What comes to your mind when you think of Thailand?

The food? The beaches? The temples?

For better or worse, the word “ladyboy” pops into many people’s minds.

And, it’s easy to see why:

There really are lots of ladyboys in Thailand!

Thai ladyboy wearing a white dress

Official numbers vary between 10,000 – 400,000 (although it’s quite hard to get exact numbers on this).

Either way, Thailand is undoubtedly the “ladyboy” capital of the world.

So again, that leads us to this question:

“Why are there so many ladyboys in Thailand?”

And I’ve pondered on this question myself since I first arrived in Thailand over 6 years ago.  

But I haven’t gotten any conclusive answers, even after asking Thai people directly.  

They all responded the same way:

They’d simply shrug their shoulders and say “I don’t know”.

So in this article, we are going to look into some possible reasons why Thailand has so many ladyboys. 

1. Thailand is a Buddhist country.

A golden buddha statue in Thailand

If you come from a western country, it’s quite likely that your culture and country norms were shaped in one way or another by Christianity.  

Even as people become less and less religious, some of the Christian ideals of right and wrong still remain.  

In particular, these Christian ideals place restrictions on certain things like gender and sexuality. And other religions like Islam can be even more strict.

Now I’m not here to say whether this is a good thing or bad thing.  That’s up to your own personal beliefs.  

But this sort of Christian/Islamic restriction doesn’t apply to a Buddhist country like Thailand.  

And this is one of the reasons why Thailand has a “live and let live culture”.  

Buddhism doesn’t have strict decrees like “it’s wrong to be gay” or “only a man and woman exist” or anything like that. 

However, some Buddhists believe that those who are born gay or transgender are simply paying off a karmic debt from misdeeds in a past life.  So they should be pitied, not scorned. 

Contrast this with someone from a strict Christian or Islamic background who might see a ladyboy as a sinful or evil person and they shouldn’t be allowed to express that part of themselves.

To sum it up, as long as you aren’t hurting anybody, you are generally free to live the way you like in Thailand.   

So this means that those who wish to express themselves as a ladyboy are quite free to do so in Thailand. 

2. A history of ladyboys

History of ladyboys

One of the reasons why there are so many ladyboys in Thailand today is because there is actually a bit of a history of ladyboys in Thailand and the surrounding regions.  

Historical accounts of young Khmer men dressing up as women and looking for sexual partners dates back over 700 years. And in Thailand, there are accounts of ladyboys going back to the 14th century.

However, things changed in Thailand during the 19th century (perhaps due to western influence and ideas such as the criminalization of homosexuality) and things became more difficult for those in the LGBTQ community. 

In fact, up until 1956 homosexuality was still considered a crime in Thailand.  

But then after world war 2, there was a huge surge in ladyboys and LGBTQ in Thailand.

3. Economic opportunity

A Thai cabaret show featuring Thai ladyboys performing and dancing

Some speculate the influx of foreign soldiers during WW2 and later during the Vietnam war created demand.  

During the height of the Vietnam war, there were over 50,000 American soldiers stationed throughout Thailand at various military bases.

Some of the soldiers wanted “entertainment” and opportunistic gay men in Thailand realized they could service the soldiers’ needs by dressing and acting like women.  

With Thais generally being smaller and appearing a bit more feminine than your average westerner, the transition to being a ladyboy is a bit easier. 

And If a young Thai gay man came from a poor family, he could dress up and act as a female and earn considerably more money (by working in a bar or prostitution) than he could by living a “normal life”.

And this continues up to the present, where some tourists from all over the world come to Thailand specifically for the ladyboys.  

There are even famous ladyboy cabaret shows that cater to foreign tourists who want to enjoy a show with real Thai ladyboys. 

4. Lots of exposure

Thai ladyboy on stage

If a young man in Thailand feels he identifies more with his feminine side than his masculine side, the transition to being a ladyboy is quite easy here. 

Thai TV is filled with ladyboys who are singers, talk-show personalities, actors/actresses, models, and more.  

So a young individual has many “role models” so to speak who can help guide them towards that lifestyle.

In addition, things like hormones and plastic surgeries are generally much easier to obtain here than in many other countries, so an aspiring ladyboy has an easier time looking feminine.

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