Smile Politely

Ladyboys, Black Lung Cigarettes and Other Thai Delights

Thailand smuggles a sock in its underwear.

And while many of the country’s cross-dressers may take a different, more literal approach to attraction, I’m speaking more metaphorically about their tourist economy. Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice, host to more than 115 different newspapers, and a land devoted to their noble king and humble Buddha. There are virtually no traces of the Western world, yet they so heavily rely on tourism to help them survive day-to-day. For one month, I backpacked with my friend, Charlie, through the jungles, across the beaches, and in the most touristy and non-touristy parts of Thailand. They can’t afford a sock, yet they make sure to keep one stuffed in their pants to impress tourists. And as a visibly noticeable tourist, experiencing the backwardness of their society helped to bring issues of our Western world to the forefront.

Bangkok is the perfect name to describe the sex and prostitution that is ever present on their street corners or in their massage parlors (cough, cough). But what’s most interesting about this legitimate profession is that it’s dominated by males. “Ladyboys,” as they call them, are in fact prettier than many Thai females. This isn’t a homosexual comment, as many might interpret in America, but rather a fact of life. The truth is, the ladyboys spend their money on surgery to ultimately improve their own looks. More traditional Thai women, on the other hand, are working in restaurants or selling merchandise in markets, and are subsequently more concerned with making money to provide for their families than making themselves look like models.

But many of these ladyboys are found primarily in touristy areas. In Bangkok, there’s a strip heavily influenced by “falongs” (“foreigners”). It’s called Khao San Road., and it was there that Charlie and I met our first ladyboy. He/she walked up to us and told us how much more beautiful she was than any of the other women of Bangkok. We weren’t interested in any service she repeatedly offered. Rather, we were interested in the cross-dressing phenomenon that had made Thailand so infamous. We asked “Sarah” (or as she insisted on pronouncing it, “Sa-raaaaaah”) how many men she had been with, and of that number, how many knew she was a ladyboy. Sa-raaaaah said she had been with over 1000 men (many of whom were tourists), and of that number, just under 400 didn’t know she was a ladyboy (I can’t believe she kept count). She also openly admitted to having AIDS (which is a major epidemic among Thai prostitutes), and that a night with Sa-raaaaah was like nothing anybody had ever experienced.

Wow. It was almost too much information for my sheltered, suburban, college mind to take in at once.

Now my purpose isn’t to shed a bad or frightening light on Thailand, because it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I’ve seen some of the most amazing imagery, met some of the happiest and nicest people, and truly felt honored to have been a part of their culture. I tell you about Sa-raaaah and the ladyboys as a point of comparison. That’s how we learn – we compare our lives to the lives of others. And what I learned was that I feel as bad for many American people as I did for Sa-raaaah.

America suffers its own problems, and just because we have a little more money to cover them up doesn’t make them any less real. We have prostitutes, we have diseases, we have poverty, and many of them are the result of the other. The difference is, all of our problems are put on hold as we turn to watch celebrities in rehab or the Green Bay Packers make a damn decision about Brett Favre. They may shove a sock down their pants, but, unlike America, Thailand isn’t afraid if anyone knows it’s there.

Thailand’s cigarettes contain pictures of black lungs, or aborted fetuses, or any of the other dangers of smoking. Yet, virtually every native I met interrupted a conversation to leave for a smoke. Alcohol is blurred out in their television shows. Yet, they sell their beer in 40s. It’s backwards, but Thais still seem to have their lives in order. They’re content with spending time with their families and working a job that will get them by, not get them excess. It’s a concept which is difficult to grasp for many of us, and with that said…

There was something refreshing about that sock.

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