Thai "Ladyboy" Kickboxer Is Gender-Bending Knockout

Laura Greene
National Geographic On Assignment
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.

Nong Tum (born Parinya Charoenphol) began boxing as a boy—responding to the taunts and jeers of schoolboys who laughed at his girlish ways. But the first time the young Nong Tum fought back, the laughter ended.

In later years in the ring, as a champion cross-dressing boxer, Tum would kiss his opponents on the cheek after reducing their arrogance to a heap of bloody pulp on the floor.

With this in mind I enter the practice space with some trepidation. But it's hard to feel scared of a boxer whose last move before warming up is applying another layer of lip gloss. But lipstick aside, this girl can still throw the punches. The heavy leather gloves Nong Tum hands me are still damp from the last pair of sweaty hands they protected, and she giggles as I grimace at the smell and feel of them.

Tum has been gearing up like this professionally since she was a teenager. Winning titles and attention, Nong Tum became famous as much for her style and grace in the ring, and her old-fashioned technique in this historic sport, as for the red lipstick and hair band she donned to face her opponents.

Beautiful Boxer

Homophobes and detractors were silenced by her victories. But to Tum, the wins and the prize money meant only one thing: a step closer to achieving her heart's desire of becoming a woman, through costly sex-reassignment surgery.

The thing about a punching bag is that it's heavier than it looks. And it swings. If you've ever thrown your fist at one you'll know a mistimed hit garners no applause. And it hurts.

Then there's the kicking. As a devotee of the Tomb Raider movie character Lara Croft, I'd always fancied myself in this role. Nong Tum aimed a couple of perfect swipes at the bag and finished off the demo with a series of shin kicks that landed with a satisfying thwack as skin hit leather. My attempts were less impressive, although Tum's suggestion that I summon some anger before throwing the next hit sure raised my game.

Despite her fighting grunts and sure footing, it's so hard to see the man in her. I keep sneaking side glances at her pretty face, her swinging mane of glossy hair, and, yes, her very convincing breasts. With the thermometer straining over 90° Fahrenheit (32° Celsius), I'm a sticky mess. But Tum has barely broken a sweat.

After a half hour of training, I'm done. So after watching her give an interview to another TV crew—a local reporter and cameraman who are evidently enthralled by her fame—Nong Tum takes me shopping.

As we stroll through the open-air clothes stalls of Bangkok's Siam Square, children stare, women stop and clap their hands in delight, and a tentative few venture forth for an autograph and a handshake.

Stopping at a street stand for sweet milky iced tea, Tum tells me she hopes the movie that has just come out about her life, Beautiful Boxer, will challenge perceptions of people like her: Thailand's "ladyboys."

Thailand's Ladyboys

No one really knows why, but Thailand has an unusually high number of ladyboys. Often theyre called katoey, a slang word for a man who chooses to live as a woman.

Usually, a katoey will begin to take female hormones around puberty to inhibit masculine growth. Many will later have breast implants, and some, but not all, will have full sex-reassignment surgery to complete their transformation.

Even after she has acquired the body of a woman, life for a katoey is anything but easy. Thailand is a Buddhist country where tolerance prevails. Nevertheless, beneath this formal acceptance, there's a powerful undertow of prejudice.

Most katoey end up as performers, some as sex workers. They seek a world in which they are free to behave as they want, where no one will laugh at them—a place where they finally fit in.

Nong Tum tells me she always knew she had the heart of a woman. Kickboxing provided the financial means to support her family and got her out of rural poverty. Her strength and dexterity in the ring, and her ability to knock out the toughest of fighters, won her fame and acceptance. But the lure of fulfilling her need to be completely female led Nong Tum to start taking the hormones.

It was a katoey beautician who supplied the eager Tum with the first bottle of pills. The boxer's fans were shocked. As muscles waned and the jaw line softened, so did the prize-winning punches. But with the hope of becoming wholly female, Nong Tum finally went under the knife for full sex-reassignment surgery in 1999.

Training Tomorrow's Champs

Five years later it's honestly hard to know this gentle woman was ever a man. Her prizefights are over. In Muay Thai, women are not even allowed into the ring. So Nong Tum trains kids who want to follow in their champion's footsteps, no doubt attracted by the romance of a story with a happy ending.

Tum will never legally be accepted as a woman in her own country. The ID card she shows me says "Mr." alongside her girlish photo. She will never marry, never give birth, and never again box professionally. Despite all that, she is happy.

She tells me you cannot choose how you are born, but you can choose how you live. She uses the discrimination and disrespect directed at her to remind herself that she has to work hard to win people over and to prove she has a heart and soul like everyone else.

Tum says she was born with a disadvantage; neither a woman nor a man but a "third sex." But she agrees with me that she is also lucky. She was born with a unique skill in kickboxing that made her wealthy and famous and that won her acceptance. Not all katoey are dealt such good fortune.

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. So, as we say goodbye, I ask Tum if she could choose, how would she like to be born in her next life, as a man or a woman? I'm surprised by her answer.

Tum says she would definitely choose to be born a man. But this time, a real man, with a man's heart to match the man's body.

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