Homosexual acts are not outlawed in Cambodia, as they are in a few Southeast Asian countries, but outward displays of affection and untraditional lifestyles are rare. Yet in Siem Reap, a small town that gets about a million tourists a year, gay visitors and locals are carving out a little haven. In the last few years, a small flurry of gay-friendly bars, restaurants and hotels has opened up in the city’s center and beyond, with wink-wink names like the Golden Banana, Rambutan, River Queen and few others.
But the new spots also reflect a growing acceptance, in a country that still hews to age-old Khmer values and where the concept of homosexuality seemed non-existent until recently. In fact, there is no word for “gay” in Khmer. The most commonly used term is kteuy or ladyboys, based on the misperception by many Cambodians that homosexuals and transvestites are one and the same.
The stereotypes are slowly fading. In 2004, after watching thousands of same-sex couples in San Francisco rush to the altar, Cambodia’s much-loved King Norodom Sihanouk wrote on his Web site that gays should be allowed to marry because God loved a “wide range of tastes.”
His successor and son, King Norodom Sihamoni, holds similar views. “The Cambodian Royal Family, as a whole, share the same point of view as the King-Father,” Sisowath Thomico, a spokesman for the royal family, wrote in an e-mail message. “We’ve always been very tolerant about sexual preferences as some Khmer Royals are/were openly gays/lesbians.”
And last year, a lesbian-themed film by the Khmer novelist and director Phoan Phuong Bopha, “Who Am I?” was a sleeper hit. “Love between people of the same sex is a very new topic in Cambodia,” the director was quoted as saying in The Phnom Penh Post, in an article headlined “Who Am I? Brings Same Sex Issues Out Into the Open.”
The new open-mindedness is attributed to Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion in Cambodia. “When you’re looking at Buddhist countries, you’re going to encounter an openness and tolerance,” said Caroline Francis, a spokeswoman for the Cambodia field office of Family Health International, a public health organization involved with gay-related health issues. “The religious teachings aren’t being used to arrest or persecute people because they’re gay or lesbian.”
One of the first gay bars to open was Linga, an airy cocktail lounge with artwork on the walls and large windows that face the Passage, a bustling and prominent street. Linga draws a mostly male crowd that’s both Khmer and Western and seems to signal a new-found openness for gay Cambodians. Other very popular bars include Station Wine Bar and Barcode – both sporting drag-shows (lady-boy shows).
A more refined is Miss Wong, an old-Shanghai-themed boîte with cherry-red walls and gold silk lanterns. While its owner is gay, it caters to a broader clientele. On a typical night, a mix of men and women, expatriates and tourists, artists and entrepreneurs, and straight and gay people all mingled over lemon-grass-infused vodka concoctions and mocha martinis topped with dollops of chocolate.
But Siem Reap isn’t really a party town. Town life revolves around Angkor Wat, and by sunrise the streets hum with tuk-tuks whisking tourists to the numerous temple tours. Night-life is mainly centred around Pub Street and Sok San Road. Hip-Hop Club is very popular with all night long party goers with mostly very young and mixed local crowd.
That might explain why there are more gay-owned hotels than bars. Arguably most flamboyant is a male-only resort called Men’s, which features sleek rooms decorated with male nude paintings, a large outdoor swimming pool and a sprawling, black-and-gold tiled sauna and a Jacuzzi.
Upscale travelers prefer Viroth’s Hotel, a graceful haven in a renovated 1960s modernist house. While Viroth’s does not promote itself as a gay hotel per se, the owners Fabien Martial and Kol Viroth do nothing to hide their many years long relationship.
For budget aware LGBT travellers River Queen Guest-house would be the perfect choice. It is around five minutes walk from all gay venues and Old Market and town centre right on the river bank. It does not have a swimming pool but it has three jacuzzies on a roof-top with views of Siem Reap river and the town. It is gay owned and operated by gay couple who moved from Australia. They offer hotel services for a price of an guest-house and good advice on tours to Angkor Wat Temples and other Siem Reap attractions.
IN a poor country where traditional family remains strong, young Cambodians are encouraged to marry and have children early. Many same-sex couples in Siem Reap still keep their relationship a secret; some have wives for appearance’s sake. Khmer men who visit gay saunas often conceal their faces behind motorcycle helmets until they’re safely inside. And lesbians remain largely invisible.