The Transgender Tourist in Thailand
My Thai girlchum Joom owned a black Toyota pickup truck that seats five in the cab comfortably, and has a contraption on the back that opens up into a sun roof, so an additional half dozen people (if they’re Thai) can ride in the back. It’s a fun way to go to the beach in Rayong after work, with her cousins and other vaguely-connected kin grazing on som tum and sticky rice in the back, with copious draughts of Chang beer, while Joom and I sit in comfort up front in the air-conditioned cab.
Being a modestly-compensated ESL teacher, I always looked for additional revenue to help support Joom and, in the felicitous phrasing of W.S. Gilbert, her “sisters and her cousins, whom she reckons by the dozens, and her aunts.” One way was to use Joom’s truck as a taxi for Farangs desirous of going up to Bangkok for the weekend. A little word of mouth spread out among the backpackers in Ban Phe, the port that caters to those going to Koh Samet Island, and we soon had our hands full, or rather our truck full, of paying riders.
We did not plan on capturing a niche market, but like so many other serendipitous things that occur in Thailand, we got one anyways.
Mitch was a rugged six-footer with long black hair and a love of Thai jewelry. He wore several ornate jade rings and kept ropes of cultured pearls around his neck. We took him up to Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, and agreed to pick him up in two days to bring him back down to Ban Phe to recuperate from his surgery. We didn’t ask what kind of surgery, we just figured him to be one of the many standard medical tourists that Thailand attracts.
We couldn’t find Mitch when we went back to pick him up at the hospital lobby. Luckily, she was able to wave us down just before we gave up and left; Mitch was now Michelle. She had had sexual reassignment surgery, at a fantastically economical price, and without the months of intense psychoanalysis required prior to a sex-change operation in the US.
Having grown up in the Midwest, I initially gawked at her like a hayseed at his first carnival, but Joom took it all in stride. Joom complimented Michelle on her new breasts, and then they sat down together to plan out her new wardrobe, with me acting as interpreter. Naturally, Joom had a cousin who ran a night market boutique in Rayong, and had an “auntie” who worked wonders with farang hair.
Michelle rested up in a rented bungalow on the beach in Rayong, going on leisurely shopping expeditions with Joom – I was not wanted for these excursions. Pardon me for being sexist, but girls shopping together have their own international language that needs no translation.
When Michelle returned home she told others who were thinking of doing the same thing that they should recuperate, as she had done, down on the beach in Rayong, and that they should hire Joom to be their driver/wardrobe consultant. Joom was a bit handicapped with a big, dumb, fat farang boyfriend – that was me — but she knew how to send him packing when the girl talk became intense. And Joom had a number of men cousins who were always delighted to squire transgendered farangs-on-the mend around town.
And so little by little we picked up a steady stream of passengers who came to Thailand for a sex change, and appreciated the kindness and consideration that Joom unfailingly showed them. It was not an act or just a mercenary ploy, either. Even if someone did not hire us as their driver, Joom liked talking to transgendered farangs in her clipped, eccentric English, and helping them out. She was always especially sympathetic to new women who had to deal with the dreaded Thai squatter, the ceramic hole in the ground that many bathrooms still feature. You don’t get to sit down, you literally have to squat on your haunches. Her advice to recuperating sex-change patients who were facing this ordeal for the first time was to take several stiff slugs of rice whiskey prior to assuming the position. It helped anesthetize the pain and embarrassment.
“They make big change” she told me. Then she laughed uproariously, sputtering “They sometime forget, still go the man bathroom!”