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Gay-friendly bars, drag shows, gay spas and saunas. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Cambodia’s other urban centres have got the lot when it comes to catering for the LGBT scene. Visitors would be forgiven for thinking the country is accepting of the community. However, growing up gay in Cambodia can be a very different story.
There’s no doubting that LGBT visitors to Cambodia are going to feel welcome. Many gay bars, clubs, hotels and other venues dot the country’s major towns, and May’s annual Pride festival is gaining traction every year.
Cambodia’s LGBT Struggles
While LGBT visitors to Cambodia will find a welcome environment and plenty to do, for many Cambodians, growing up gay or transgender is a struggle.
Rape, forced marriage, bullying, job discrimination, violence and inequality remain rampant across the Kingdom, especially in the dominating provinces, according to CamASEAN, an organisation that fights injustice and promotes equal rights.
A report by a social research agency TNS, released in 2015 by NGO Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), ranked the four top problems faced by Cambodia’s LGBT community: They are discrimination, exclusion from families, harassment and legal challenges.
The RoCK agency also reported common cases of forced marriages, discrimination at work and school, bullying from peers and police harassment.
“There is still a lot of prejudice against LGBT people, and that is what we are working towards stopping,” says Srorn Srun, activist and founder of CamASEAN.
In a remote village in Battambang province, Chuk Sopheap was forced to leave his home at the age of 18 due to his lifestyle choice. He went to Siem Reap to find work and acceptance before relocating to Phnom Penh, where he now runs Space Hair Salon and Bar, a salon by day and gay bar by night.
“This gave me a lot of freedom,” says Chuk, 35, who came out to his parents in 2016 after their pressure for him to marry and have children became too much. “It’s not easy to be gay in the provinces. It’s small and it’s my homeland. It’s not the city, where everyone can have fun and be themselves.”
Forced marriage is common in rural and urban areas, according to Srorn, especially for women pressured by their parents to pursue a suitable spouse. “This can be followed by years of rape and abuse from their husbands,” he adds.
Discrimination in the workplace is another common complaint, with many organisations refusing to hire people based on their sexuality – this is an even bigger issue within the transgender community.
Bullying can also be endemic in schools, from both pupils and teachers. And there is a lack of health services aimed specifically at the transgender community, who often use hormones. In 2013, because of the lack of proper health services, two people died in a Phnom Penh hospital hours after injecting what they thought were hormones into their chest. It was, in fact, oil from a tree that caused a lethal reaction.
The Tide is Turning
Despite these waves of challenges, times are changing. Huge efforts are being ploughed into education, hopefully leading to acceptance, changing attitudes and shake-up of unfair laws.
CamASEAN, RoCK and other organisations work tirelessly across the country to promote equal rights, lobbying the government and offering support to those who need it.
In 2015, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs included the LGBT community in its national action plan to prevent violence against women, and the Ministry of Health has said it will address some issues regarding the transgender population. the Ministry of Labour is looking at ways to encourage employers to be more inclusive.
From 2018, the Ministry of Education has pledged to start teaching sex education in school, including a SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) session.
CamASEAN also runs a series of supportive Facebook groups, including MyVoiceMyStory, which sees people share their stories through Facebook Live on the page.
Cambodia’s annual LGBT Pride has also worked wonders in pushing the movement forward, with work being carried out across all 25 provinces.
LGBT Cambodia for Visitors
While life is often tough for locals, it’s a very different story for visitors to the country, and plenty of options are available for those wanting to Cambodia’s gay scene.
Blue Chilli is the capital’s longest-running gay bar, opening in September 2006 after owner Sokha Khem borrowed some cash from a friend. It is a favourite on the LGBT scene, hosting popular drag shows.
For drinks served by muscular superheroes, martial artists and policemen, then head to Space Hair Salon and Bar, where Sopheap puts on themed nights daily. The cocktails flow until after midnight at this intimate yet casual venue.
If you want to hit the dancefloor and party throughout the night, gay-friendly club Heart of Darkness has been serving the city since 1993. It remains one of a handful of late-night clubs, attracting an interesting mix of characters into the early hours.
Valentino’s Nightclub & Bistro is one of the capital’s more recent LGBT entries, opening earlier this year. It boasts a quiet outdoor terrace and restaurant as well as spacious indoor dance floor, where, at weekends, the party goes on almost till dawn.
Arthur & Paul is Phnom Penh’s sole men’s-only gay spa-boutique hotel. The stylish hotel boasts a decadent spa area, swimming pool, tropical gardens and restaurant and bar.
Be warned that public displays of affection – regardless of sexuality – are frowned upon in Cambodia, so save the heavy petting for home.