Two weeks in Cambodia was enough time to see the wondrous ancient ruins at Angkor Wat and to encounter the different faces of gay life here. I listened to a gay British doctor in Phnom Penh who was jailed, visited a gay dentist volunteering his services, watched the handsome but poor money boys and unexpectedly found western gay books for sale.
The Search for a Scene
For generations there has been no obvious ‘scene’ on view in Phnom Penh but during the past five years gay venues have quietly opened and the once furtive gay whisper is now an audible but soft voice.
Masking this change is the cultural habit of Cambodian men to hold hands in public as part of their friendship. Such expressions of intimacy are similar to other Southeast Asian countries, but this contact is without the same meaning as in the West. Best friends are usually not sexual with each other. A tour around Phnom Penh revealed virtually no overt signs of gay life.
On a previous visit I happened upon the gift shop in the enormous Sofitel Cambodiana Hotel on the banks of the muddy Tonle Sap River (where it joins the more famous Mekong River). Looking to see what English language newspapers were available, I was surprised to see a display of at least a dozen different gay books laid out in clear view. Fiction and nonfiction alike were all for easy sale, including Louganis’ best selling ‘Breaking the Surface’ and Berzon’s ‘Permanent Partners’ as well as some erotic potboilers. The store manager said the books were there at the suggestion of the Thai distributor, mostly for foreign customers. “Cambodians could never afford them,” he said. The books were no longer there in March 2007.
Cambodia’s Grandeur and Agony
A distant time ago, the Khmer civilization ruled all of southeast Asia: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. To demonstrate their power and majesty, the successive Khmer kings built enormous palaces and temples over the course of 600 years, from about 800 to 1400 a.d., in and around the capitol area now called Angkor Wat.But eventually their glory succumbed to foreign invasions, internal conflict and the vagaries of nature such as flooding and drought. Ignored and neglected for four hundred years, the great stone-carved masterpieces disappeared under jungle growth only to be uncovered by the French in the mid 19th century.
Since then, restoration projects have slowly peeled back the undergrowth to reveal, once again, one of the world’s great architectural wonders. Over 250 temples and palaces are located within a twenty square-mile area around the present city of Seam Reap . The main temple, called Angkor Wat, towers to 700 feet in height and covers a ground area of 500 acres. The vast bas-relief stone sculptures, almost a mile in length, are considered among the finest and best preserved in the world.
Jungles and Politics
The vast ancient ruins have shared a common fate with Cambodia’s modern history–neglect and abuse. Recent political drama has not been much kinder than the smothering jungle. Here is a culture still sweating in conflict, perhaps not the conflict of bullets for now, but rather one of suspicious bullies who run the country making themselves rich while countless Khmer citizens suffer from indecent education and health care.
The harm and the shame which has resulted from the military-political stranglehold upon the welfare of the mostly peasant population would be cause for civil protest in other lands, certainly one that had tasted a modest opportunity for democracy. The UN-sponsored elections held here in 1993 brought a nervous coalition to power which failed in 1998 when Hun Sen, one of the co-prime ministers, seized full power in a bloody coup.
The King, Sihanouk, has long been a puppet on the sidelines.But most Cambodians worry differently than we do: we believe in a higher recourse of justice and when harm occurs we exert some leverage of law that often brings about some degree of redress. In Cambodia, the highest recourse may be mere lip service to a code of law but the real effector of power is the slippery and fickle feel of money. Justice is corrupt here.
Money buys bullets or mock justice, whichever is more expedient. If you want to smuggle a truckload of rare hardwood into Thailand, cash dollars pave the way. If you want to operate a restaurant, a greased palm keeps the police and inspectors quietly friendly. If you want sufficient justice, you need a sufficient dowry.So the common concern here is not about justice, fairness or freedom of expression, but avoiding land mines hidden in the rice fields, getting vegetables to the market, or making a few dollars for the next payment on the ‘moto’ (motorbike).
Very few citizens make any difference here. The dusty roads of little villages do not connect to the halls of parliament in Phnom Penh. A more realistic hope is that the monsoons don’t flood their bamboo houses too much. Real life is trishaws, rickety bicycles, pocked dirt roads, amputated limbs on beggars, one-room shanties, twenty-percent unemployment, bustling local markets and no welfare system. There is a heavy and uncertain waiting to see what happens after King Sihanouk, now in his late seventies, dies. Commented one taxi driver, “there will be conflict then.”
Looking too far ahead is not helpful and hints of trouble are never far away. Government corruption and conflict and Khmer Rouge violence are very recent memories. Land mines are still a terror the west near the Thai border. No one has forgotten the killing fields, from 1975-79, when the Khmer Rouge communists eliminated more than a million Cambodians after which the Vietnamese invaded and pillaged the country until 1992. (In 1999 the Khmer Rouge collapsed as their leader, the bloody Pol Pot, died in his jungle hideout.)
Yet, despite the hardships, these are disarmingly timid and gentle people. Watchful dark eyes look out from tawny colored faces ever ready to smile with a humble bow of the head. Food and shelter are now easier and safer to procure. An occasional vague gesture from a public figure is probably all they can expect. And sometimes a moment of friendliness from a stranger is a delight for them.
My first direct source of information about gay life in Phnom Penh came from Juan, a gay Guatemalan dentist working for a charitable organization in the city. I found him through a circuitous route through an American colleague of mine at home who told me about a charitable health organization operating in Cambodia.
Juan happened to be the first person I met when I showed up at the downtown residence where many of the volunteers lived. After introducing myself to Juan, it became clear that he preferred not to discuss homosexuality there. Instead we drove about ten miles out of Phnom Penh to a rural village where his organization ran a farm which gave work to unemployed Cambodians.
In this beautifully quiet setting among lush green coconut trees by the Mekong River, Juan spoke more freely about being gay in Cambodia. We talked a little about the organization’s services to help impoverished locals learn work skills and Juan fielded my questions about homosexual life. He readily admitted that there are gay Cambodians and that the chairman of his organization is gay–“but not totally gay, like you are in America.”
He described how some of the workers passed word of mouth that there were gays here at the farm and it was a safe place to feel that way. Although most of the residents were not really gay, they were not reactive against sexual play between guys. “They all know but they don’t say anything. And sometimes they like to play–you know, when they get ‘lonely’ ” Jose said with a laugh.
Hiding From View–Three Reasons
But for the most part, in public and in the culture, gays are hard to find for several reasons, according to Juan: culture, economics and politics.
(1) Culturally, homosexuality is not seen as a normal development, but rather an oddity, as troubled karma. The resulting responses to this anomaly are a mixture of pity, scorn and confusion, which usually evoke silence and avoidance from friends and family. Because the culture is predominantly Buddhist, there is not the kind of assaultive reaction against gays as we see in Christian or Moslem cultures.
Here there is more of a playful tolerance among siblings and peers, although parents tend to express stronger disapproval because it might mean they won’t be able to arrange the all-important marriage for their son (or daughter–although rarely does a woman admit lesbian feelings to anyone here.). Even though violent gay bashing is virtually unheard of, such a forceful play of culture and conformity (along with a complete lack of any gay support network) assures that most homosexual tendencies are kept in the closet (often the closet of marriage) and their feelings kept close to their hearts.
(2) The economics of Cambodian life are perhaps even more prohibitive toward gay living than cultural proscriptions. It is a matter of practicality. Two, or six, can live cheaper than one. Multi-generational extended families take care of each other. Being openly gay means being single and possibly alone and very likely poor. So for most gays, daily survival becomes more important than personal emotional expression; practicality prevails. Sharing food and shelter is essential when a month of pay is less than $30.
Romantic indulgence is a far off fantasy for many gays or lesbians–so far off that there is hardly any identification of ‘being gay’ or living with a lover in a separate (expensive) home. Only in the larger urban areas, mostly around Phnom Penh, is it remotely possible that two men (almost certainly not two women) could live as a couple, but such an arrangement would be kept a secret between the ‘roommates.’ A further disqualifier is that well-paying jobs which afford such an independent arrangement are very scarce in a country with a skeletal economy.
(3) Politically, gays do not fare very well in the current climate of Phnom Penh. The present military-backed government is still in recovery from brutalizing internal and external wars and at best the tone now is conservative. Some Buddhist tolerance can be found among the common people, however. Gay activity does not encounter the same harsh police opposition as years past, but democracy and human rights are not highly regarded elements of the political pulse now. There is little courage to take personal or public risks by being out and obvious. Homosexual behavior may not be technically illegal, but it is far from being politically acknowledged.
Foreigners and Taxi Boys
But oppression does not change human nature. Homosexual attraction occurs in all civilizations, and Cambodia is no exception. Those who break tradition and desire homosexual contact are still present. Not surprisingly, there are two important and different expressions of this gay energy: taxi boys and drag queens.
Juan offered one description of gay activity which pulled together some of the pieces I had already observed. Cambodia has been a target of international organizations and companies who have set up shop since the country became relatively safe after the 1993 elections. Foreign professionals by the thousands have come to Cambodia and Phnom Penh mostly to work for one of the numerous UN commissions or for one of the hundreds of non-governmental organizations here (Red Cross, church groups, business consultants, political advisors, medical staff).
As with any large influx of people, two essential ingredients also get imported: sexual desire and money. The two have always had a close alliance in world history and so it follows that a gay foreigner can find willing sexual partners in the form of taxi boys for rent. Outside any venue catering to visitors–hotels, clubs, restaurants, bars, saunas, offices–are always small clusters of local men waiting with their bicycle rickshaws for fares. Where they go off to, day or night, with a stranger is their own business. And through discreet word of mouth any arrangement can be made.
Of course what is done for money is usually not done for love. What appears to be homosexual activity is mostly a business deal between a sweet-faced poor native and a richer foreigner who can easily afford an hour or a night of sensual companionship. For the native Cambodian, who may well be straight and married, money is the main motivation. The exchanged compensation for a few hours of (perhaps not unpleasant) sensual tolerance with a stranger may easily equal a month’s pay for laboring in rice fields or toiling in a dusty factory making designer shirts.
Set apart from the taxi boy scene is the other face of homosexuality in Cambodia, a face that appears very different from the casual pick-up network. Actually, there is no Cambodian word that means ‘gay’ in the sense that we understand it here in the West, according to Lee, a gay Cambodian-American who has been living in Long Beach, CA for fifteen years. As I described my time in Phnom Penh, he laughed and helped clarify the scene there.
There is no ‘gay scene’ there, he said. “If you are a ‘homosexual’ in Cambodia, you are a drag queen. That is the way you live and show it to others.” As he described his own experiences before emigrating and escaping execution by the Khmer Rouge, Lee portrayed his feelings, and those of other drag queens friends in the city of Batambang, west of Phnom Penh, of truly “feeling like a woman and naturally attracted to men.
“At first, in his youth, his family was tolerant of his dressing in women’s clothes thinking it was a phase. But when he was about 17 years old, his parents tried to change him including being roughed up by his father for a while. But over time they gave up on these efforts. There were more serious problems at the time: the Khmer Rouge took over and destroyed Cambodian life as most people knew it. Cities were emptied out and hundreds of thousands were sent out to farm–and starve–in communes as foreign-influenced citizens(doctors, teachers, professionals– even people who wore glasses) were slaughtered. Both of Lee’s parents perished in the killing fields.
For several years before this holocaust Lee truly enjoyed his private life as a teenage drag queen. “Some of us lived with our families and some lived with other drag queens. We couldn’t get regular jobs, of course, so we worked in queeny jobs, like hairdressers or manicure shops. My parents didn’t like it but what could they do. I was part of the family and families stay together to survive.” Instead of harsh discrimination and physical abuse from neighbors and strangers, drag queens are playfully teased and made fun of by the majority of straight men. They whistle at them–and the queens flirt back in a kind of standoff game of seductive daring.
Crossing the Line
But not all straight men limit their contact to catcalls. Despite the legal age of consent at 16, Khmer culture has strong cultural standards about sexual behavior, especially for young girls. When she marries, a woman is expected to be a virgin so there is cautious freedom granted to girls to socialize with young men. Asian cultures in general are more proscriptive toward women, so it is no surprise that men here have more liberty to socialize and play at leisure and pleasure.
As these men come of sexual age, and beyond, sex venues and ventures become enticing. The two most common sexual outlets are prostitutes and drag queens, but there is more of a difference than gender. In this war-torn country with high unemployment, money is scarce. Heterosexual prostitutes, some of whom are barely post-pubescent (having been sold to a brothel owner), cost more than drag queens. So it’s not unusual for a guy to lean toward the cheaper alternative.
This sets up a rather interesting symbiotic circumstance between some less prosperous straight men and some homosexual drag queens who have their own needs for affection–and some money. Since other gay Cambodian men, who are not drag queens, live inside a tightly shut closet of marriage or silence, there is little opportunity for a drag queen to find a ‘naturally gay’ husband.
Given this scant selection of eligible partners, along with the absence of gay bars, clubs or groups, drag queens turn to certain straight bars for socializing and cruising. In these heated intersections, lusty straight men and desiring drag queens can engage in an erotic game of second best. Although some drag queens are in it only for the money, other he-she’s clearly distinguish themselves from drag prostitutes, claiming they don’t sleep around with just any guy. They often have jobs and have saved some money, so they can afford to be choosy.
For them, the bars become genuine courting venues with the straight men quite aware they are flirting with drag queens. The queens literally shop for straight husbands there. The motives, of course, are different. The homos are looking for love and the hets are looking for sex. Since both are fleeting commodities, some interesting games are set up ranging from one-night stands to longer involvements. A straight man may enter into a relationship with a drag queen for a year or more and actually be ‘kept’ by the queen if, for example, he happens to be a student or doesn’t have much money. However, they rarely live together given the social complications.
Such arrangements, of course, are kept very silent since it would be looked upon with suspicion and disapproval, especially toward the non-drag partner. Lee knew of no straight-looking gay couple or any gay-drag couple who cohabited in his native country (he returns there at least once a year). “There is too much pressure to live at home and save money. But maybe some couples can do that in Phnom Penh–but you have to have a good job too, and they would not tell anyone. The government there is very unfriendly to such things.”
Unfortunately, sometimes a drag queen takes the situation too seriously, assuming too much of a romantic role with the man. “The situation is really pathetic,” said Lee sternly, “because she is setting herself up to get hurt. She knows he will only stay for a while, maybe even a year or two. But he will leave to get married and then comes heartbreak to be sure.”
The edge of scorn in his voice suggested this was not just an observation for him. Lee has known drag queens who have gone to the extreme of attempted suicide after a paramour succumbed to family pressure and left to take a traditional wife. In addition to this tenuous and pain-inviting connection, Lee saw further pathos between such partners in that a drag queen is not given the same respect or pleasure as the man. “If the guy is straight, she can’t expect him to want to give her pleasure. It’s one-sided with her doing all the work because she has let herself be too open. The guy usually doesn’t care the same way.”
The New Way Ahead
As always, societies change and adapt to the times. Although at a slower pace, a gay presence has been emerging tentatively through the recent hard times of modern Cambodia like flowers sprouting among the ruins of a holocaust. Symbolic of this shift are the eight gay and gay-friendly venues listed above in the links for ‘Gay Cambodia’. When Amam Sauna and Spa first opened the word was that it was gay-friendly but soon GlobalGayz received two messages that it was “not gay-friendly, but definitely gay”.
Enclosed here is one of those messages from a reader: “I went there last week and it was very crowded (around 60 people); I was surprised by the youngness of customers (20 to 25 for most of them) and 90% were Cambodian. I spoke to the manager and he told me that it was not the season of tourism (few foreigners) but he himself was surprised by the increase of young Khmer customers.
“Since he cannot welcome everybody at the present size, he intends to build another floor in September. He explained the popularity by the fact that Amam Spa practices low entry fares and is situated outside the city center in a very discreet area so the young gays are not afraid to come because nobody can notice they coming. And in fact, I met there a lot of young (and horny) guys that you never meet in the other gay places of the city center (Salt Lounge, Blue Chilli, etc). By the way, the atmosphere is very friendly (naturally); no taxi boys here. It’s definitely the worthiest gay spot in Phnom Penh.”
Given the cultural, economic and political reasons for hiding in the closet, mentioned above, what explains this new generation of gays coming out, even if only discreetly within certain places?
My best guess contains three answers: globalization, the internet and inspiration. Globalization because of the high increase in communication, trade, interdependent cooperation among nations in southeast Asia. Except for Burma’s brutal junta, the area is at least quiet and international affairs are better than in generations past.
The Internet has broken down provincial boundaries and connected isolated communities by allowing access to like-minded others, no matter what the focus. Gays across Asia are now aware of each other.
And, thrid, Inspiration because this increased access has allowed for much imitation in expressions regarding human rights, gay pride and gay courage, not to mention sexual contact and friendships. Few Asian gays are unaware of Bangkok Gay Pride every November and Australia’s Mardi Gras every February.
A Doctor’s Nightmare
Further evidence of the harsh gay climate in Cambodia appeared, as serendipity would have it when I was in Phnom Penh, in a local newspaper story. A gay British doctor, residing in Phnom Penh, had run afoul of the law in his quests. I contacted the doctor and arranged to meet him for dinner at the Sofitel Hotel. Before sitting down to eat, I showed him the book selection I had seen there. He was also surprised, but guessed that the market was aimed at the international clientele who stayed there. “Your typical Cambodian could certainly not afford those prices,” he assured me.
Getting to his recent legal misadventures, he explained how he had experienced the wrath of some Christian-based NGO’s. He was dishonestly targeted (he had proof) by them because of his “immoral” sexual orientation. With calm self-assurance he claimed in perfect ‘Queens’ English’, “as a hedonist, I clearly acknowledge that I enjoy the pleasure of young men–but I’m responsibly aware of the difference between a man and a boy. I do not condone misusing children for sexual purposes. But of course these fundamentalists don’t see beyond their own simplistic bigotry. So I was set up.”
Apparently some under-age-looking men were found who were willing to declare (probably for money) that the doctor had enticed them into sexual activity. Looking to “save” the children of this impoverished nation, the director of one NGO took up the crusade against sexual abuse of children by decrying the doctor’s “rape” of these young men.
The doctor was arrested and spent four ugly months in jail before his trial was scheduled. His accusers were never cross-examined or questioned and only their statements were presented as evidence.
It was revealed later that one of the youths was actually 24 years old. Seeking to serve a modicum of justice and yet save face by not appearing too lenient on ‘deviants’, the conservative government court found the doctor guilty but sentenced him to time served and probation.
Upon his release, he was warned not to cause any more trouble. To his credit, and the clear benefit of his patients, he chose to stay in Cambodia and practice medicine in Phnom Penh. He is only one of a handful of western-trained physicians (and an expert in tropical diseases) willing to live full time in Cambodia. As of 1999, he was still the best Doc in town.
Later, in his own defense and as a rebuttal against the NGO’s dubious crusade, Scott wrote an indictment of them, accusing them or moral, political and legal corruption. See: Gay Cambodia on this site.
My Taxi Ride
After my visit with the doctor, he arranged a motorcycle ride for me back to my hotel. My driver was a 23-year-old friend of his with a thick shock of black hair atop a boyish face and typically full Khmer lips. As we rode to the other side of the city, my hands were necessarily wrapped lightly around his waist. About half way along our ride, this gentle, jockey-sized driver dropped his left hand from the handlebar to my knee.
A few minutes later he gently stroked the knee and part of my leg, casually. No more than that. He didn’t say anything, even when I boldly increased my grip around his waist. We continued our fragmented conversation about his life in Cambodia, including his fiance and my life in America. Normal pleasantries between newly met acquaintances. By the time we arrived at my downtown hotel, I was sorry and relieved to get off the cycle.
Reflecting later, I wondered how much his gesture suggested something beyond cultural friendliness. Was he making himself, as an impoverished local, available to a foreigner? A taxi boy? Or was he just expressing himself in his native tactile manner? He was engaged to be married some time in the future (we had driven, he pointed out, past his fiance’s office on our way back to my hotel). Would he have accepted an invitation to come up for a drink, or more?
Talking this over with Juan the next day, he said, “of course he would have done it. It’s no big deal for him; it was a way to get money–a friendly way. He would not be ashamed. So you shouldn’t.”
I might have had a moment of thrill at this thought, but it was outweighed by the reality of the deep economic and political chasm that separated me from this young driver. It was as if I had briefly held an orphan in my hands and released him to an unknown and probably dismal fate. It was a bittersweet encounter that split my mind into gratitude and sadness.
Call the gay situation unfair, dysfunctional, trivial or by any other pejorative label and it misses the point. This is the heart of the gay scene in Cambodia–perhaps an ephemeral, poignant heart, but a passionate one nevertheless that has, above all, survived.
Instead of being able to claim an identity of its own, as it has in the West, authentic gay feelings in Cambodia find expression furtively in a secondary manner subject to the more dominant conditions of poverty, cultural pressure to marry, cash-laden foreigners and self-righteous religious proselytes. Taxi boys may not be gay and drag queens may not be women, but it a scene of convenience and shrewdness that will endure another day to seek new opportunities and favors. It is a way to survive and find enough moments of comfort to go on with the masked reality of being gay in Cambodia–silently hoping for a time and a condition when those facades can come off and affection can be freely given and received.
Today new green fields of rice grow, new harvests of fish are raised, a fledgling democracy staggers to its feet as tourists return to the great temples. And the quiet world of homosexuality is far from nonexistent.
By Richard Ammon
Original story 1997
Updated April 2003 and 2012