In Thailand, nothing builds new friendships better than a shared meal. And where better to meet new transgender friends than a transgender-owned restaurant?
Koh Panghan is a small, tourist-dominated island off the East Coast of Southern Thailand, where most people come for the infamous parties, retreat centers, and Western comfort food establishments that dominate the island. I struggled at first to find Thai queer community or good authentic Thai food at first. That was, until my transgender friend Irish (yep, that’s her name, but she’s actually Filipina) invited me to a restaurant named Thai E-San.
When I arrived, Irish had already ordered and was chatting with Plamy, Thai E-San’s transgender co-owner. Irish then introduced me, and suddenly, Plamy sat down with us and proudly announced “Ladyboy Table!” I stayed late into the night chatting, drinking, and playing pool with Plamy and her staff, the majority of whom were also transgender. I knew I’d finally found transgender community there and a lifelong friend in Plamy.
A few days later, I spent a full day with Plamy to observe her at work and interview her for this blog. I’ll try to capture the day’s conversation as best as I can in this blog, with the understanding that our conversation was often interrupted by her many tasks running a restaurant, and her interactions with friends.
Our day began over lunch at a friend’s restaurant, where Plamy’s friend Dao joined us. Plamy had brought everyone a treat from the market — blood cockles, named for their meaty, juicy red center, and sought out for their delicate taste with only the subtlest hint of brine. As her friends steamed the cockles and prepared other dishes Plamy picked out, Plamy explained that while blood cockles demand a high price, “I don’t care about cost when it comes to eating good food.”
Turning the conversation to her restaurant, I learned that Plamy had jointly owned Thai E-San with her mother and father for five years and that it was the family’s second restaurant. As she explained, “opening a restaurant in Koh Panghan is expensive, we needed $5,000 to start, so I had to work in bars for 3 months and save money.” $5,000 might not seem like a lot, but by comparison, her last restaurant, located in her hometown of Phattalung, near the Southern tip of mainland Thailand, brought in only about $300 a month in profit.
If Phattalung is well off the beaten path for tourists, Koh Panghan is the exact opposite; a hub for affluent tourists who come from around the world for the ultimate Thai beach vacation promised on travel websites. Plamy’s investment paid off; Thai E-San now makes “10x as much,” over $3,000 a month. She explained that unlike at home, mostly “farangs” (White people/non-Thai tourists) come to her restaurant, and they’re willing to pay higher prices. In addition, the Thais in her hometown did not tip (it’s not customary), whereas farangs will tip between 30% to 40% for even a single drink. Thai E-San currently employs ten people split between the kitchen, the wait staff and the bar staff; five of the employees of the bar/wait staff are transgender.
Between my questions, I could see Dao and Plamy kept glancing over to a lone farang drinking alone a few tables away. After a bit of chatter amongst themselves and some flirtation with him, Plamy invited him to sit with us and got him a beer. After Plamy paid for our lunch, she invited the farang, a young man from Estonia named Anton, to join us at Thai E-San. We soon learned Anton’s girlfriend had broken up with him that day, and Plamy comforted him and got him another beer whilst readying her restaurant to open for the evening. Plamy’s affability and generosity towards everyone she met impressed me. I believe it’s also key to her success as a restaurant owner: she knows how to make everyone feel welcome.
After both Dao and Anton departed, I was finally able to get a bit more personal with my questions. First, I asked what terms Plamy uses for herself and other transgender women. She explained that she uses “ladyboy” for herself because “in Thailand we do not use transgender” (see my previous post for an exploration of the term “ladyboy”). Plamy also uses the Thai word katheoy when talking to other Thai ladyboys, and by comparison, uses the word “wapom” for gay men. As she explained, these words were part of a “ladyboy language” that “all ladyboys know…so that way, people at the next table will not understand.” She added that Dao and she had been using this “ladyboy language” earlier today when talking about Anton.
Plamy’s parents had arrived by then, and Plamy introduced me to them in the kitchen. I could tell the entire family deeply cared for each other. Plamy told me she came out to her parents as a ladyboy at age 10, as soon as she knew. They had always been “supportive,” and were “not scared” about her future. I also learned that Plamy’s mother was from the Isaan region in Northeast Thailand, and her father was from a small town not too far away from Koh Panghan in Southern Thailand.
The name for the restaurant, Thai-Esan, simply advertises that it serves Isaan food as well as Thai food local to the area. Isaan food is rather rare in Koh Panghan, which is a shame because it has many of my favorite dishes, such as green papaya salad, which I guarantee you’ll hear more about in future blogs. Thai E-San is centrally located in Koh Panghan near the island’s Big C Supermarket, but since its name is not searchable online, I made a pin on Google Maps to help you find Thai E-San!
Plamy and her parents are excellent cooks, and I was incredibly lucky that they invited me to share family dinner before Thai E-San opened. The centerpiece was a Southern Thai beef curry served in a giant metal bowl and spooned over Jasmine rice. The meal also included a smattering of other plates; I was particularly fascinated with the raw bitter green beans which revealed bright orange centers when you bit into them; her mother was nice enough to write down their name so I could find them again.
I thanked her family profusely for dinner, and now, with the restaurant open, I got to see Plamy fully in her element. While she’s certainly comfortable in the kitchen, it’s clear her primary role is at the front of the restaurant. She’s the one who’s always greeting customers, managing servers, looking after the bar and pool table, ensuring the lighting and music matches the mood, and making everyone, both farangs and Thai patrons, feel at home. Thai E-San’s bar is a particularly popular pre-party spot for Koh Panghan’s many parties happening nearly every night, including the famous Full Moon and Half Moon parties. Like other pre-party locations, Plamy sells discounted tickets to many of these parties. These tickets can go as high as $60, easily ten times the price of a meal at Thai E-San, so I assume they’re an important source of revenue.
While the kitchen staff mostly came from the restaurant in her hometown, Plamy seems to be responsible for hiring the bar staff and wait staff. As she explained, four “ladyboys” and one [cisgender] “lady” work at the bar, and one other “ladyboy” works as a waitress. Plamy felt it was important to tell me that all five of the ladyboys that work for her “have the operation so they look like ladies” (i.e. gender reassignment surgery) so I decided to explore a bit further.
I asked her, “so if a ladyboy had the operation you still call them a ladyboy?” Plamy vaguely answered “same thing, but many people do not know.” I tried again: “Don’t some people use the term ladyboy only for people who haven’t had the operation?” This was met with a rather vague “yes” from her. So I tried another line of questions: “Does Koh Panghan have a ladyboy bar?” “No.” Do customers here know your friends who work at the bar and hang out at the bar are ladyboys? “They don’t know about my friends.” So customers don’t come her looking to meet ladyboys? “No. If we say to customers they are ladyboys, customers won’t go with them. So if we say to a customer they are lady, they go.”
Plamy here started checking her Facebook messages, seemingly engrossed in a conversation, and so I didn’t pry much further as to what “go” meant. However, I’ve seen a business model at work in nightlife areas of Thailand’s larger cities, where, if an employee, such as a bartender or dancer, helped entice a customer to rack up a high enough tab to counteract any lost work time, that employee might be excused for the night to leave with that customer. I’m guessing that Plamy’s bar staff help her sell party tickets as well as drinks, which easily could pay for a night of work and let them go to a party too. Whatever else “go” might involve, I believe is up to them.
Also, I believe Plamy’s employees can be a bit more up front about sharing that they are transgender than Plamy thinks. I recalled a conversation at her bar just a few nights before with a farang who had said he came to Thai E-San specifically to meet ladyboys. As this farang had only recently come to Koh Panghan, I assume he must have heard of Thai E-San through some sort of informal grapevine. Perhaps Plamy’s friends sometimes advertise her restaurant as a ladyboy bar.
I ended up staying on Koh Panghan over ten days, and Plamy’s restaurant was a big reason. It was a place I felt comfortable being myself, being part of the community, and enjoying my favorite food. It was my oasis amidst the craziness of Koh Panghan, and while I did enjoy some of the parties, I learned to enjoy a day of snorkeling followed by Isaan-style green papaya salad even more. While now I’m on the nearby island of Koh Tao, on April 12 I will return to Koh Panghan to rejoin Plamy for new adventures, including a trip to her hometown of Phattalung.
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