Chiang Khong, Thailand – The 15-year-old aspiring “ladyboy” delicately applied a puff of talcum powder to his nose – an act of rebellion at the Thai Buddhist temple where he is learning to “be a man”.
“They have rules here that novice monks cannot use powder, make-up, or perfume, cannot run around and be girlish,” said Pipop Thanajindawong, who was sent to Wat Kreung Tai Wittaya, in Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border, to tame his more feminine traits.
But the monks running the temple’s program to teach masculinity to boys who are “katoeys,” the Thai term for transsexuals, have their controversial work cut out.
“Sometimes we give them money to buy snacks but he saved it up to buy mascara,” headteacher Phra Pitsanu Witcharato said of Pipop.
Novice monks’ days pass as in any other temple – waking before dawn, collecting alms and studying Buddhism – but every Friday attention turns to the katoeys at the attached school.
“Were you born as a man or a woman or can you not specify your gender – not man or woman?” asked Phra Pitsanu at a recent assembly. “You cannot be anything else but your true gender, which is a man. As a novice you can only be a man.”
The temple has a stricter interpretation than others of rules governing behaviour during Buddhist training that is a key childhood experience for many Thai boys.
Pupils are banned from using perfume and make-up and prohibited from singing, playing music and running.
“We cannot change all of them but what we can do is to control their behaviour to make them understand that they were born as a man… and cannot act like a woman,” said Phra Pitsanu.