Often referred to as lady-boys in the West, they are strong, beautiful, and ubiquitous in Thai culture.
Over the last few years, LGBTQ people have become increasingly visible and accepted in many parts of the world. In the United States, widespread acceptance has only been recently achieved, and unfortunately, there are still large parts of the world where LGBTQ people are persecuted for who they are. But there are some corners of the world where LGBTQ culture is not treated with scorn or relegated to the sidelines – in fact, there are places where it is celebrated. One example that stands out in particular are Thailand’s kathoey. Often referred to as lady-boys in the West, they are transgender women and effeminate gay men, and they are strong, beautiful, and ubiquitous in Thai culture. Because of their presence, Thailand has become the most LGBTQ friendly country in East Asia. Its major cities are a hot spot for tourism and LGBTQ tourism in particular, places where people can be who they are without fear or judgement.
It is estimated that 1 in 166 men identify as kathoey, and most of them live and work in the cities. Pattaya is the center of kathoey culture, and the city is known for its spectacular cabaret shows. Bangkok and Phuket are also important hubs for Thailand’s LGBTQ scene, with both cities being home to many clubs, bars, and shows as well. Because of the quality and cheapness of sex-reassignment surgery in Thailand many travelers mistake kathoey people for cis-gender women, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell the difference. There are even many kathoey stars, such as Treechada Petcharat, an actress and model who won several beauty pageants in 2004. Another notable kathoey is famed boxer Parinya Charoenphol.
Thailand’s acceptance of LGBTQ people came about as the result of several factors, the most notable of which is the fact that it is primarily a Buddhist country. Matt Chauveau, an expat and the co-founder of MojoSons Events in Bangkok observes that Buddhism permeates Thai society, and despite the fact that to an outsider looking in Thailand seems remarkably open, the country is actually quite conservative culturally. The catch is that Buddhism is vastly different than the Abrahamic faiths. Tolerance and understanding are central Buddhist tenants, and there is even an explanation for transgender people in Buddhist mythology.
Thai Buddhists believe that kathoey are women who were born as men in order to atone for sins committed in a past life; they are thus looked upon with pity and empathy rather than hatred or disgust. Another factor Matt notes stems from Thailand’s history: Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid being wholly colonized and influenced by the Western Powers during the 19th century. In the nations Europe colonized, European values were partially forced on native populations; this did not happen in Thailand.
But despite the open acceptance of LGBTQ people in Thailand, even here there are issues. HIV runs rampant among kathoey sex workers, most of whom are forced into prostitution due to economic factors. And despite the tolerant atmosphere in the cities, kathoey people are still looked down upon in some of the more rural parts of the country. Many are banished from their families upon coming out, leaving them without any form of support structure. The Thai government also has been slow to recognize LGBTQ rights—same sex couples are not treated the same way, and transgendered people are unable to legally change their gender. And while transgendered people are accepted or at least tolerated throughout the country, there is still some cultural stigma against homosexuality outside of the major cities.
Still, it cannot be denied that in many respects, Thailand’s cities are among the most welcoming places to LGBTQ people on Earth. For travelers who seek to see Thailand and immerse themselves in the kathoey scene, there are many places throughout the cities to visit. Stefan Arestis and Sebastien Chaneac, a couple who run the popular gay travel blog NomadicBoys.com, visited Bangkok earlier in the year. They found Thailand to be, in Sefan’s words, “one of the most gay-friendly places in Asia” and recommended several nightspots in the city for LGBTQ travelers, including Balcony, Stranger, Telephone and DJ Station on Silom Soi 4 and 2. Other Bangkok hot spots include those in Nana Plaza and on Sukhumvit Soi 4.
In addition to Bangkok’s thriving nightclub scene, there are many other hotspots in both Pattaya and Phuket. As previously stated, Pattaya is the center of the kathoey world, and it is famous for its cabaret shows. Three of the biggest of these are the Colosseum Show, The Alcazar Cabaret, and of course the famous Tiffany’s Show, home to the annual Miss Tiffany’s Universe pageant. Held since 1984, the contest is exclusively dedicated to transgender women and is a celebration of kathoey people and culture. As for sites in Phuket, Matt recommends the clubs and bars on Bangla Road for anyone visiting. Should you visit any of these spots, always remember to be respectful, have fun, and take any necessary precautions. Always be sure to leave a tip! And also know that kathoey entertainers sometimes tend to act very flirty and forward—keep in mind that it’s only part of the act.
While far from perfect, Thailand is unique in that it is overall a bastion of tolerance; a sanctuary for Asia’s LGBTQ community. In many parts of the world, things remain difficult for LGBTQ people, but Thailand’s thriving culture—among many recent triumphs—gives hope that one day things will be better for everyone, no matter who they are or who they love. Should your travels bring you to Thailand, don’t shy away from meeting any kathoey and getting a feel for how diverse we really are.