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My readers who have been to Thailand are surely familiar with the phenomenon of the Thai kathoey, or ladyboy.

Those who haven’t, prepare to raise your eyebrows. In a good way.

First time visitors to The Kingdom are often taken aback by the elegant beauty of the women that breeze by them on the street, smile to them across a bar, or cut their hair in a beauty salon. They are are even more taken aback when it is pointed out to them that said woman was, in fact, born a man.

I have hesitated to write about this facet of Thai culture, because I’m far from an expect and have many unanswered questions myself. But this is what I have come to know. Kathoeys are known at the third gender in Thailand, different from gay men and women and transgenders as we understand them in our home country.

Kathoeys are born men but identify as women, and live their lives as such. They often undergo surgery to make the transformation complete — Bangkok is , after all! Kathoey culture is not confined to urban centers, however — they live just as often in small villages and remote islands. They often work in female-dominated occupations, such as retail, restaurants, and salons. They also often find work in the entertainment industry, as both sex workers and as performers in cabaret shows.

One such floor show is The Queen’s Cabaret in Koh Tao.

Here, every night at 10pm, the ladyboys of Koh Tao put on a highly flirtatious and slightly salacious show. It’s free, though you do pay a high price for the beverages that are bussed to your table. I’ve been several times over the years, and I’ve never failed to be entertained. Damn, can these ladies dance.

The general tolerance shown to ladyboys throughout the country is admirable, especially when compared to the treatment that transgendered people receive in my home country. In Thailand, kathoeys are prevalent in pop culture, appearing in beauty contests, reality shows, and in advertising. Some schools and other public institutions are even instituting , marked by and intertwined male and female symbol. Kathoey activists are currently campaigning for a third sex to be added to passports and other official documents.

That is not to say that ladyboys (and really, those that go against the grain in any culture) don’t have their fair share of hardships. But Thailand is looking in the right direction, it seems.

Ladyboy shows are on offer in tourist hotspots around the country, from Bangkok to Phuket and beyond. They range wildly in price, talent and scandal level. In my opinion, the Queen’s Cabaret is the perfect balance of all three.

If you come to this country, I encourage you to learn a little bit about this fascinating bit of Thai culture. Do a bit of research. Chat to the kathoey working at 711. See a cabaret show — cheer loudly! And hopefully bring a little bit of this Thai tolerance home with you.

Have you heard of the Thai ladyboys? What’s your take?

  • rob
    February 20 2013

    Thailand seems a curious country.

    Outwardly very socially conservative, yet *the* sex-tourism destination. And apparently the Thai government was more than tweaked over this SNL skit making fun of the sex tourism industry…

    Tolerant of ladyboys, yet “outraged” at a sexy calendar for an airline ()

    • Meihoukai
      February 21 2013

      It’s certainly a land of contradictions šŸ™‚ What a complex culture, and what a pleasure its been to try to understand it…

  • I loved the show we went to! The ladyboys were GORGEOUS!!! And they had such an incredible amount of excitement and joy.
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 21 2013

      The energy is SO infectious… perfect for getting pumped up for a night out!

  • Kathryn Allen
    February 20 2013

    Learning to become tolerant, and even supportive, of those who are outside of our cozy tribes is a big step towards reducing violence in the world. It’s hard sometimes, good for you being open…

    • Meihoukai
      February 21 2013

      I think we are moving in this direction! Slowly but I hope surely…

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    February 21 2013

    What a great, enlightening post! So often transgendered culture (especially in Thailand) is portrayed as seedy and deviant, so it’s nice to see it celebrated in a healthier way.

    One thing I wondered about though is whether the ladyboys want to be viewed as transgendered or whether they think of themselves as women? It seems like the real sign of progress would be for them to be able to use a women’s restroom or have the sex in their passport listed as “F” if that is what they view themselves as, but perhaps they enjoy being something in the middle (best of both worlds!)?
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 23 2013

      Steph, I’m pretty sure that they self identify as “the third gender” — kathoeys were the ones who campaigned for that on the passports! It’s an interesting question though — I’ll have to ask someday!

  • Melanie Fontaine
    February 23 2013

    Thanks for sharing this part of Thai culture! It’s great to see that Thailand is so opened-minded about a topic that is still experiencing so much non-understanding in western culture!


    • Meihoukai
      February 23 2013

      I agree Melanie! I hope visitors to Thailand take this little bit home with them šŸ™‚

  • Sam
    February 25 2013

    Ah they are so talented ! They do a better GaGa than Gaga. Then again the novelty of being harassed by the ‘girls’ that hung around near Diza bar wore off, fast.
    Sam recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 25 2013

      Hahah, I was saying to someone recently that they do a better Beyonce than Beyonce!!!

  • phil maxted
    February 19 2014

    Great blog entry and so true Meihoukai I have a lot of transgendered friends and the thai culture is probably the most tolerant in the world and getting more acceptance as the years go by. Certainly better than the Uk.

    • Meihoukai
      February 19 2014

      It is a fascinating aspect of Thai culture. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Phil!

  • xylem
    July 25 2014

    WoW! Nice blog. I really agree they are so talented and lots of them are so beautiful.

    • Meihoukai
      July 28 2014

      I agree Xylem! It’s a must do for Thailand tourists šŸ™‚

  • Kalvin
    April 22 2015

    Hi Meihoukai, I already been to this cabaret show. That is a good place for take a drink with a good show.

    Also have this king of show at Bangkok. You must have try the Calypso Cabaret. You will like it

    • Meihoukai
      April 23 2015

      I’ve been meaning to check out Calypso Cabaret šŸ™‚ One of these days, for sure!