The Bent Light of Thailand’s Sexual Prism

Prism of the Night

Straight, gay, male and female; these are the basic set of variables we are limited to where I come from.  In Thailand, sexuality is measured on a sliding scale with more dimensions; a prism would be a more accurate way to describe it.   Expats, sex-pats and locals come in all the colors of the rainbow.

Sitting in a ramshackle seafood restaurant by the river in Bangkok, my friend’s and I are approached by our server, Khun “Bee”.  Bee appears to have started out as a squatty little man and now in mid-transformation to something else.  Since “Bee” is a nickname usually given to a beautiful young woman, we’ll refer to Bee as a “she”.

From the waist down Bee is dressed in perfectly pressed black trousers and highly shined shoes.  Above the beltline she sports a bright pink blouse, full-blown make up and hot pink nail polish.  Bee speaks in a falsetto voice and is dramatically effeminate.  After she takes our order and swishes away, I asked my friend’s wife, “What do you think that is?” In typical Thai fashion she replied, “I think that is Bee”.

Trans-genders of all description abound in Thailand, in fact “katoeys” or “ladyboys” are literally recognized as a third sex and given different consideration under Thai laws.  Where I come from, the only trans-anything I saw were employed in places like record shops or night clubs.  In Thailand, katoeys are respected and revered at many levels of society.

Take a stroll through the cosmetic department of any major department store and you’ll see some convincing examples.  The more adventurous should take in a Cabaret Show in Pattaya just to see how much your jaw can drop.  Once you’ve got the hang of identifying them, you’ll see the third sex is woven seamlessly into Thai society.  After ten years here I hardly take notice.

I also had to adjust to the total lack of “gay-dar” in Thailand.  Where I come from, gay men just seem to know I’m not gay.  Even in an environment where I may be the hetero minority, nobody approaches me and no one thinks I’m open to suggestion.

The first time I went to a big commercial gym in Bangkok I realized that gay Thai men either did not sense my straightness, or they did not care.  At first I was unnerved, but ended up taking their advances as a compliment.  (At my age I embrace flattery no matter what the source).

Besides having a wider selection of players on the social scene, there is the pervasive pay-for-play arena that exists in labyrinth-like layers all over Thailand.

Bangkok’s legendary nightlife could more realistically be called the “night market”.  You want to see naked girls?  Soi Cowboy or Nana Plaza are for you.  What’s that? You want to sip a nice scotch, fire up a Cuban cigar and have a persuasive “hostess” talk you into drinks, dinner and whatever?  The Art Bar District on Soi 33 is the place.  From skanky old go-go bars to champagne sipping sirens in evening gowns, there is something for every taste.

What makes it so bizarre is all ages, genders, nationalities and fetishes are well represented and thoroughly mixed together.  It’s like a big human aquarium that comes alive when the lights come on. Grab a strategic perch on Soi Cowboy or in Patpong on a Saturday night and witness some of the world’s finest people watching.

Eighteen to eighty; blind, crippled and crazy they come … from every corner of the globe.  Not just middle-aged men … young guys … couples of the same sex … couples of the opposite sex … Russian girls on holiday … all there to quench everything from innocent curiosity  to decadent cravings.

If point-and-click sex isn’t your bag, just head to local hotspots, nightclubs in big hotels, or the old reliable Hard Rock.  You’ll find a kinder/gentler version of the skin game with plenty of girls, boys and whatever looking for a friend for a night or two; maybe even a modicum of romance.  My wife calls these the home of “secretary hookers”; girls who work a day job and supplement their income a few nights per week.

If you find such a relaxed approach to sex morally repugnant, you’ll have a problem in Thailand.  You have to get used to seeing it or you can’t live here.  I know of no expat living in Thailand against their will.  And I don’t know any who are vehemently opposed to what goes on here.  Whether you get involved or not, most folks live and let live.  The Thais certainly do.

Ask ten long-standing expats living in Thailand why they live here and chances are nine will respond “freedom”.  And it’s true.  You can pretty much live however you want as long as you aren’t hurting someone who doesn’t want to be hurt, or insulting the royal family.  For most expats, the freedom to explore one’s sexual identity is part of Thailand’s charm.  As a group Thais have some pretty extreme social blind spots, but being hung up about sex is not one of them.

With that said, this much freedom is not for everybody.  Some folks get lost along the way.  Tell your average westerner they can have any kind of sex they desire, pretty much on demand, and observe their behavior.   For most, the novelty eventually wears off.  For some, when the thrill of the chase is removed, so is the desire .  Others develop what we in Thailand call “the sickness” and it usurps all other vices.

Walk down to the open air bars on Beach Road in Pattaya and you’ll see them; old guys bellying up to the bar at 11 AM, waiting for the girls to wake up.  We call them Viagra-Bags; men who have wasted countless years chasing the long-legged dragon.

You’ll see young guys in Bangkok, living the life; making good money and handing it all over every night to whichever venue scratches their particular itch.  None of them are able to carry on what anyone would consider real relationships … the substitute is too satisfying.   If you meet someone with “the sickness” you’ll know.  All conversations will lead to the subject of sex of some description.

For others, a little bit of freedom is just what the doctor ordered.  A few years ago I met a forty-something English couple in Phuket.  Kathy was a barrister from London and Jack a Brigadier General in the British Marine Corps training troops in the middle-east.  They owned a condo in my building and visited there frequently.

Kathy came for months at a time and I’d see her out on her big Harley motorcycle cruising up and down Rawai Beach, stopping to frolic with the local bar girls here and there.  Jack came to town less frequently and favored the glitzy go-go bars in Patong.  Sometimes they’d be out together, other times alone.

One evening we were all drinking wine and watching the sunset at Nai Harn Beach; me, Jack, Kathy and Kathy’s new Thai girlfriend Poo.  Over the second bottle and some grilled squid, Kathy revealed to me the secret to their unusual marital arrangement.

It seems that Jack and Kathy were grade school sweethearts, had been married for over 25 years, and raised several children.  Kathy had built up a big respectable business in London while Jack had been out conquering and plundering for Queen and country.  They had planned all along to retire at 50.  When it came time to find a summer getaway home, they chose Phuket.

Kathy began to spend most of her time in Phuket, exploring property investments.  One evening while Jack was in town, Kathy called him down to the beach and uttered those dreaded words … “we need to talk”.

According to Jack, here is the how the conversation went:

Kathy:  “Jack, I believe I like girls”

Jack:  “Too right darling … me too!”

And so they bought a two bedroom/two bathroom near the beach and lived happily ever after.  Kathy has a steady girlfriend riding around on the back of her chopper.  Jack retired from the military and now performs some kind of “private consulting” for an undisclosed middle-eastern state.  When he comes to town he usually looks up an old friend or finds a new companion.  On occasion I would see Jack and Kathy out “on the hunt” together, partying with the bar girls, cackling like magpies.

Such a display back in England would surely have lost Kathy clients and cost Jack a promotion.  Here in the Land of Smiles, no one bats an eye.  They are a sweet and loving couple.  Theirs is a relationship only someone looking through the bent light of Thailand’s sexual prism would call romantic.  But, at a time in their lives when many couples experience turbulence, they’ve found a way to be happy together.  Nobody can deny that a little shot of freedom changed their life.

When most people are considering other countries to live in, they ask about the weather, the health care, the public transportation systems, etc.  Rarely does anyone think about sexual morays and practices that may be overwhelmingly different than their home.

If you find such a wide open approach to sexual behavior offensive, I’d recommend scratching Thailand off your list.  If you fear that access to unlimited sexual escapades is your own personal kryptonite, beware of how quickly “the sickness” can get a grip on you.

Before considering Thailand, you really have to know your own tolerance for freedom.  Everything all the time ain’t for everybody.

About the Author: Bart Walters is a retired advertising executive from Orlando, Florida.  He is now a part-time real estate developer celebrating his 10th year in Thailand.  Bart lived several years in Bangkok, spent 3 years on the island of Phuket and now resides in Ban Amphur on Thailand’s eastern seaboard.

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  1. Robert April 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Great information about Thailand. Thanks for the heads-up and inside scoup.
    I cant wait to make it my home someday.

    • redbarron April 8, 2010 at 6:44 pm

      I spent 3 years living near Pattaya. This article is right on the mark! I could handle the freedom and enjoyed every weekend off from work, but the heat and humidity took its toll and I moved back to San Diego.

  2. Edward A. Collier April 25, 2010 at 11:10 am

    What a thoughtful and well written article! So, so true. Having lived in Indonesia I can attest to the freedom that
    exists and as you stated it is not for everyone. Keep writing.
    Edward A. Collier

  3. Swancron April 26, 2010 at 6:32 pm

    Thanks for this perspective Bart. Having visited Thailand last year, I was more of the impression that most of the lady’s (or lady-boy’s) of the night aren’t in the business by choice or simply because of a permissive social environment where judgement is dispensed and anything goes. Many will tell you that most of the women on Soi 33 or Soi Cowboy hail from the impoverished NE of Thailand. Their primary motive is to make money, send the bulk of it back home and hope to return one day to a better life, for them and their extended family. Unfortunately, I understand many fall victim to abusive employers or other vices and never achieve their goal.
    Am I wrong here? This harkens back to colonial days when the big (married) white man comes to town, buys himself a consort and then discards her when it’s time to head home. You can call me a prude (and a frustrated one at that!!), but that’s a game I elected not to play.

  4. Iris Peters May 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

    I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost 30 years. I’ve seen lots of different styles of living. The only thing that bothers me is a man with badly done makeup.

  5. Sandy October 8, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Well written article. Most articles involving Thailand and sex just play up to cliques and stereotypes – yours was quite balanced. I would make a couple of qualifying comments though:

    * katoeys are certainly not accepted in all areas of Thai society, mainly just arts and entertainment – although you will see many working in retail and hospitality. The strange thing is that straight-acting gay Thai men are – to most Thais – far less accepted … some might even say they are reviled when they come out publicly (for example in gay pride marches) and there have been some bad scenes in that regard

    * there is a perception amongst some that an extremely large percentage of Thai women are involved in sex work and that this is some sort of inbuilt orientation or reflection of moral weakness … to those people I would say … just imagine a different America (for example) … one where there is no welfare net, no generous divorce settlements, pitifully low minimum wages, where child support is not enforced and where there is a strong expectation that daughters help support younger siblings and elderly parents. Then let’s see how many American ladies hoist a red light over their doorway.

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