In Siem Reap, Bon Theorne serves a drink at old-Shanghai-themed Miss Wong.
A statuesque Khmer performer who went by the name Beyoncé took to the stage draped in a black, body-skimming floor-length gown and wearing a blond Afro wig. Soon, everyone was on his feet, belting out a song from “Dreamgirls.” The traffic outside literally stopped. Curious travelers, Khmer families and little girls peddling red roses craned their necks to get a better view as the song’s syrupy melody wafted into the jasmine-scented evening air.
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 and Cockatoo.
The scene is bolstered partly by Web sites like Cambodia Out (cambodiaout.com), which started in early 2009 and is believed to be the first commercial site in the country devoted to the gay community. Other sites like Utopia (utopia-asia.com) and Sticky Rice (stickyrice.ws), which appeal to gay people throughout Southeast Asia, have also raised the city’s profile.
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 nonexistent 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 newfound openness for gay Cambodians. And like many nightclubs throughout Cambodia, prostitution and sex tourism are not hidden from view.
“I grew up in a small town, so I know what it’s like to think, ‘I’m the only one,’ ” said Martin Dishman, 48, a former hotel manager from Greenfield, Ind., who opened Linga in 2004. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Siem Reap’s most visibly gay bars and hotels are owned by Westerners.
A more refined newcomer 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 temples. “This will never be the place to swallow four tablets of ecstasy and stay up until 4 a.m., dancing under a full moon in sequin hot pants,” said Dean Williams, an expatriate from New Zealand who owns Miss Wong.
That might explain why there are more gay-owned hotels than bars. The newest and arguably most flamboyant is a male-only resort called Men’s, which features 10 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 seven-room 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 10-year relationship.
And the word seems to be out. On a recent Friday night, the hotel’s nearby restaurant, also called Viroth’s, was filled with a sprinkling of male couples sharing bottles of French wine and dishes like chicken curry and minced pork grilled in kaplou leaves.
But for gay Khmers seeking a home, the place to be is the Golden Banana. It started as a humble B & B that opened in 2004 and has since expanded to three properties, including a stylish boutique resort with 16 rooms that feature platform beds constructed of flecked sugar palm wood and soaking tubs on the terrace.
Guests might include backpackers in T-shirts or silver-haired male couples in matching polo shirts, who mingle freely at the palm- and bamboo-fringed swimming pools, sipping lime and mint iced tea. But under the direction of Dirk de Graaff, an expatriate from the Netherlands, the resort has taken on a second role: as a sanctuary for young Cambodian men exploring their sexual identity.
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.
Still, things are looking up for the city’s younger gay generation. On a recent evening, young staff members from the Golden Banana — which include both straight and gay men in their early 20s — were laughing it up at the newly opened Heart Rock Bar, an unpretentious dance club across the street from Miss Wong that’s become a popular spot for gay men.
Beyond the glow-in-the-dark hearts on the walls and the stainless-steel cocktail tables, the dark and spacious club offered little décor or ambience, but the crowd of mostly younger Cambodian men didn’t seem to mind. They drank cans of Angkor beer, grooving to Top 40 hits by the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga, smiling broadly late into the night and dancing freely with whomever they liked.
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
Flights to Siem Reap from New York require a stopover. A recent online search found a Korean Air flight from Kennedy Airport to Siem Reap, via Seoul, starting at about $1,500.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotels in Siem Reap commonly give prices in U.S. dollars.
The Cockatoo Resort (104 Wat Damnak Village; 855-89-986-872; thecockatooangkor.com). Doubles from $80.
Golden Banana Boutique Resort (Wat Damnak Village; 855-12-654-638; goldenbanana.info). Doubles from $60.
The One Hotel and Hotel Be Angkor (the Passage; 855-63-965-321; theonehotelangkor.com and hotelbeangkor.com) are separate hotels with one owner in a single building. Doubles from $95.
Men’s Resort & Spa (near Wat Po Lanka; 855-63-963-503; mens-resort.com). Doubles from $55.
Viroth’s Hotel (Street 23; 855-63-761-720; viroth-hotel.com). Doubles from $80.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Linga Bar (the Passage; 855-12-246-912; lingabar.com).
Miss Wong (the Lane; 855-92-428-332).
Viroth’s Restaurant (246 Wat Bo Street; 855-12-826-346; viroth-hotel.com).