Gay life in Cambodia has significantly improved over the past few years. When CamboGuide first visited the country back in 2000, there was no visible gay scene, except for some ladyboys operating in the girlie bars of Phnom Penh. Plus, the locals only referred to gays as ‘ktoey’ (ladyboys) with giggles and laughter.
To the surprise of many, in February 2004, then King Norodom Sihanouk turned out to be in favour of gay marriage. In a hand written message on his website the king said that as a “liberal democracy”, Cambodia should allow “marriage between man and man… or between woman and woman.” He said he had respect for homosexuals and lesbians and said they were as they were because God loved a “wide range of tastes.”
Now, why would the king-father say something like that, apparently out of the blue? A few months later, Sihanouk abdicated the throne and the next king was one of his sons, the unmarried Norodom Sihamoni, a former ballet dancer. Asked whether there would be a royal wedding any time soon, Sihanouk replied: “He loves women as his sisters.”
Do not discriminate! But…
The prime minister of Cambodia, Samdech Hun Sen, has taken a less liberal view. In 2007 Hun Sen announced he would disown his adopted daughter, because she was a lesbian. “My daughter has married a woman … Now I just asked the court to cut her out of the family,” he said. “I was disappointed. I can educate an entire nation, but I cannot educate this adopted daughter,” he added, “We sent her to study in the U.S., but she did a bad job. She returned home and took a wife.” Strangely enough and contrary to his own actions, at the same time Hun Sen asked Cambodia’s 13 million people to be more tolerant of homosexuals. “I urge parents of gays not to discriminate against them, and do not call them transvestites,” Hun Sen said.
Have these ‘incidents’ helped the onset of the gay scene in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s not forget that highly tolerant Buddhism plays an important part. Buddhist teachings instruct followers to treat people with other views or lifestyles with loving kindness. But many Cambodians still regard homosexuality — or, better put, relationships that do not produce children — as an outright threat to survival. Want to slip into the jungle with a buddy? Fine. But refusing to marry someone of the opposite sex and procreate is almost unthinkable, especially in the largely traditional agrarian society. Children are relied upon to support parents as they grow old and unable to toil the fields. There is no other social safety net.
Thriving Gay Scene
Despite all this, gay-themed bars, restaurants, saunas, guesthouses and hotels have sprung up around the country. First in Phnom Penh and tourist magnet Siem Reap, but steadily spreading to smaller places like beach town Sihanoukville, Kep, Kampot and Koh Kong. It’s quite obvious that Phnom Penh and Siem Reap now have a thriving gay scene and many gay Cambodians are not afraid anymore to show their true interests. On top of that, in February 2011, Cambodian tourism businesses launched a colourful, global campaign, Adore Cambodia!, to let gay travellers know they are especially welcome in the Kingdom of Wonders.
But, can you kiss in public? NO! But, hey, that goes for heterosexuals, too. Any public demonstration of affection, whether between men/women, men/men or women/women is frowned upon.
Gay Guide to Cambodia
Soon to come: the new gay life section of CamboGuide with descriptions, reviews and pictures of bars, restaurants, hotels and events that suit you. Check back regularly, or follow us on twitter to get instant messages of new articles on this website.