Thailand's Ladyboys or katoeys are some of the most beautiful - and convincing - transvestites in the world, mostly accepted and embraced by a highly tolerant Thai society. Some families even believe that katoeys bring good luck to them, an enlightened attitude that was boosted by several Thai movies in the past two decades dedicated to katoey themes.
'Beautiful Boxer', for example, tells the true story of a Thai kickboxing champion who became a woman, adored by fans and feared by rivals. Gender reassignment surgery in Thailand is also legendary - not only for the outstanding surgical standards that are maintained, but also because it is one of the most cost-effective places in the world to have it done.
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But, back to the ladyboy shows. Most of the performers have had breast implant surgery, and are saving for the 'final curtain' on their manhood. Some shows won't allow them to perform after they've become women, as they won't technically be ladyboys anymore. This rule, however, is not strictly enforced - especially if a performer is a hot favourite with the audience. As a result, Bangkok boasts some of the most famous and fabulous ladyboy shows in the world. These cabaret-like shows pay tribute to the creme de la creme of the female persona; from Hollywood glam and disco diva to mythical creatures and legends of the Orient, in shows that feature spectacular extravaganza-type sets and costumes. To add some fun, comedy skits are normally thrown in too.
These fascinating and highly artistic performers captivate audiences with their charm, unique creativity and flawless female impersonations. A ladyboy show promises an evening of polished and most enjoyable entertainment for the whole family.
The Katoey Phenomena
Typically, katoeys dress and live as women. They undergo hormone replacement therapy, most have breast implants, and eventually have genital reassignment surgery done. They go to great lengths to conceal any tell-tale signs of masculinity, including surgery to reduce the size of the Adam's apple and other medical procedures to shape their bodies more like those of women (jawbone, hips, buttocks) - even voice chord surgery.
Katoeys are fully integrated in and accepted by Thai society, even on the countryside. Those who don't work in restaurants, bars and cabaret shows hold regular jobs like nurses, secretaries, beauticians, stylists, and some even become popular TV stars.
Many become prostitutes though; the most beautiful ones count among the highest paid sex workers in Thailand. It is believed that the acceptance they enjoy in society is due to the nature of the surrounding Buddhist culture, which places a high value on tolerance. Thais believe that being a katoey is the result of transgressions in past lives (the notion of Karma), and that katoeys deserve pity rather than blame. Sadly, legal recognition of katoeys is non-existent in Thailand. Even after genital reassignment surgery they are not allowed to change their legal sex. Katoeys often belong to lower social classes, and their suicide rate is significantly higher than that of any other segment of the Thai population. Still, many go on to make their mark.
Fame and Fortune
Among the most famous katoeys in Thailand is Nong Toom (pictured right), the former Thai boxing champion whose life story inspired the award-winning movie 'Beautiful Boxer'. She was already cross-dressing and taking hormones while still a popular boxer, and would enter the ring with long hair and make-up, occasionally kissing a defeated opponent. Her career ended in 1999 when she had genital reassignment surgery. The movie is beautifully made; a must-see, and for sale in most DVD stores in Bangkok.
How to tell
Often, it is impossible to tell. Their petite Asian frames (by Western standards), flawless skins and exotic features make many Thai men good candidates for successful gender reassignment surgery. That's if they wanted to. Advanced plastic surgery techniques and other medical developments can also eliminate all obvious signs of masculinity, and many katoeys are very natural - and even more beautiful than their (real) female counterparts. A favourite contestant for the Miss Thailand title was once disqualified in the final round of judging, but only after her katoey status was leaked to the local media by a jealous rival.
However, many theories exist about identifying a katoey; some even bordering on the ridiculous. The only way to tell is to look out for physical signs like big shoulders, hands and feet, and in some cases height. Thai men are often taller than women. Another way to tell is from behavioral patterns. Too much make-up maybe, extravagant clothing, overtly dramatised gestures and just a bit too much of a sway in the hips when she struts down the street. And, of course, a deep or husky voice. But remember, katoeys deserve to be treated with respect, since the courage it takes to live out who they want to be is nothing short of admirable.