4 min

Tuk-tuks, gay bars & chillin’ in Cambodia

From drag queens to ancient temples

Tuol Sleng genocide museum - documentation of prisoners. Credit: Noreen Fagan

The air is heavy with heat and the lingering smells of the day. It is nearly midnight when my partner and I walk down the dusty road, hopping on and off the pavement to avoid open sewers, discarded food and parked tuk-tuks. As we get to the end of the street we hear the unmistakable thumping of techno music, the trademark of Blue Chili — one of Phnom Penh’s oldest gay bars.

It is the Mr Blue Chilli competition and slender Cambodian men are strutting their stuff down a makeshift catwalk erected in the middle of the street. They swagger, smile and preen to the cheers of people crammed inside the bar while dozens of Cambodian and foreign onlookers on the street peer over the fence to get a good look.

We join the gawkers, watching the boys, then the drag queens perform before making our way back down the street. It is our second week in the city, and once again we are struck by what a country of anomalies Cambodia is.

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge, who ruled for three years and eight months, nearly destroyed the country. Pol Pot spearheaded an agrarian revolution that led to families being torn apart and many of Cambodia’s educated being brutally murdered. It is still not known how many people were killed, although estimates range between one and two million, in one of the worst genocides in history.

After two decades, Cambodia is still trying to get back on its feet and notable improvements are coming rapidly. Foreign aid has poured into the country, the Chinese have built bridges, the Japanese are helping restore infrastructure and international and domestic NGOs are ubiquitous, working on everything from safe water to healthcare.

That’s what makes Cambodia a fascinating country. It is led by the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), a Socialist government that has received some criticism for its weak human rights record. Opposition party followers cannot advance their careers and party members must kowtow to the party’s philosophy. But the sociocultural environment, perhaps because of the Theravada Buddhism practised by most of the population, is one of tolerance for diversity.

Which brings us back to the gay thing.

Homosexuality is legal. Gay pride has been held annually in Phnom Penh since 2004, and King Sihanouk supports gay marriage, although he holds no executive power and so his opinion is, well, just his opinion. But, on the other hand, discrimination based on sexuality is not prohibited, and in 2007 Hun Sen, the prime minister, made his view publicly known by disowning his adoptive lesbian daughter.

But gay tourism is up and coming.

In Siem Reap, the base for visiting Angkor Wat, gay bars with the gayest of bartenders can be found on the main drag in between the sports bars and the Khmer restaurants. The town is becoming an international queer tourist destination and boasts a number of gay-owned guesthouses and an active nightlife.

The countryside around Siem Reap is home to the oldest Buddhist temples in the world. The temples in Angkor Wat date back centuries to the Angkorian period from AD 802 to 1432. At its height the city of temples boasted a population of more than one million people. Visiting the temples is awe inspiring and somewhat humbling. The only drawback of the temples is that they are popular, and it is not unusual for busloads to descend en masse. Yet the area is very large, and without too much effort it is usually possible to find yourself alone contemplating this fascinating civilization.

Stepping back from the temples and the gay bars there is another tempting side of Cambodia — the spas. They are ubiquitous and cheap. On every street manicures and pedicures are offered, from $3US upwards, and massages — from head to full body — are offered at a variety of prices, with the average massage at around $10 an hour.

Our favourite spa, the Daughters of Cambodia, is a national (albeit faith-based) NGO that helps women sold into the sex trade find alternative means of living.

The sexual exploitation of children and young men and women in Cambodia has escalated over the last decade, and sex trafficking is a major problem. Cambodia is both a destination and transit country, bordering Thailand and Vietnam, for sex traffickers and sexual tourists.

In 2008, the government passed a law called the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, in an effort to crack down on the trade. The crackdown has extended to the tourism industry, where in fact, many hotels explicitly state that they do not welcome sex travellers.

At Daughters of Cambodia, the girls run a café, where they are trained by visiting chefs; they produce clothing and small goods for the store and run a spa, which is a treat after spending the day traipsing around the city.

Getting to Cambodia is expensive, but once you are there the dollar goes a long way, and it is possible to spend a luxurious couple of weeks exploring the country. It is rare to find a country in the Southern Hemisphere where queer life is accepted. To find it flourishing, well that is just a turn-on.

Reporter’s Picks.

Phnom Penh:
Tuol Sleng Museum:
Visiting the Tuol Sleng museum is a harsh reminder of the Pol Pot era. The old school was turned into a concentration camp where Cambodians were systematically tortured and murdered. It is now a genocide museum where the photos of victims line the walls of the old classrooms — one of the eerie remnants of the Khmer Rouge is their obsession with documentation — and hundred of skulls are piled in a heap, a sad reminder of violent times.
Grasshopper Adventures: Take a tour of the Mekong Islands on a bike. You don’t need coffee to wake you up, as the day starts with a quick cycle through the streets of Phnom Penh: best to keep Zen as there are no obvious traffic regulations.
The Blue Chilli: A fun place to be, but one of many funky bars across town with great happy hours.

Siem Reap:
Temple-hopping: We hired Mr Kim, our tuk-tuk driver, for the time we were there to take us to the different temples. The first day we started off at 4:30am to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat and came back to the hotel at 2pm.
Linga Bar: Hip gay bar with sexy gay men behind the bar serving divine cocktails.

Where to stay: Cambodia is full of inexpensive places to stay — from guesthouses to hip boutique hotels. In Phnom Penh we stayed at the Blue Lime Hotel (around the corner from the Blue Chilli bar). In Siem Reap we stayed at the La Noira Hotel.

Getting from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: Options are endless — boat, bus, plane, taxi or bike. We took a boat to Siem Reap, which cost US$35 for a six-hour journey. On the way back to Phnom Penh we took the bus back for US$10.

Getting to Phnom Penh:
There are no direct flights to Phnom Penh from Canada. We flew Air Canada from Vancouver to Seoul then by Korean Air to Cambodia. On the way back the route took us through Beijing where we caught a direct flight to Toronto.