Connect to share and comment

From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Visak Bochea 2010
Cambodian Buddhist monks walk with lighted candles at Bayon temple during the Visak Bochea — "Buddha Day" — in Siem Reap province, some 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh on April 28, 2010. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images)

Gay allure in Cambodia’s ancient city

Tourism, Buddhist tolerance and family values in Siem Reap.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — It wasn’t so long ago that gay life throughout Cambodia played out under a tree after nightfall. Or perhaps in the darkest corner of a public pool’s changing room.

In much of the country, it still does. “Maybe it’s by the river, maybe it’s in the park,” said Sopheara You, who is 38, Cambodian and openly gay. “Everyone knows the secret places.”

But in Siem Reap, the fastest-growing city in this hardscrabble kingdom, the secret is out.

Once a dingy outpost, the town has built cachet as an emerging travel hot spot for gay men. And the influx of a Western-style gay scene, replete with cocktail bars and all-male bathhouses, is beginning to nudge the local gay scene out of the shadows of a society where Buddhist open-mindedness is tempered by societal concerns about marriage and reproduction.

Siem Reap’s appeal to gays and straights alike is its proximity to Angkor Wat, a 12th-century temple complex and jewel of the once-mighty Khmer empire. Jungled over for centuries, and more recently unreachable thanks to the murderous Khmer Rogue regime, the temples finally regained their mass tourist appeal in the late 1990s.

“I look back to when we had no open life for gay people. Well, look at us now!”
~Sat Savat, hotel receptionist

The first wave were backpackers with an appetite for rough travel. Then, with the waters tested, a more pedestrian breed of traveler descended on Cambodia.

In the early 2000s, a gay American hotelier named Martin Dishman did the math. “I looked at the arrivals report,” he said. “There were 1.1 million visitors to Cambodia and no gay bars.” So in 2004, he opened the country’s first, Linga Bar, in Siem Reap.

Seven years later, with roughly 1 million annual tourists to Siem Reap alone, the 170,000-population city has given rise to roughly 20 gay-themed hotels, bars and saunas.

“I got here in 2007, when the tourist boom was really strong,” said Dean Williams, 40, a gay New Zealander and former radio journalist. “It was exploding.” Three years ago, Williams joined the growing ranks of gay-owned businesses and opened Miss Wong’s, a crimson-painted cocktail bar and sultry ode to 1920s-era Shanghai.

“Before I came, I knew what most people knew about Cambodia: it had been through a horrendous civil war, half the economy was still from international donor aid, corruption is rife,” Williams said.

What he had yet to unravel is Cambodia’s complex stance on same-sex couplings. The culture’s Buddhist tolerance has helped the foreigner-led gay scene thrive unabated. Buddhist teachings instruct followers to treat people with other views or lifestyles with loving kindness. But much of Cambodia still regards 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 in this largely traditional society. In Cambodia’s 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.

“The pressure comes from family,” said Sopheara, who came out 10 years ago at the age of 28. “When I finally told my mom, she said, ‘I’m not blind, you know.’ But she was also worried and wondering who could take care of me when I’m old.”

Sat Savat, 21, had to deflect similar fears from his mother when he came out just two years ago. “She was like, ‘Well, I’m not surprised.’ But she has no education. She still asked, ‘How are you going to have a kid?’”

Still, for young men like Savat, Siem Reap’s newfound gay flair has allowed him to live a life that simply wouldn’t fly in his rural home village.

If Sat ever worked the fields, his callouses have long since softened. His hair is a perfectly tangled mop. And in a country where many scrape by on $1 per day, Sat, a hotel receptionist, has obtained an iPhone outfitted with “Grindr”: the globally popular application that displays GPS-tracked locations of gay men in the immediate vicinity.

“There’s been a big change here,” Sat said. “I look back to when we had no open life for gay people. Well, look at us now!"

“They’re happy,” he said, gesturing to the foreign clique of gay bar owners gathered for white wine at a downtown bar. “And

Additional Special Reports