic women. I think as ladyboys become more self aware they are less likely to opt for sexual reassignment and grow to accept themselves for the unique creatures that they are.
      In one sentence—ladyboys dream about and value the notion of being at the pinnacle of feminine desirability while hoping for a relationship that stands the test of time and an economic status that allows them to take care of their family. How’s that ha ha!

      Reply
  3. I AGREE BUT THEY ARE STILL A BUNCH OF BUG EATING LYING 10 TIMING MONEY HUNGRY SLUTTY COCK SUCKING ANUS EATING DISGUSTING UNGRATEFUL BASTARDS

    Reply
    • I see you are not a fan Money Man. Did you get on the wrong side of a hooker or two?

      Reply
  4. no

    some of these people can do anything for money which is not good in my opinion
    like if you go into a shop in pattaya the shopping sales assitants will say hello and act nice but if you leave without purchasing anything and you say bye! they will just ignore you

    like my muay thai trainer said: ” thais only want your money!”

    Reply
    • Hi,
      I think that staying in a place like Pattaya or Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok and a few other places will give you a very different experience than if you stay away from those kind of entertainment areas. While I agree that a lot of Thais who have regular contact with foreigners see us as nothing much more than walking A.T.M’s they are not all like that. I too have had bad experiences, but still would not swap Thailand for a rainy, economically depressed, grim and joyless Britain. I do miss the British countryside though.

      Reply
      • Good job David, I think Farang man has not experienced other 3rd world countries where tourist trade is so important to the local ecomony. If he had he would know that many countries see us westerners as as ATM machines.

        Reply
        • Well, I think the people that rely on tourism see us as income, for sure!

          Reply
  5. Wow what a great way to respond to such an ignorant comment. Kudos David.

    Reply
  6. I found your very interesting article during my search for a pointer that diet and/or occupation does/could alter the sex ratio of babies born to a particular sample group. Many years ago a study found that butchers in Britain fathered more girls. This was blamed on their potentially/possibly higher consumption of beef that was injected with rapid growth hormones.

    When I visited to the Seychelles in the 1970’s there was a general believe that the birthrate of three girls to one boy was due to their daily proteine intake coming almost 100% from fish.

    Your article explains the spiritual belief how the Kathoye originate and the social acceptance if their “affliction” without prejudice. This in turn make them obviously more visible than in countries and/ or societies based on other religions and laws – where until not so long ago any person with gender problems had to remain “invisible”.

    After that long-winded prologue, I come finally to my question: Have you come ever across any mentioning that Thailand’s high incident of hermaphrodites may be due to a particular diet and/or occurs predominantly amongst a population in a particular geographical region?

    Reply
    • Hi Ralph,

      I once read that some areas of Isaan are subject to a lot of pollution from plastics factories and this may be the cause of the high number of ladyboys. Ladyboys or Kathoey are not really hermaphrodites as they do not possess both male and female genitals. They are born men and experience a kind of gender dysphoria. I think that as far as regions go, it is mre relevant to consider the economic status in those regions. Bangkok Thais tend to be of Chinese origins and wealthy. Isaan Thais are of Laos origin or Cambodian origin and are the poorest in the country. I do not mean that poorer regions produce more ladyboys but there is more at stake in wealthy families. More people hide their sexuality as families may disinherit a child who wants to live their life outside of their birth gender.

      Reply
    • You could be right, Ralph. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastic has been shown in studies to ‘feminize’ rats (as well as encourage the early onset of puberty in girls) The Thais do drink a lot of bottled water. No doubt ladyboys have been a facet of Thai society, long before the chemical was created, and people started drinking bottled water, but perhaps this could contribute to the prevalence of ladyboys in Thailand.

      Reply
  7. I love ladyboys and so many are more beautiful than girls. They understand men better being male. Everything in this world is for sale as well as prudents who criticise. If you have never experienced a ladyboy keep your opinions to you bigoted self. I am going to Thailand for 3 weeks soon just to be with ladyboys , (katoyes) in Thai.

    Wonderful

    Reply
  8. I just back from Thailand.
    Thais are in general very friendly ppl. Their government has converted the generations of thai into non intelligent work force. It had created world biggest party place in the process

    Reply

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