Geoff (from Bangkok)
A Bangkok ladyboy gives an inexperienced expat the lowdown on transsexuals over some iced coffee…
I had only arrived in Bangkok a month ago for my new job and the only spare time I had available was during the weekends. I can’t say I was overly enthusiastic about having to yet again get up early for the 6th day in a week, but there was so much I wanted to explore and so I constantly reminded myself this as a mantra in meditation.
I somehow managed to manoeuvre myself off of the BTS sky train without falling asleep and then headed towards Soi Nana, in lower Sukhumvit, to stop and acquaint myself with some much-needed caffeine and sugar before my adventures. I stumbled upon a populated coffee shop close by and decided to check it out as popular cafes usually equate to serving good quality beverages.
I ordered an iced coffee since trying to drink hot coffee is a continuous struggle in a tropical climate. As I sat alone in my corner, slowly feeling myself re-animating, I spotted a lady having some difficulties with somewhere to sit. Being the gentleman that I am, I offered her a vacant chair that was opposite me. I guess sitting next to a stranger is a daunting thing for many but I personally can’t enjoy drinking coffee while standing and so this was my reasoning. The lady looks around to see if I was talking to anyone else, I was beginning to worry that maybe she spoke no English.
She hesitantly sat down but still produced a smile of gratitude; I had assumed she was fairly shy around foreigners, or Farangs as they call us in Thai. If I was to describe her it would be difficult as she looked like almost every Thai girl I had seen up until now except for one very big difference... she had blonde hair. Her make-up was subtle and refined unlike the night owls commonly seen flocking around soi 11 at night, eagerly looking for prey.
I engage in conversation to lessen the socially awkward silence, even though I would be leaving momentarily. Before I can say anything, the Thai lady enquires “where are you from?” in a deep bellowing voice. I thought it was peculiar that she was able to ask where I was from correctly, in contrast to the generic “where you come from?” I replied courteously that I was Irish and then jokingly echoed the same question back with a smirk, already knowing the answer. Usually, my experiences with Bangkok Ladyboys were usually brief, so now I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. She giggled a little before answering the question; this was a good sign that she got my joke. “I’m from Isaan, my name is Samantha.”
Isaan is an area to the north east of Thailand and has a notoriety of being one of the poorest areas, her English name didn’t surprise me either as it was common in Thailand to have a nickname since actual Thai names can be long and hard to pronounce to Farangs.
After a few minutes, Samantha seemed more enshrined with my company and she started to initiate conversation. I always speculated that a Bangkok ladyboy was more confident to talk in English than a Thai woman because they would probably feel more compelled to explain themselves. “I am a Ladyboy” she proclaimed, however this revelation was not new to me. “I know” I stated back, my arms beginning to fold in a defensive stance. “How did you know?” the bemused Bangkok Ladyboy requested. “Well, most women sit with their legs crossed, not wide open” I comically suggested. She immediately laughed which was followed by Sam quickly crossing her legs like it was an order from her mother. I could see that other people in the cafe were casually glancing over out of curiosity; I would guess that they were wondering what I was doing with a Bangkok Ladyboy and what I’d said that had caused laughter. Samantha also shared some curiosity; she was interested in knowing why I was up so early. “I wanted to beat the outrageous traffic” I informed her, embracing her company again by unfolding my arms as a gesture.
The initial reason for entering the cafe became void as, after 10 minutes, we were embedded into each other’s presence and I was learning a lot from Samantha and vice versa. This moment gave me an unorthodox insight into the life of a Bangkok Ladyboy. The conversation escalated smoothly as Samantha was not apprehensive about talking about her life, although we would occasionally mute ourselves when customers walked past due to some of our vulgar content.
Samantha became Samantha from around the age of 12 and this was the time she started taking hormone treatment, she explained that it was common in Thailand for anyone transgender to begin transitioning from a young age. “The bigger the boobs the younger they started” she exclaimed, “as many cannot afford boob jobs.” One of the biggest things she told me, which astonished me, was that many Ladyboys didn’t receive any counselling in conjunction with the transitioning phase. I pondered if this was due to finances or to them still being kids with short attention spans.
To become the person you want to be can have its sacrifices and not everyone is tolerant of the transgender community. Samantha mentioned one particular occasion that she was on the BTS sky train and there was a group of loud Chinese tourists. They had then proceeded to take photos of her without permission while laughing amongst themselves which made her feel embarrassed, they think if they were aware of the high suicide rate amongst Ladyboys they would hopefully be more respectful. The Thai culture is synonymous with the land of a 1,000 smiles, but I think it takes a lot of strength to hide some emotions.
Ladyboys in general have a tarnished reputation, this is mostly because of aggressive sex workers who publicly touch male tourists on the crotch and may occasionally follow them around. This is obviously an unfair generalisation as many Bangkok Ladyboys don’t work in the sex industry and work normal jobs. Samantha worked as a beauty therapist, she was probably better than most of her female colleagues, if only for the fact that she has to make a much more enhanced effort to hide her imperfections.
Samantha checked her phone, making a mental note that she needed to be somewhere to meet her friend for shopping. She confided that she enjoyed our impromptu brunch moment and I acknowledged the same. We exchanged Line details (similar to WhatsApp) and Samantha stood up, grasping her purse over her arm. She gives me a kiss on the cheek, softly but with a little imprint while murmuring “thank you Mr Gentlemen” as she leaves the cafe. I thought she has clearly forgotten my name. A few moments later she sends me a photo, it’s a selfie and it appears she is on the sky train. She can be seen smiling with a wink and written underneath the photo “I’m sitting with my legs crossed, hehe xx, your favourite Bangkok Ladyboy”.
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