BANGKOK: Punlop Tongchai is awake for the entire two hours it takes to be turned into a woman on the operating table of a Bangkok sex change clinic, realising a childhood dream.
The 27-year-old Thai cabaret dancer chats to nurses throughout the ordeal under the surgeon's knife, numbed only by local anaesthetic.
Growing up in Thailand, a country with one of the largest transgender populations in the world and surgeons who have pioneered ever cheaper and quicker sex change techniques, Punlop's ambition was always within reach.
For as little as 2,000 dollars, he became a woman.
But the government is making it tougher for patients like Punlop to undergo the procedure, forcing them to prove they are psychologically fit to change sex.
From Wednesday, anyone wanting to swap gender in Thailand must live as a woman for at least a year, take a course of female hormones, and obtain the approval of two psychiatrists.
Punlop says it is too much to ask.
"It is not necessary. I really didn't want to go through that process, so I decided to have the operation... before the law is enforced," he told AFP before undergoing surgery earlier this month.
Sex changes are outlawed completely in Thailand before the age of 18, and for men aged 18-20 parental consent must be obtained.
Thai gay rights campaigner Nathee Teerarojanapong said the greater legal protections are necessary to guard against gender swaps that too often backfire on those who make an irreversible choice.
"I got so many calls where they said they are so sorry that they did a sex change," says Nathee. "They make a big mistake and they want to come back and be the same. But they cannot!"
As well as the psychological effects of a sex-change and the recovery from surgery, there are also side effects from the hormones that must be taken to hasten the transformation from male to female that can include hot flushes, tiredness, weight gain and loss of muscle and libido.
Days before the operation, Punlop said that as a child he always found dresses and housework preferable to traditional boyish pursuits and by the age of 19 was regularly taking female hormones in a bid to change body shape.
"I don't like this part of me because I don't use it," said Punlop, pointing between his legs. "I don't know why I have it. If I had a vagina, I would use it."
Punlop went to see Thep Vedusit, a Bangkok surgeon who prides himself on his ability to conduct speedy sex change operations without the use of general anaesthetic, and who believes the new rules are creating unnecessary hurdles.
Thep said he had carried out more than 500 sex change operations and was seeing two or three cases every week -- half of them foreigners who came to take advantage of Thai laws.
"I think a surgeon can make the decision who is a transsexual.... Each one (transsexual) has a very long determination to have a surgery and I don't think a psychiatrist gives them any benefits," said Thep.
On the day of the operation, Punlop strolls into the surgeon's glass-fronted clinic, set along a busy Bangkok street in the heart of the city's shopping district, after friends recommended Thep's "fully conscious" procedure.
Dressed in a sundress, tracksuit top and sandals with a face free of make-up, Punlop is escorted up three flights of steps to a small, dingy operating theatre, the walls plastered with newspaper cuttings of transsexual cabaret stars.
Thep takes an hour and three quarters to fashion a vagina using the skin of Punlop's male genitals. She is free to leave the same day and within four weeks had completed all the necessary check-ups.
"It doesn't hurt too much; I can handle it. How happy am I? Yes, I'm happy," said Punlop.
"For all of my life I've wanted to change. It's been my dream since I was little."