It started off by being a short story on a katoey that I know. Slowly, the story started writing itself and soon stretched to become a three-part series which was exceedingly well received by all who read it. Patting myself on a job well done, I took off on a break to Koh Samui to spend some time with my friend Jesse who’s working there.
Over the justly-famed peri peri burgers at Bondi’s Grill, we caught up on the past few months spent apart. Jesse was keenly interested in hearing about my katoey story and the fact that I actually managed to worm some personal details out of them. “Oh, then you must meet Janey*,” he mentions enthusiastically. Who’s Janey? I enquire. Turns out she’s one of the lead dancers at a ladyboy cabaret show in Samui. No really, I demur, I’ve got quite enough material and besides, I’m done with the story, I protest. “Just meet her,” he urges. “You don’t need to write anymore if you don’t want to. But she’s one of the few katoeys here that have actually had the sex change operation and I’m sure she’s got an amazing tale to tell.” He whips out his mobile phone before I can say another word, checks that she’s on tonight at the show and off we go.
By golly. The person Jesse points out is quite a looker! Long legs, a slim yet curvaceous body and waist-length hair complement a pert face which is pixie-ish and mischievous. Unlike most katoeys, her face isn’t hidden under a thick sludge of makeup. On stage, she is at one with the music and oozes oomph and sex appeal. It’s hard to believe this is a ladyboy and my interest is immediately piqued.
After the show, Jesse and I head to the nearby Solo Bar for a drink, one of the most popular watering holes on Chaweng Beach. We spend a pleasant hour or so here, jamming with the really talented Italian drummer. Walking back, we are startled by a sudden vroom!vroom! and somebody shouting out Jesse’s name – we turn to look and, stone me dead if it isn’t Janey driving a bike down Chaweng’s main street, still in her stage costume of black teddy, garter belt and precious little else! She gives us a saucy grin, a wave of her hand and zooms off. “That’s Janey for you,” says Jesse, shaking his head half admiringly.
I’m still marvelling at her chutzpah and decide to give her a call the next day on a whim. Jesse has already explained to her that I’m a writer and would like to talk to her about her katoey life. “Be a little careful though, she doesn’t have any inhibitions,” he tells me nervously. “She’s quite likely to pick up her dress and show you the operated parts!”
Uh oh. I resolve to be on my best behaviour with Miss Janey! I call her up and remind her I’m Jesse’s friend. She’s more than willing for a natter and we agree to meet for coffee before she has to get ready for showtime.
Coffee is a euphemism. I walk to our designated meeting place to find mademoiselle buying a humungous bowl of soup noodles with bits of mystery meat floating in it; here’s what you should know – the Thais can really tuck in, and how!
She settles herself across from me and picks up a pair of chopsticks daintily. “What you wan know?” she asks almost disdainfully. Well, Jesse told me you had the big operation, I say. When was this?
“Tlee (three) years ago,” says Janey. “I do in Bangkok, cost 80,000 baht. My gay fren (friend) pay for me.” Janey is a person of grit, who has the Buddhist philosophical attitude to life coupled with a lot of inner steel. She broke up with her Norwegian boyfriend of three years when she asked him what if she didn’t go in for the operation and apparently his response was lacking in many respects. Paradoxically, her first ever boyfriend, a Canadian, left her because she wanted the operation. “Now I haf Swiss boyfren,” she smirks. “But I tell him truss (truth), him know I ladyboy. I don like hide. Some ladyboy hide and after haf propim (problem). “
I ask Janey a question that’s been bothering me ever since I embarked on this katoey story. Are men who go with katoeys gay, or are they simply kinky? “I aks myself same question,” she says excitedly, quite obviously elated at having found a kindred spirit! “I think, you know Pu, men bore from lady so wan try something different and so ladyboy. Even my boyfren, him ask if I think him gay. Him say – I not gay but I like it like this. Also, some ladyboy rich and can pay for guys,” she sniffs. “My fren haf Thai boyfren. My fren haf boob, look like woman but haf penis, her boyfren wan her put penis in his bum. I think Eulopean peoples not so open so they fray (afraid) to go with gay…they like go with someone look like lady but who haf penis,” says my bar dancer-turned-philosophiser. She peeps up at me from under her eyelashes before delivering a whammer: “I don put in bum, I take in bum,” she says wickedly and guffaws at my discomfiture. “Sometimes I still haf sex behind, both feel good,” she says confidingly. “I haf two guy one time. Guy from Amsterdam, him haf fren in room, aks me if okay, I say okay. Two guy same time, front and back, lot of pleasure!”
Whoaa, graphics! Not to be outdone, casually I mention the fact that I have actually witnessed the sex reconstruction surgery being performed. She squeals so loud that the waiters turn around in alarm. “Mai dai, how you can look?” she shrieks. Err, excuse me – I looked, but YOU’RE the one who actually went through it, I say somewhat scathingly. “My fren temme, don watch video (she means a video of the surgery) before you do oplashun, you scare too much,” she shudders.
I’m really curious and interested to speak to an actual “survivor” as it were, as I never managed to speak to the katoey whose surgery I witnessed, post the operation. Apart from the pain factor, which is a given, what were the after-effects like? “In hospital one week,” says Janey matter-of-factly. “It take one and a half month to be okay. Haf to take propah care, wash 3-4 time in day, haf to take out skin every day (the flap of skin from the scrotum that’s sown up and pushed inside the ‘vagina’ to simulate the inner walls) to clean. Haf to know how to pee before leave hospital.” What do you mean, have to know how to pee, I ask perplexed. “Haf to learn control so pee don’t go all dilekshun (direction),” she says, nodding sagely. “First we pee like man, now haf to learn like lady.” Oops! Got it!
I ask the obligatory question – why did she do it, have the operation? “I wan be full lady, when look in shower at me I wan see lady,” she says immediately. “Now I more comfortable in the show also when I dance, no haf to tape penis anymo.” (Most dancers fold up the penis against the scrotum and tape the whole thing together snugly against the bum so no visible bulge shows when they wear thongs or tight underwear during their show; uncomfortable but not painful, however, dashed inconvenient if they want to go to the loo during the night as the whole exercise needs to be repeated.)
How long did she have to wait before she had sex again after the operation? “Three month wait,” she says. Did it hurt, I ask, wincing myself. “No!” she says proudly. I don’t believe you, I say. It hurts even a real woman the first time. “Not hurt, Pu, I tell you truss,” she insists.
There’s silence for a bit as she chomps on her food while I sit there feeling like an ass and pondering on how to frame the next question. Janey leans back in her chair, looks at me quizzically and decides to play interviewer. “Where you fom, ka?” I tell her I’m from India but now living in Bangkok and she perks up visibly at the sound of the Big City. “You like Thai?” I’m not sure if she means the people, the country or the food so I just say “yes” since, for me, this is the one applicable answer to all things Thai “How you know Jesse?” she fires next. “What you do him, you suvaay (beautiful) him gay!” Satisfied with this answer too, she then goes the hospitable route – “you haf coffee? Aroy maak (very delicious) here, I come here all time, owner know me.” To please her, I order a coke. Apparently we have now broken the ice in more ways than one, and she becomes positively chatty. “I from Isan, many ladyboy from Isan,” she says. It’s bloody far from Koh Samui, though, I say. However did she land up here? “My sistah come here to work so I also come here. She go back Isan now.” Isan is to the east of Thailand and I wonder aloud that I’ve heard there’s a lot of poverty there. “All peoples from Isan not poor!” she shoots back witheringly.
Okay,okay, I mollify her. So how come so many ladyboys from Isan? She’s genuinely frustrated at her lack of English vocabulary. “I don know how to explain, come from inside. Those who hide (their true feelings and tendencies) are forced to marry girls.” How is it there, is there more acceptance towards katoeys? “Now Thailand more open to ladyboys, in university can wear girl uniform,” she says. Janey is more thrilled about the fact that katoeys can now get identity cards. “On ID can dress like a lady, before, can not,” she says excitedly.
How does one know whether one is a katoey or merely gay, I wonder. She attempts to explain it to me: “I was like a gay but I don feel gay –I feel like lady. You unnerstan? I think like a woman, I haf reactions like a woman, I forget I man. I feel shy when guy touch my penis, because I feel like lady but this not ladylike. You know? I haf a lot male fren now,” she smiles proudly.
Hmm. Are katoeys lesbians? Far from being affronted by the question, Janey answers readily enough. “A katoey will go with lesbian fo money,” she says honestly. “Lesbians come me but I not interest. Men from Russia, Germany and Norway wan ladyboy to haf sex with their girlfriends and them, like, tlee peoples, you know (threesome)” she says, further adding to my education!
Janey is now 28-years old. She was inclined to being a girl from a very young age; when she was seven years old and still in school, she started going to her older sister’s room and wearing her skirts. And was her family okay with this, I ask? “Chhai ka, my familee support. In the beginning, not my dad. But my mum, she take care me when I haf oplashun in hospital.”
Close up, Janey isn’t very pretty. In the harsh light of day, her face looks tired and puffy, the eyebrows are badly plucked and she has a lot of blackheads. It’s hard to recognise the lissome stunner of the night. Unselfconsciously, she adjusts her bra strap and I’m prodded into asking her about her obvious boobs. “I do boob when I 20-year,” she grins. “Boob oplashun velly painful – I feel I die for suaah (sure). Someone has to help you sit, jep maak (a lot of pain). I awake through oplashun (she had only local anesthesia) if you wan sleep (proper general anesthesia) must pay more. After oplashun haf to massage tit nicely fo ten day otherwise it get hard.”
Not that she would really know enough to compare but I ask anyway –does she have sensation?? “Not so much feeling in boob,” she says candidly.
Well, since we’ve been so daring already and broken pretty much all conversational barriers, I go that one step further and cross over completely into no-man’s-land. Err, how is the sex now, I proceed cautiously. “Is good,” she beams. “I don haf to make noises like a woman you know, is more comfortable for me!” Do you have orgasms, I flounder. “Suaah yes, I can come, is still like sperm you know, but more water now. I can get wet because still haf, how you say, like the pipes? Doctor he not cut everything (she means the nerve endings) so can get wet (probably the pre-cum that men experience) and haf feeling down there,” she leers and gives me a lewd gesture. Ooh boy, I got a little more there than I bargained for!
Katoeys have it tough in terms of the cosmetic maintenance, much more so than ordinary ‘real’ women. The facial hair, the breast growth – almost everything is controlled by a heavy intake of hormonal supplements. “We know hormone not good fo health, fo body, but we need to look beautiful,” she says softly, almost sadly. She cheers up quick enough as she proudly points out something to me: “I not haf much Adam apple!” Of course, getting tucks and trims is not confined to the katoeys and seems to be more of something of a peer pressure or influence in Thailand; “my sistah, she do implant here and here (pointing to cheek and chin),” says Janey happily. “When you take hormone but you dink (drink alcohol), your boob not grow,” she cautions me solemnly.
Is there a medical procedure to amend the vocal chords as well? “No, can not,” she says, eyeing me suspiciously. “But I not haf much man voice. You think I haf?” She asks challengingly. I hastily demur, although, any man with half a brain and sozzled out of his wits besides should be able to tell by her voice alone that something’s amiss! “Some ladyboy haf very much man voice,” she proceeds. “I think I lucky I not haf. And this also,” gesturing to her Adam’s apple again.
How did she land up as a dancer? “From when I young I like dancing, I rememba the steps. I haf talent. So when I come here my sistah she say why not try ladyboy cabaret? And I do. One day, I wan buy my own cabaret,” she says with a determined glint in her eye.
And she’ll probably do it too! Thing is, Janey’s not like most other katoeys; she’s neither diffident nor a shrinking wallflower, this is a lady who knows what she wants and goes after it. It’s her strength of mind right from the age of seven that’s got her to where she is today and, by all the saints, she ain’t slowing down now!
*Katoey name changed to protect identity. ‘Janey’ is very well known over Koh Samui and it wouldn’t be fair to disclose such intimate knowledge about her, especially as she trusted me with so much information.
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.