Prejudice in Pattaya sees ladyboys locked out and targeted by cops

Despite its reputation as a haven for transgender people, discrimination is a fact of life for many of the estimated 5,000 pre-op and post-op residents, who are barred from many hotels and subject to an 'arrest first, ask questions later' policy by police


SCREENED CLIENTELE: Bars off Walking Street, near the main entrance of the street and the Tourist Police checkpoint.

It's ironic that these signs can still be seen in many hotels of the city dubbed the ladyboy capital of the world and home to many cabarets and beauty contests featuring transgender entertainers.

But Sisters, a health counselling centre for transgender people in the city, says discrimination against ladyboys in Pattaya is nothing new.

"This problem has been around for decades," says Sisters manager Thitiyanun "Doi" Nakpor.

"Ladyboys are prohibited from entering some night entertainment venues, restaurants and public venues such as the beachfront road or the famous Walking Street."

Surveys conducted by Sisters show there are about 5,000 pre-op and post-op transgender people in Pattaya. Of those, 75% are sex and entertainment workers, 10% are cabaret performers, 10% are students and the remaining 5% are workers not involved in the sex industry.

The HIV infection rate among the survey group was 7.5%.

Ms Thitiyanun, a social worker who once competed in transgender beauty contests, says the "No Ladyboy" policy varies depending on the hotel.

"The ladyboy community will share the information within the group on which hotels welcome them and which hotels prohibit them from entering," she said. "All of the five-star hotels in Pattaya have no such rule, but many of the three-star hotels in Pattaya have this heartless rule."

A receptionist at a hotel in south Pattaya told Spectrum that while they do not have a ladyboy ban they felt obliged to inform guests that they were taking a transgender person to their room.

"We have our standard procedure here which is to inform our customers that the guests they are bringing are ladyboys, not a lady," she said. "The reason we have to do that is because sometimes, the customers are too drunk to be able to tell the difference."

For the guest's personal safety, they keep the ladyboy's ID card at the front desk and check with the guest that his belongings are safe before returning it.

BIG SISTER: Social worker Thitiyanun ‘Doi’ Nakpor.

Pol Lt Col Aroon Promphan from the Pattaya Tourist Police said the use of fake ID cards was becoming more common. "In many cases we can't trace them because we have no evidence that leads to them," he said.

"The fake ID card used by ladyboys is a big problem in our town right now."

Ms Thitiyanun said the hotel staff had no right to identify ladyboys to their guests.

"The agreement should be made among the two people [involved]; between the ladyboy and her customer. Revealing a person's sexual status without permission is a violation of personal rights" she said.

Nam Phueng, a freelance transgender sex worker, said she simply avoided hotels with ladyboy bans.

"We all know which hotels we can enter and which ones we can't," she said. "I won't bother explaining to the hotel staff that I am not a troublemaker since my voice is not heard anyway."


Ms Thitiyanun said searches of freelance sex workers' bags by police were quite common.

"The police will ask them what they are doing there and ask to search their bags. If the police find more than two condoms in their purses, they will assume they are sex workers. Then they have to pay a fine from 200 to 500 baht. Some ladyboys told me they are willing to pay 200 baht to earn 2,000 baht."

She said while police arrested all sex workers, transgender people were their main target.

Pattaya also has a Volunteer Tourist Police contingent comprised of expats and Thais who assist the Tourist Police with translations and monitor crime in designated areas, particularly Walking Street.

They have no powers of official arrest but can take those suspected of committing a crime to local police within areas designated by the Tourist Police.

The Volunteer Tourist Police on Walking Street put a disproportionate focus on transgender sex workers, Ms Thitiyanun said.

"In Walking Street they only arrest ladyboy freelance sex workers, not the women. My main concern is the non-sex worker ladyboys. The Tourist Police and volunteers who set up a desk in front of the main entrance of the street will keep their eyes on any ladyboy who enters the street."

Pol Lt Col Aroon said the majority of crimes the Tourist Police deal with in Walking Street involve transgender sex workers.

"The crimes that occur on Walking Street include pick-pocketing, spiking drinks, stealing and physical assault. Almost all of the cases involve ladyboys," he said. "We never stop ladyboys from coming into Walking Street. If we find out they are causing any trouble or looking for a customer on the street, we will arrest them.

"We [Tourist Police] have no authorisation to fine them or put them in prison. All we can do is ask them some basic questions, search their bags and check their ID cards. If we find anything suspicious such as sleeping pills, a cutter, scissors or a fake ID card, we send them to Pattaya City Police Station where they will be fined."

Pol Lt Col Aroon conceded they had mistakenly detained non-sex worker ladyboys in the past.

"Sometimes the ladyboys we arrest are not coming to Walking Street to look for customers, but they have come to Pattaya with their boyfriend," he said. "Our standard procedure is to arrest first and ask questions later. If they are innocent, we will apologise to them and let them go."

He added that all ladyboys who are not sex workers are welcome to visit Walking Street and they did not practice any form of gender discrimination.

"The police usually can tell which one is a tourist and which one is the sex worker.We are just trying to protect the safety of tourists and the image of the town."

Nong, a transgender sex worker plying her trade at the beachfront near Walking Street, said she would never return to the area after her one and only visit.

"While I was walking around a foreign man came to ask me how much I charged. I told him my price.

"Then we started to head to his hotel, but on the way out of Walking Street he gave me away to the police and I was charged for prostitution. I had no money to pay the fine, so I spent one night in prison. It was the most horrible experience I ever had."

Although Nong has never returned to Walking Street she is still fined regularly by police.

"Once I pay one fine, I am good for the night. I can present the form confirming the fine had been paid to other police and I don't have to pay another one. However, we have to pay many fines in one night to many different units sometimes."


May, 26, snuck into Thailand from Cambodia in 2005 with the hope of earning enough to live on and send money to her parents.

She always knew she was different, but it was difficult for her parents to accept.

"When I grew up, I decided to tell my parents that I want to be a woman," May says. "In Cambodian culture, being a ladyboy is completely unacceptable. I felt like I made my parents disappointed in me."

May said all of her five sisters had come to Thailand to work and earned enough to take "big money" home to her parents. She believed the only way to win back their respect was to come to Thailand and try to financially support them.

May entered illegally at Poipet and worked various jobs, including as a construction worker in Chon Buri province and a waiter in a restaurant.

"One day a ladyboy came to order food. I was so excited to see someone just like me. So I talked to her and became friends with her. She told me she worked in a karaoke bar and I was inspired to get a job just like her," May said.

May found a job as a hostess at a karaoke bar in Rayong, singing and drinking with customers who she says were unaware she was a ladyboy. She tired of lying to customers and decided to move to Pattaya where she had heard there was a large ladyboy community.

But when she arrived in Pattaya it was difficult to find a regular job in a restaurant because of her illegal status. With her limited savings disappearing, May ended up sleeping on the beach.

"One night I was approached by a white man who asked me 'How much, short time?' With my limited knowledge of English, I replied 'I no girl, I boy.'

"Surprisingly he said 'OK' and we went back to his room. I got my money from spending a night with him. That was when I first became involved with prostitution."

May began trawling the beach for customers hoping to earn enough money to go back to Cambodia, but along the way she was cheated, robbed and arrested and after spending a night in prison decided she would stop sex work.

Three years ago she discovered the Sister centre and now works as a volunteer promoting safe sex. She has also entered into a long-term relationship with a foreign man.

"I am now working here legally," May said. "I have found my real love and I am in a relationship with him.

"He sends me money every month and we plan to live together. I went back to my hometown and gave my parents the money I saved. The smile on their faces made me realise why I work so hard."

Despite leaving the sex industry, May says she still faces discrimination.

"Even though I am now an office worker, I still have problems when trying to go to many places in Pattaya with my boyfriend," May says. "My boyfriend can't take me to fancy restaurants, we can't go to nightclubs together, and some hotels still stop me from going in."

May says while this annoys her boyfriend, she is used to the treatment. "I won't complain about it since this town offered me my new life," she said.

PRIME ATTRACTION: The bars on Walking Street are a magnet for tourists, but ladyboys find it difficult getting past the Tourist Police checkpoint.

About the author

Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai
Position: Reporter