Songkran: Hard Holiday for Ladyboys

The Thai New Year celebration every April is the world’s largest water fight that young and old, foreign and Thai alike enjoy and participate in the revelry. However, for Thailand’s transsexual ladyboys – known as katoeys in Thai – it can be an annoying and precarious holiday.

The no-holds-barred water fights that have become part of the tradition of Songkran have their roots in early rituals for the holiday that included lightly pouring water over the hands and feet of elders in a cleansing ritual. It also represents well-wishing and good luck, and marks the beginning of the rainy season and the hopes of a productive rice crop.

It has since been joyously hijacked from a traditional tranquil water festival to a free-for-all water fight.

To Thai ladyboys, the holiday can be a daunting gauntlet of self-preservation.

Thai transsexuals are widely accepted and often even considered by their natural female counterparts to be the most beautiful “women” in Thailand. A strong case can be made for this argument because Thai men who want to become women go through myriad surgeries, treatments and self-improvement procedures to make the successful leap from male to female.

Breast augmentation, rhinoplasty, botox injections and hormone treatment are among the basics a guy must undertake to begin the transition. For those who take the final step, there is the sexual-reassignment surgery with the necessary vaginoplasty procedure to make them “whole” as a female.

Yet there is sometimes still some “fine-tuning” to perfect the lady. This may include hair removal, more botox and silicon as needed, scraping of the Adam’s apple to hide its prominence, and even a tweaking of the vocal chords to raise the tone of the individual’s voice.

Indeed, what it is often left over as a product of these transformations is a “woman” of significant beauty who many of those unfamiliar with Thailand would not guess was anything but a stunning female beauty. In fact, Thai women when asked about how to identify ladyboys will often say you can spot a ladyboy because she is “too beautiful” or “too perfect”.

One natural and sufficiently attractive Thai female commented with a sulk, “I could be just as beautiful as a ladyboy if I could afford half the surgeries he’s had.”

Then of course there is the daily primping and preening, hairstyling, makeup and attention to fashion that complete the package. And this is where the water-cannon-aided fun becomes the bane of a katoey’s existence.

During Songkran, the streets of Bangkok’s red-light district, Patpong, become nearly impassable without being drenched. Several of the clubs in Patpong are exclusively ladyboy gogo bars, most prominent of which is King’s Castle on Patpong Soi 2 and a crossroads that connects Sois 1 and 2.

King’s Castle might be one of the top ladyboy gogo bars in Bangkok as all of the “women” are only those who have gone through the sexual-reassignment surgery – and thus able to have intercourse with customers, should it be desired.

The location, though, proves to be quite unfortunate on Songkran for the working “girls”. Trying to leave the bar with their customers, they become – like everyone else – an instant target of the water-soaked celebrations. Much to their chagrin.

Indeed, even as the evening draws to a close and the bars shut down, a dozen or so ladyboys huddle a safe distance from the oft-drunken party-goers looking for a chance of safe passage. Some will plead their way through with a respectful wai (respectful prayer-like gesture of the hands), to make their way down the streets with their hair and makeup intact.