We didn’t know much at all about Cambodia, let alone ‘gay Cambodia’ when we went on our South East Asia trip. As always, when it comes to research, the best knowledge will always come from a local. We spoke with local gay Khmer, Sopheap to find out what the situation is in Cambodia for gay Khmers and for gay tourists.
Hi Sopheap, please introduce yourself to our readers before we learn about being a gay Khmer.
Hi, my name is Sopheap Chuk. I was born 35 years ago in the Battambang province in a very humble family.
After finishing school I moved to the city of Phnom Penh with a dream of becoming a hair stylist and make up artist. I also wanted to find a more open minded environment where I could be who I am more freely.
Whilst in Phnom Penh I graduated from ARYA VONG KIM as a ‘Certificat Maquillage Professionnel’ and ‘Certificat Professionnel de Coiffure’.
I opened Space Hair Salon in January 2013, and one month later I added the bar making it the multi-space venue that Space Hair Salon and Bar is today. Since then both the salon and the bar have become a meeting point for the LGBT community and for their open minded friends. Nowadays it is one of the longest running gay bars in Cambodia.
I hope you will enjoy my interview and that you will find it useful if you are planning a trip to Cambodia. Here we are waiting for you with open arms!! Thank you!
So tell us, what is the stereotypical view of a local from Cambodia towards someone who is LGBT (either local gay Khmer or gay tourist – is there a difference)?
It basically depends on age, location and education. Younger people who live in the cities tend to be more open when it comes to LGBT people. Older people from the provinces often hold more prejudices.
Despite this, bullying and derogatory joking is still a daily thing for the LGBT community, specifically towards transgender and more recognizable gay people, who are often called “khteuy” in a derogatory manner.
Families are often reluctant to accept the LGBT lifestyle, and it is a common situation that they force their children into straight marriages.
Regarding foreigners I would say that there is not such a problem and that Khmer people will treat everyone equally.
Have you seen this view change over time?
Nowadays the perception is changing for the better, but we still face discrimination.
Thanks to new technologies (Internet, a vast use of social networks, etc.) and an increasing representation in the media, as well as the good work carried out by NGO’s and other pro LGBT organizations, Khmer people are now becoming more familiar with LGBT issues and reality.
Definitely worth highlighting is the annual Cambodia Pride, celebrated every May since 2015 and gathering NGO’s, businesses and organizations under the motto “I AM WHAT I AM” in different activities such as workshops, movies, parties and educational events.
What laws and protection are there for LGBT Khmers? Are these improving?
In Cambodia same sex relationships are legal, but there is no current legislation over the matter or any protection laws towards the LGBT community.
However, since May 2018 there is a limited form of recognition called “declaration of family relationship”. This formal relationship registry program is only available in 50 communes, and is defined as a: ‘civil contract between two people who are willing to be together and share responsibility taking care of the family, children and distribute their joint assets, as legal spouses do”.
Khmer LGBT people remain optimistic about changes as some Government voices have spoken favorably in recent years about anti-discrimination, inclusion and equality of LGBT people.
Can you tell us more about the gay scene in Cambodia including your bar?
In Cambodia there are many gay bars, gay friendly hotels, saunas and support groups for the LGBT community.
In the capital, Phnom Penh, I opened Space Hair Salon and Bar six years ago.
As the name says, it is a hair salon during the daytime and a popular gay cocktail bar from 7pm until late.
It is well known for having handsome muscle waiters who will dress differently every night according to the theme of that night: sexy 80’s, flower power, James Bond, beach night, professions, etc.
We are especially proud about the quality of our cocktails, always using premium brands and fresh ingredients, and that we’ve created a funny, safe and respectful place both for customers and staff where expats and locals like to gather together and have a nice night.
In Phnom Penh there are other gay bars like Blue Chili, Toolbox, Poc and Teddy Bear. They all have drag shows, Blue Chili is the oldest and most famous of them and it is worth a visit if you are in Phnom Penh.
After all the bars close their doors, around 1-2am, the people who still want to go out usually go to Heart of Darkness, a great club where most of the customers are gay as well.
Great gay friendly hotels in Phnom Penh include Rambutan Resort and Arthur & Paul. The first is a very nice gay friendly hotel and the second is a great men only hotel, as well as a sauna.
In Siem Reap there are gay bars too! Miss Wong is a gay friendly cocktail bar well known for its great cocktails and awesome decor. Barcode is also a very nice bar, with great drag shows and dancers, as well as Heaven & Dreamboys. In Siem Reap there are some great gay friendly hotels too, like Rambutan Resort and MEN’s Resort, which is also a sauna.
Finally, in Battambang there is also a newly open Miss Wong, with great cocktails and a fantastic decoration as well, and a gay friendly bed and breakfast called Bric-a-Brac.
We never knew there was so much! We will have to return! What advice would you give an LGBT traveller coming to Cambodia? (what to do and what not to do)
I would say come without fear because Cambodia is very gay friendly and most of the people would treat you very nicely, but at the same time use common sense if you are meeting a stranger and bringing him or her to your hotel. It is always a good idea to keep valuable belongings in a safe box, or at least not in plain sight. Most of the time nothing will happen, but it is always a good idea to prevent it.
Anything else you wish to add?
Since 3 years ago, Space Hair Salon and Bar is doing a yearly calendar portraying muscle Khmer male models all around Cambodia, from the beach to the Angkor temples.
If you are visiting us give it a look, and maybe you can take it with you and use it during your trip to get new ideas on what to visit and do in this beautiful country.
I hope you will find this interview useful to learn a little bit more about Cambodia and it would be awesome if it even pushes you to visit us in the future!
We have to say a big thank you to Sopheap. There is a lot of positivity and progress to be found in Cambodia for the LGBT community! From a travellers perspective, you are in a welcoming and safe environment. Not only that, but you have the iconic Angkor Wat temple, Sihanoukville for its beaches and Phnom Penh to explore, make sure you add Cambodia to your bucket list!
Make sure to check out more of South East Asia:
- South East Asia: Gay Travel Asia, a Complete Guide
- Gay Thailand: Local Gay Stories
- Romantic Places in the Philippines: Our Honeymoon
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