Thai "Ladyboy" Kickboxer Is Gender-Bending Knockout

March 25, 2004

Photo Gallery of Thai Kickboxer Nong Tum >>

Laura Greene, host of National Geographic On Assignment, traveled to Thailand to delve into the world of the ladyboy—Thailand's "third sex." While on location she met with the country's most famous ladyboy—a former champion kickboxer named Nong Tum.

Here Greene describes her time with Tum, and his transformation from a masculine boxer to a petit, pretty young woman. Tum's story is now the subject of the new movie Beautiful Boxer.

I'm on my way to meet a celebrity who is a gender-bending knockout. Here in Thailand, Nong Tum is a household name.

Meeting a star is a little nerve wracking at the best of times. But today I have extra reason to worry.

Nong Tum is a champion kickboxer. She's the winner of 22 professional fights, one for every year of her life—18 knockouts and countless bloody noses span a six-year career in the ring. And now her life is the subject of a critically acclaimed movie.

I've come to a traditional Thai boxing camp on the outskirts of Bangkok to find out what makes this particular celebrity so special. From the road I negotiate my way on foot through modest lean-tos and women preparing lunch on an outdoor burner.

The open-air practice area sits alongside a canal. The fetid water mingles with hot sticky air laden with the stench of sweaty fights. Boys play among roosters and the debris of boxing—gloves, tape, and rubber tires.

Suddenly among the swinging punch bags emerges a slender, pretty young woman. Nong Tum's sheer femininity is striking against such a masculine setting. Everything about her is delicate: her smile, her gentle manner, and her soft voice.

This would be remarkable enough in itself when you consider the violent nature of this most macho of sports. It's all the more stunning, though, when you consider that Nong Tum used to be a man.

Kickboxing Out of Poverty

For many young Thai men, kickboxing is a way out of poverty, a chance to escape the often rural confines of life in a developing country where the average annual wage is less than U.S. $2,000. It is also revered as a sort of religion. The traditional boxing known as Muay Thai was once used to decide the fate of kings—ritual and ceremony surrounds this most respected of bloody battles. Champions become national heroes. And it's just for men.

Continued on Next Page >>


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