Samui Wining & Dining

The life of a ladyboy in today’s Thai society.

The Third SexNow come on and share all your deep fantasies,” lip-synchs a scantily clad Christina Aguilera look-alike. Gyrating hips and whiplash-inducing head-flicks illuminate her glitter-flecked body as she glides across the stage, her shimmering blonde locks ablaze in the spotlight. Shiny, red, PVC knee-highs boots are paired with ruby-red lipstick. There’s no doubt the audience is totally mesmerised. With many thinking, “Surely that can’t really be a man?”

          To get the technicalities out of the way early on, a ladyboy – or ‘katoey’ as they’re known in Thailand – is a transsexual or transgender male. The highly convincing aesthetic of the Thai ladyboy is common knowledge amongst seasoned tourists to this country. And friendof- a-friend accounts of sexual misadventures involving the mistaken identity of a ladyboy are ever-rife. Far from being the butt of the joke, however, the two cabaret shows on Samui are well known for their winning combination of skilfully choreographed acts and light-hearted humour.

          Moulin Rouge – home of the aforementioned Christina Aguilera look-alike – is arguably the more famous of the two. There are three shows per night there and entry is free. All you have to do is buy a drink. And they’ve got quite an extensive beverage menu too, covering everything from wine to beer to fruit shakes. Prices are a little higher here than at other bars, but when you consider that you’re getting free entry to a show that lasts a couple of hours it works out to be pretty reasonable.

         The cabaret opens with a classic Brazilian number and some fantastically glitzy costumes. The star of the show takes to the stage wearing an ornate diamanté bra, a white skirt – slit to the thigh – and an opulent gravity-defying feather headdress bouncing atop her head. Throughout the evening, humorous acts are also thrown in for good measure.

She shocked them in
her audition song when
she switched from the
sweet, feminine voice she
opened the piece with to
her natural man’s voice
halfway through.


         Starz Cabaret is the other show on Samui, which features an amalgamation of Western pop and traditional Thai dance for a bit of a cultural touch. These, and other cabarets, commonly perform at fine dining venues across the island as dinner cabaret acts.

        But the life of a performing katoey was not always so glamorous. Ridicule and mockery are reported as commonplace when they were growing up ‘different.’ The story of Mimi, however, in the biographical book entitled, ‘Ladyboys, The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender’, outlines how she was lucky enough to be protected in school by the ‘fairy gang’. And although not all were so lucky, coming from a difficult background creates the strong and feisty individuals that many katoeys are today. After all, the show must go on.

          Many a Western nation shies away from public discussion, and certainly public display, of the ‘third’ sex. In Thailand, on the other hand, it’s openly celebrated. This may in part be due to the regular representation of katoeys in Thai film, TV and the general public realm. Take the Thai boxer, Nong Toom. Born Parinya Kiatbusaba, Nong Toom is a highly acclaimed Muay Thai (Thai kick-boxing) champion. She’s also very publicly a ladyboy. Known respectfully as the ‘beautiful boxer,’ she more recently added the roles of actor and singer to her CV

          And then there’s the transgender singer, Nantita Khumpiramon, who fooled judges with the true nature of her sexuality on the reality show, Thailand’s Got Talent, last year. She shocked them in her audition song when she switched from the sweet, feminine voice she opened the piece with to her natural man’s voice halfway through. Prior to the vocal switch the judges were all convinced Nantita was a woman. Judge Nirut Sirijanya commented, “You have been deceiving me all along. It’s impossible!” The footage has since become viral on YouTube and Nantita has adoring fans the world-over. But that’s not to say that the stage is the only place a ladyboy is destined for.

          In Thailand, katoeys are accepted in many walks of life, and it has the highest number of transsexuals of any country in the world. So it comes as little surprise that you’ll find them in a variety of professions – not just the entertainment business. Take Miss Kiranant, also known as Nicky, who, in 2010, at just 24 years old, nabbed a high-flying job with a Thai airline, PB Air. She became world’s very first katoey airhostess. Since then, the aptly named Thai start-up airline, PC Air, hired four Parinya Kiatbusaba katoey hostesses as part of their cabin crew team. And as testament to the new recruits’ femininity, one was actually crowned Miss Tiffany Universe in 2007’s annual Miss Tiffany Universe beauty pageant for katoeys.

          Chairman of PC Air, Peter Chan, explains that the move is just natural progression. “I think these people can have many careers and not just in the entertainment business, and many of them have a dream to be an airhostess. I just made their dreams come true for some of them. Our society has changed. It’s evolution. I’m a pioneer and I’m sure there will be other organisations following my idea.”

          News of these developments has undoubtedly been well received by the thousands of katoeys across Thailand. Local katoey resident, Jenney Wattanapanit, who works in a cosmetics shop in Chaweng, says that whilst she’s over the moon with the developments, that kind of life is not for everyone. “That’s fantastic news. But we don’t all need high-flying jobs. For me, I’m just happy living a normal life.”



Christina Wylie


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