Gay Bars and Drag Shows in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
As the lights dim in the crowded bar, an upbeat Khmer song begins to play on the sound system, and the crowd cheers for the first performer of the night. Tall, leggy, and beautiful she delivers a moving rendition of the song, including seductive dance moves and a smattering of friendly flirtation with the crowd. The crowd marvels at her beauty, and grace, as well as the fact that “she’s” not really a “she” in the traditional sense of the word.
Although one would never guess it from a cursory glance at Cambodia’s traditionally conservative society, Phnom Penh actually has a lively and flourishing gay community. One particular element of the gay scene that’s exploded in popularity lately is the drag show.
Unlike Thailand, Cambodia’s ladyboy or katoey scene has never been particularly obtrusive, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been there. Strict Khmer societal rules have meant that in the past, gay Cambodians, katoey (the Khmer word for transgender individuals), and anybody deviating from the norm had to hide their true feelings or identity.
Fortunately, things are now changing at a pretty even pace. Gay friendly bars are on the rise in Phnom Penh, and drag shows are becoming more frequent, available, and accepted.
One of the city’s first venues for drag shows was Blue Chilli, located on St. 178, close to the Royal University of Fine Arts. Opened two years ago by Thai owner Oak and his Khmer business partner, Sokha, the bar has been a vital element in the growing popularity and awareness of katoey culture.
“Two years ago drag shows were very new in Phnom Penh, and not many people knew much about them”, says Oak. “ I wanted to open something different, and give my customers something special.”
Oak started throwing drag parties in February of 2009, and they grew so popular that the bar now offers shows every Friday and Saturday night. The shows consist of about four to five ladies, mostly staff of Blue Chilli (including Oak himself), and each act is carefully prepared and rehearsed throughout the week to ensure a thoroughly entertaining mix of both serious and humorous performances.
Server/performer extraordinaire, Dee Dee says, as he giggles coquettishly, “ I started doing the shows to help out the owners, and at first I was so scared – there were so many people! But after the first act, I saw that the customers really loved it, and now it’s no problem, I get up there and dance and make jokes with the customers, and everyone has fun.”
It seems that fun is the operative word at Blue Chilli, and the customers truly do love the shows. Every Friday and Saturday night the bar draws in a crowd of nearly 50-60 people, no small feat for a bar the size of an average 2 bedroom apartment. And this doesn’t even include the motodops, tuk-tuk drivers and passing pedestrians who crowd the street outside, hoping to get a glimpse of the action.
Another venue for katoey shows is Salt Lounge, the first openly gay bar established in Phnom Penh. It was opened in 1994 by a Khmer/Canadian expat, and began as a place where gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the capital could relax and enjoy a beverage and good company without being harassed or ostracized.
Seated in one of the comfortable couches amidst the rich red walls, strategically placed linga statues, and handsome bar men, current owner Meng explains, “At first the clientele was mostly expats and a few tourists, and not many people supported the bar, but now we have many customers, gay, straight, male, female, old and young, and people are much more open about the whole scene. I think they realize that there is a growing market for gay establishments, and it can be a really great thing for Cambodia.”
Meng throws twice monthly parties at Salt Lounge, and hires professional performers to do drag shows, traditional Khmer dance performances, and comedy shows. Parties take place every second Saturday night, and the shows are often sponsored by PSI, a local NGO who promote HIV/AIDS awareness to Khmers and expats in Cambodia.
“The market is getting bigger and bigger,” says Meng, “and the scene has expanded to Siem Reap also. We even do promotion in and around the provinces surrounding Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and the scene can only get bigger.”
Like Blue Chilli, Salt Lounge’s marketing is done mostly through word of mouth. Although both bars have websites, and advertise in various publications in Phnom Penh, the bulk of their business comes from their loyal customers, and solid reputations.
Despite the increase in gay bars and drag shows, the scene is still relatively small, and familiar faces abound in the out and about drag queen community in Phnom Penh.
Long time performer, Suun performs at both Blue Chilli and Green Flame, and has a tight knit clique of fellow performers, who perform at various venues around the city. After shows, they often head to the Heart of Darkness or late night dance clubs to turn some heads. “We travel together because it’s not safe at night. Sometimes we get hassled,” she says with a toss of her curly auburn locks.
When asked what she thought about the future of drag shows in Cambodia, Suun said, “ I think Cambodian people are pretty accepting of katoey people, but it’s up to the government to allow us to be more open.”
Staunchly conservative politicians in Cambodia have often stressed the return to strict traditional values, but even so, the country has generally been moving towards a much more tolerant outlook.
2004 saw the first transvestite beauty pageant, the second gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride celebration, and a public message from King Norodom Sihanouk himself urging Cambodians to respect gay and transvestite rights, and allow marriages between man and man or woman and woman.
The future seems bright for gay bars and drag shows in Phnom Penh. Strong support from the royal family combined with a young Cambodian population that is increasingly open to new ideas, and annual surges in international tourists might just ensure that the drag show isn’t just a trend that will go by the wayside.
By Stephanie Mee