Patong's ladyboys struggle to cope in badly damaged tourist industry
Jonathan Watts in Patong beach
Monday January 10, 2005
Even without the high heels and the giant blue plumes of her feathered headdress, Jana is a very tall girl. In fact, she normally towers over most of the customers at the Moulin Rose (sic) cabaret club, where she performs lip-synch renditions of The Power of Love. But tonight, she is slumped in a chair and feeling low.
For Jana is one of the hundreds of "lady-boys" on the red-light strip of Patong beach who survived the tsunami but are struggling to cope with its economic aftermath: the devastation of a large chunk of Thailand's tourist industry.
Like the prostitutes, masseurs, go-go dancers and kick-boxers who make a living in this hotbed of exoticism and sleaze, the transsexual population of Patong are struggling to make ends meet because the foreigners they rely on for business are being warned by their governments to stay away from the disaster zone.
They are too much of an embarrassment to the authorities to merit much support from the government, particularly at a time when the world's attention is focused on the search for foreign victims of the disaster.
But their plight - and the knock-on effect on their families - is as pitiful as the suffering of the thousands of diving instructors, tour guides and hotel operators who are also suddenly unable to make a living.
Jana is most concerned about her parents. Although her father beat her during childhood to try to make her more masculine, Jana sends home two-thirds of the 9,000 baht (£130) that she earns each month from salary and tips. A personal worry is how she will pay for the 700 baht she says she needs each month to make her breasts bigger.
She estimates that Patong is second only to Bangkok as the transsexual capital of the world. But of the 500 ladyboys who used to work in the town, more than a fifth have already fled to other tourist destinations such as Ko Samui in search of work.
The story is similar across the 500-metre-long strip. Two weeks ago, the three giant waves destroyed about a dozen bars, nightclubs and trinket shops closest to the beach, but it is only now that the survivors are starting to realise its economic impact.
At the Tiger Bar, skimpily clad young women hang listlessly on the poles where they used to writhe. DJs at the cavernous Crocodile disco pump techno music out across an empty dancefloor. Masseurs chat idly on the street and grab desperately at the hands of the few remaining tourists they see walking by.
"I haven't had a customer all week," says Phoy, a petite 25-year-old with a tiny, tight red miniskirt and pencilled eyebrows who works at the Tweety Bar. "Usually, I get Japanese customers, who pay good money - 2,000 to 5,000 baht to take me back to their rooms - but now, all the Japanese have gone. I worry how I will look after my five-year old daughter."
As their business is on the edge of accepted social norms, this large community of thousands has received little international sympathy. As one foreign visitor noted: "If there really is a god, why did he allow Patong beach to remain standing while the tsunami destroyed so many other places?"
But Patong's red-light strip exists because many foreign tourists enjoyed its exotic atmosphere, just as many other holidaymakers liked the golden beaches and azure waters of this area, which is one of the world's most popular tourist resorts.
When he visited Thailand on Friday, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, toured Patong's beach, but understandably did not wander through its red-light district. Impressed by the rebuilding work, he said he would review the UK government's warning to tourists to stay away from the area.
That would be a giant step forward for the redevelopment of southern Thailand. Jana and Phoy are unlikely to ever be pin-ups for charity appeals, but they and tens of thousands of other tourist industry workers know that the best way to get this part of the world back on its feet is for foreigners to return here on holiday.