Bangkok Ladyboy

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Bangkok Ladyboy Pim                     Chris Coles


There’s an intensity in Bangkok ladyboys, a fire burning inside.  They are from every region of Thailand, drawn to Bangkok to live invented lives according to how they imagine they are.  No matter how wacky they may sometimes seem, they are following their dreams and desires.

No one knows how many ladyboys there are in in Bangkok but there must be at least several hundred thousand.  Called Kathoey in Thai, they are everywhere in the world of the Bangkok Night.  Sometimes in the overt and flashy ladyboy revues favored by the busloads of Taiwanese and mainland Chinese, dressed up as Las Vegas showgirls, kind of obvious, exaggerated and fun.  Sometimes they're working in the go-go bars of Nana Plaza and Patpong, both overtly and disguised, aggressive and quiet, muscular and masculine as well as petite, soft and feminine, available for a kinky night out to men and women tourists from Asia, Europe, India, the Arab states and North and South America.  They are also in the streets and parks, servicing the lowest and roughest end of the Bangkok Night.

More or less accepted as an in-between or Third Sex by Thais, there is talk of building a special ladyboy prison in order to clear up the confusion as to which prison ladyboy criminals should be sent, depending if they are pre-op or post-op, still equipped or physically altered.  The Operation is so common in Bangkok, there are ads with price lists and special discounts in the leading newspapers.  Tourists from all over the world who want the Operation come to Bangkok for the expertise of the surgeons as well as the high standard of the hospitals and relatively low price.

But all of that is the iceberg that we see. Beneath the surface, hidden from view, there are ladyboys working in every strata of the Bangkok world, banks, offices, hotels, restaurants, quiet bars and small KTV's, Isan music places, department stores, television, film, music, manufacturing, marketing, fashion and textiles.  Some are even married to ordinary Thai men and live mundane suburban lives without their neighbors having a clue.

The history of ladyboys goes back thousands of years, in every culture and country.  Ladyboy gods can be found in India, Ancient Greece, Africa and Asia.  The ambiguity of the hermaphrodite being, half-woman, half-man, seems to arouse universal curiosity and interest.  Some say that even the Mona Lisa was a ladyboy, one of the many transvestite hookers that Leonardo da Vinci pulled off the streets near his studio to use as models.   Perhaps that is the key to her mysterious smile.

Ladyboys have much to teach us about ambiguity and desire, surface appearance and multi-layered realities, the role of illusion and visual signals, the impossibility of certainty and what it is to follow a dream.  Trying to paint them is to enter a world full of mirrors, confusing and infinite, sometimes ugly and sometimes full of a strange and poignant beauty.

To view a music video of the Bangkok Ladyboy paintings click, here.

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Copyright © 2006 by Chris Coles