Thailand’s Third Gender, Kathoey: Not Just an Entertaining Quirk

In the West we were raised to believe there are only two genders: your are either a male or a female. Those are your options. What’s not within these parameters must be hidden, ashamed of, bullied. However, a lot of ancient and also some modern societies found that the existence of only two genders was too limiting. After all, there are so many variations of males and females across this planet. There were three human genders recognized in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Indic cultures, and six in old Israel. So re-consider your established thinking habits before judging Thailand’s Kathoey.

The term Kathoey is often colloquially translated as ‘lady boy’ and refers to males with varying degrees of feminine features. Some Kathoey just dress and act (overly) feminine and could be described as cross-dressing, while others go all the way and undergo hormone treatment and plastic surgery and are actually transgender.  There are other terms used as well, depending on how the individual identifies him or herself. When the term phet thi sam is used, it means the third gender, as opposed to different types of male and female identity.

Bangkok Ladyboys

What is so fascinating about Thailand is maybe not so much the number of lady boys, but their acceptance and presence in society. Whether they could really be mistaken for a woman or not is another question, but they can be seen in almost every walk of life. Working in bars, shops, hair salons, petrol stations, or just passing you on the street. They don’t arouse any particular attention, (apart from the tourists’). I am told prejudice does exist and they face many difficulties in everyday life, including not having their legal status recognised. Unlike India and Pakistan, where the third gender is officially recorded on people’s IDs, in Thailand all Kathoey legally remain male. A lot of them work in the sex industry and HIV incidence is high. The native tolerance towards them can be explained through the Buddhist philosophy of acceptance, and the notion of karma. That said, families (especially fathers) are usually disappointed when their transgender boys come out.

As lady boys often seek employment in entertainment, it’s easy to catch them in one of Bangkok’s world-famous cabaret shows. Often talked about is Bangkok’s pioneer cabaret show – Calypso Cabaret – at the Asiatique shopping village. The theatre seats 350 spectators with 5 people at each table. It is marketed more towards Japanese tourists and some songs are in Japanese with a geisha routine included in the show. If you want to see Marilyn Monroe rise to the stars again, this is your kind of a cabaret. Tickets cost around 900 baht and two shows are performed every night (at 20:15 and 21:45). It is easiest to arrive by free shuttle boat, which runs every day from 17:00 to 23:30 and leaves from Sheraton Pier near BTS station Saphan Taksin.

Then there is the Playhouse Cabaret at the Asia Hotel, which is praised for its performance and comedy. This cabaret is geared more towards the Western tourists so expect to see Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and Christina Aguilera imitators. Some acts include male dancers only, which might be a slight disappointment to those who want to marvel only at lady boys. Asia Hotel is conveniently located in front of the BTS station Ratchathewi. Nightly performances start at 20:15 and 21:45 and tickets cost between 1000 and 1200 baht. It is good to get a seat as central and as near the stage as possible to enjoy all the finer sparkling details up close in full.

Near the Central department store (Sathupradit-Rama III Road) you can awe at “The Queen” of drag shows, in the Mambo Cabaret. Here they offer 3 shows every night (19:15, 20:30, 22:00) and ticket prices range  from 550 to 1000 baht (depending on the seller). You can get there by taking the subway (MRT) and getting off at Chong Nonsi station.

Golden Dome Cabaret in Ratchada area hosts 3 shows daily too (17:00, 19:00, 22:00). It is the least famous of the three so tickets are a bit cheaper, although it gets mixed reviews. You can reach it by taking a subway (MRT) to Sutthisan station and then a taxi if you mind a short walk to Sutthisan Road.

So choose a venue and create your own theories about sexual identities, societal pressures and different life-paths. And feel free to spend hours crafting a formula for recognising a lady boy (as many do), while playing spot the apple, falsetto detector and stubble radar activated, amid the gloriously unabashed mincing camp of the glitzy show.

Bangkok Ladyboys The Calypso Cabaret