Thailand is a huge country, and Bangkok is a huge city of concrete, wild flowers, cars and cutting-edge smart phones. The food is fantastic, and despite the reputation of spicy food, I’ve been adding extra chillis to get the kick I love. The Thai that I’ve met have been sincerely friendly and faultlessly polite. The Thai avoid confrontation, and for the Thai who choose to live in the West, the hardest thing for them to learn is to speak out, to express opinions that are contrary to others’.
The temples are beautiful, and the folklore has recurring themes of hybrid or dual nature. We are familiar in the West with the gryphon from Greek mythology – body of a lion with the head of an eagle – and the sphinx – with the body of a lion and the head of a woman – and other representations of the gods in ancient Egypt. Thai mythology goes so much further, and I want to learn more about it. One question I have is about the relationship – if any – between this tradition and the kathoey (‘ladyboys’) that Bangkok is so famous for these days.
I didn’t know what to expect of Thailand. We hear so many stories about drugs and prostitution. Of course, every city has a dark side, but I didn’t see Bangkok’s. The closest I came was driving through the red light district, but I can’t claim to have seen anything beyond stalls at the roadside selling food.
Not that I want to see any of it, but it troubles me to be leaving this country without having begun to understand it.
One day later…
Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender, published 2008, is a collection of life stories of ladyboys, researched and written by Susan Aldous and Pornchai Sereemongkonpol, who describe the book as ‘a personal venture into humanity’.
I was struck by their description of women working in a sex club in Patpong, one of Bangkok’s red-light districts:
They were tired, stretch-marked, worn-out mothers, weary and indifferent, struggling to support their families and, in some cases, their abusive male partners.
These stories give a very different perspective on Thai culture. For instance, Nong Toom, a Muay Thai boxer (and subject of the 2003 film Beautiful Boxer), says:
While men can have mia nois (‘minor wives’), women who do the same are deemed shameless. Men seem to live in a different world with its own set of rules; they can do no wrong yet women are subjected to harsh and unfair criticism. …
The greatest influence in a Thai man’s life is the respect and praise he receives from his peers. If he has more than one sexual partner, then his friends will praise him for his virility.
Mali, who grew up herding buffalo until the age of fifteen when she embarked on her journey to become a woman, says:
Thai men regard their women as inferior, both culturally and religiously. Ladyboys suffer an even lower status. Thai men expect us to please and serve them – in other words, we do all the work in bed. They wouldn’t think of trying to give us pleasure.
On the subject of sex change: gender reassignment surgery is dangerous, invasive, excruciatingly painful and irreversible – and there are many who regret having it done. Mali says:
‘I want a cock,’ declares one friend, her way of bragging that she has a vagina to put it in.
‘Give me back my cock,’ laments another, who never expected to miss that part of her anatomy.
At the age of thirty she is working to complete her secondary level education and hopes to go on to do a Bachelor’s degree. One last beautiful quote from Mali:
I’m my own gardener, watering, pruning and shaping my own tree – my own life. How could I ask for more?
Some are prostitutes, some are dancers, some are other. Some are religious. Some are educated. Some have come to terms with who they are.
It is a cruel twist of biological fate when your body and mind disagree about your gender, in a world that (by and large) fears any deviation from traditional gender roles. Nine weeks after conception we start our journey apart. Our genes may determine which gender to aim for, but even small deviations from the ‘correct’ concentrations of testosterone, etc., can have an impact on the development of body and mind. Is it really so surprising that instead of the black and white of cis-man and cis-woman we have a whole rainbow of identities and orientations?
But we’re a long way from accepting that, even in Thailand. Pui, a dancer and judge at the Calypso Cabaret says:
Thailand is not as accepting of ladyboys as foreigners might think. Ladyboys exist without real legal recognition or rights. The authorities try to limit the presence of kathoeys in the media because they fear that children will imitate us and become deviants by our example.
However, Lily, a sixty-one year old prostitute, says:
Overall, I think Thailand is quite accepting of transgender and homosexual people. … I think people are finally beginning to realise that ladyboys are just as competent as anyone else.
The book is well written and an easy read, and importantly it’s a very human look at a group of people who struggle daily with something that the rest of us take for granted.
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