Where are the Gay Ladies of Cambodia?

Honeymooning in Cambodia, Lindsey Danis and her wife seek refuge in queer spaces, but struggle to find the acceptance granted to male travelers.

Lindsey Danis | Longreads | December 2019 | 16 minutes (4,081 words)

Since the new road is open, the bus ride to Siem Reap will only take eight hours. We spend an hour at the border, then an hour on the highway, then the driver kicks us all off the bus at a stucco house on what passes for a suburban street. From here, minivans leave for Phnom Penh, Kratie, and Siem Reap.

We slide against the stucco wall of the makeshift bus station, defeated. First we were overcharged for visas at the border. Then our bus was oversold, and the driver packed the aisle with plastic stools to accommodate 20 more people. Now, two hours into our journey, the bus is gone and we’re waiting on a minivan to take us the rest of the way. I wonder whether the new road exists, or if everything in Cambodia is a lie.

At last a van pulls up, but it’s bound for Kratie. A handful of passengers depart and the rest of us grumble. The crowd thins out as minivans come and go, until a dozen of us stand around waiting to go to Siem Reap. We’ve been waiting for over an hour when a rusted minivan with a cracked windshield appears. The driver shoves our bags under the seats then, out of space, tosses luggage to the roof where a second guy ties everything down.

My wife and I hurl ourselves into the van, claiming good spots. Sliding down the bench seat, she scrapes her thigh on a rusty spring that pokes through the vinyl upholstery. Our first-aid supplies are strapped to the roof. And my window doesn’t open. Off we go!

There’s no traffic on the new road. There’s nothing to see other than blazing fields as farmers burn the remnants of rice stalks, a practice that controls pests and nourishes the soil. Such dry-season agricultural fires occur elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but this is the first we’ve seen. The dirt is loose and red, except for where the land is on fire, where it’s a shocking black. The flames are so close I can feel the heat through the minivan window. My thighs glue themselves to the ripped vinyl seat, while my sweaty arm sticks to my wife’s skin.

Ten hours later, we reach the Siem Reap bus station. Guys on motorbikes circle the parking lot, calling out the price of a ride into town. Tired and pissed, we are not in the mood to bargain. We will walk to town, however long it takes. “Okay,” one guy says, once he sees we’re serious. “I will take you.”

***

When we found the Golden Banana listed in Lonely Planet, we couldn’t resist making reservations. It was a gay hotel, which meant we could hold hands across the breakfast table and not worry about the consequences.

The Golden Banana was a gay hotel, which meant we could hold hands across the breakfast table and not worry about the consequences.

Since arriving in Southeast Asia, we’ve been discreet — a contrast to our everyday behavior, and a weird way to act on honeymoon. So when we walk up to the front desk and greet the effeminate clerk, I’m excited. Here, at last, are my people!

As if reading my enthusiasm, the clerk grins. “Good evening, so nice to see you. Would you like some iced tea?”

I smile back. “That would be great.” Cold drinks that magically appear, a friendly face that isn’t trying to rip me off, the company of other gay folks…perhaps my day is turning around?

The clerk types our name into the computer and confirms our plans for a guided tour of Angkor Wat in the morning. “Now, would you like one bed or two?”

“One,” my wife says.

He types, his face impassive. “We have lots of rooms. Two beds is no problem.”

“Yeah, we want one bed.” My wife flashes me a look. Are we not speaking clearly?

I shrug. Are we the only lesbians to find the Golden Banana?

He leads us to an inner courtyard, where large pots of bougainvillea surround bright red doors. It’s a charming scene, one that wouldn’t be out of place back home, in Boston. Our room is not much larger than a queen bed, but there are silk throw pillows and cute lanterns and a decent bathroom, the first we’ve had all day. We need to freshen up and clean out that gash on my wife’s leg. While I dig through my backpack for our first-aid supplies, my wife sits on the bed and says, “That was weird.”

Over the last three weeks of travel through Thailand and Laos, we’ve grown used to insisting on a room with one bed. We never expected that we’d have to do that at a gay hotel, or that the gay-appearing, gay-acting desk clerk would give us the same confused runaround as everyone else in Southeast Asia.

We shrug it off and walk to the old market area for dinner. Down a pedestrian alleyway that’s parallel to Pub Street, a touristy strip lined with backpacker bars, there’s a wine bar that serves French-Cambodian cuisine. We order cheese and a bottle of wine.

Servers fuss over us. Wine smoothes the day’s rough edges and the cheese plate is indulgent, accompanied by honeycomb and nuts. We drop our guards for the first time since crossing the border and dig in. We’ve started to feel like ourselves again when out of the corner of my eye, I spot a pride flag across the alley. There’s a gay bar opposite the restaurant, and it hosts nightly drag shows. We can’t resist the chance to see what drag looks like in Cambodia, but we’re too tired to go now. “Another night,” my wife says.

The next morning, as we take breakfast by the pool before visiting the Angkor temples, we spot the owner of the Golden Banana trimming the shrubbery. His photo and biography are included with the hotel marketing materials in our room. His parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he was adopted by an Australian couple. As an adult, he returned to Cambodia and opened this hotel. I love that he moved back to his home country, that he’s an entrepreneur providing high-paying tourism jobs for locals, but how does he cope with what happened? The realization hits me: Anyone we meet who is over 40, more or less, will have their own Khmer Rouge history. I can’t ask about their past — it doesn’t feel right, it’s too personal — but I can’t ignore it.

***

Halfway through our guided temple tour, we visit Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, where strangler figs grow through the ancient ruins. Their tangled roots swallow the stones, which are cast aside like a forgotten game of jacks. The site is eerily beautiful, suggesting how the Angkor temple complex looked before conservation, but it’s hard to take in through the frenzy of bucket-list tourists.

We have Banteay Srei — nicknamed the women’s temple for its ornate carvings of female deities — to ourselves for 15 minutes. Then a tour bus arrives and 30 Chinese tourists line up by a crumbling stupa, waiting their turn to grab the same photo.

When my wife pulls me around the side of the pink-hued temple so we can lose the crowds, we’re swarmed by street kids. “Postcards, lady?” one scrawny kid asks. Another boy cuts in, his grubby hands full of jewelry. I’m irritated with their parents, who force these kids to beg outside the temples rather than attend school, along with guilty travelers who fall for baby formula scams in the night market, and others who don’t barter with tuk-tuk drivers but agree to pay any price for a ride, not realizing their money reinforces the handout culture that seems to be everywhere in Cambodia. The children pester us until someone else comes along, when they race toward them. I’m too annoyed to enjoy the rest of our visit.


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Our last stop is a Hindu holy site known as the river of a thousand lingas. From the parking area, it’s a 30-minute hike through the woods to reach the sacred riverbed. We have the place to ourselves, so we hold hands. The woods are shaded and cool, their quiet cut by the whisper of water. The river is narrow and unassuming. Squinting into the shadows of a dry-season riverbed, I see nothing until sunlight hits the water. In a magic eye trick, the river’s rocky bottom reveals itself as a series of worn linga carvings.

Women come to bathe in this river in hopes of increasing their fertility, since the water turns holy as it flows over the phallic carvings. It’s beautiful and strange, and all ours. We wander along the riverbed, picking out faded Shiva carvings in the dappled sunlight. The centuries-old carvings are so weathered, they almost disappear into the rock. The moss that shades the figures adds to the sense of charming disrepair.

At the main Angkor complex, different countries are sponsoring conservation efforts; their flags adorn the ancient temples in celebration of international partnerships. The practice has roots in colonialism, when Cambodia was part of French Indochina, but even with hefty admission fees, Cambodia can’t afford the restorations without international assistance. The river isn’t part of the conservation program, and poachers come in the night to chisel off carvings for sale on the black market.

The realization hits me: Anyone we meet who is over 40, more or less, will have their own Khmer Rouge history.

The foot path ends at a small waterfall. We climb down and dip our feet in the cool water, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. I could care less about fertility. But if the rest of the temples felt like this, Cambodia might be beautiful. Wanting to see another side of Siem Reap, we extend our stay for another day, taking a tour of a silk farm social enterprise that provides vocational training for rural Cambodians. On the free shuttle to the silk farm, we listen to the other tourists as they chatter, hoping to pick up tips for Phnom Penh, our next stop. The silk farm draws an older crowd, except for one Czech girl in her early 20s, who carries on about an incredible circus performance offered by another social enterprise. She is so taken with the youth performers that she’s decided to move to Cambodia to volunteer with the circus; after this, she’s headed back to Prague to tell her parents about her new life path. Her voice breaks with passion as she urges the older women to attend the circus. I marvel at the country’s array of social enterprises. It seems as if everything has been monetized in a do-gooder way, like the whole world is helping Cambodia rise. And yet, beggars and scam artists are everywhere.

At the silk farm, women care for silkworms and harvest their cocoons. The cocoons are steamed — allowing them to hatch would destroy the fibers — then spun into silk on spinning wheels made of wood and bicycle parts. Silk weaving is a traditional Khmer craft that suffered in the country’s civil war years, when native mulberry trees — the silkworms’ food source — were cut down. Now the ancient art is revitalized, and rural women learn artisan skills and receive a fair wage to support their families. I’d love to buy a scarf, but they’re out of our price range.

***

On our last night in town, we visit the gay bar. The crowd is mixed: older white men nurse drinks at the bar, while chatty backpackers hunch in booths, drawn here by cheap drinks rather than a drag performance. The queens are immaculate in satin gowns trimmed with rhinestones and feathers. They lip sync to Pink and Lady Gaga, and we wave crumpled dollar bills.

The whiskey goes straight to my head. This is the gayest thing I’ve done in Asia, and I’m too tired to stay awake for it. I drift off to sleep with my head in my wife’s lap, lulled by familiar comforts. For queer travelers, I figure, our home is one another.

In Phnom Penh, it takes an hour by tuk-tuk to go the six miles to our hotel. We’re dropped off in a construction zone with no sidewalks and dust everywhere. As we wait to check in, an English-speaking expat cuts in front of us. “You need to speak to my housekeeper,” the woman demands, handing her cell phone to the staff. We drop our luggage to the floor, shocked, as the desk clerk provides cleaning instructions in Khmer. Instead of a thank-you, the expat gripes about the quality of domestic staff before rejoining her family by the swimming pool.

I watch the expat and her family as they laze by the pool, taking an interest because her sister is queer and we haven’t met any other gay tourists. Content to splash around and drink the days away, the expat and her family never seem to leave the hotel. We came to Cambodia to see the ancient temples, and we came to Phnom Penh to bear witness to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. I’m not normally drawn to dark tourism, but it feels like the right thing to do. My wife is Jewish, and we’re both queer, so in a way, it’s honoring ancestors.

We set out for the Killing Fields by motorcycle — nine miles of weaving through city traffic without helmets. Cambodians cram entire families onto a single motorcycle, but they tend to be short and skinny, and they’ve got plenty of practice. I press against our driver, trying to take up as little space as possible, all the while praying that my wife won’t go flying off the back of the bike if we hit a bump.

We somehow arrive at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in one piece. The rutted parking lot is surrounded by snack shops with signs for Coca-Cola and Cambodia beer. The tourist amenities give off the impression of a theme park.

Khmer Rouge officials chose the site, originally a Chinese burial ground, for its out-of-the-way location, our rented audio guide explains. Prisoners were brought here after being told they were “going to a new house.” They were bludgeoned with whatever was handy — machetes or garden tools — and shoved in a mass grave. Soldiers ran a generator, which powered lights and speakers that played revolutionary music to mask the screams of the dying and give off the impression a Khmer Rouge meeting was taking place, a ruse that deterred area residents from investigating. A truckload of prisoners was dispatched efficiently — names cross-checked to ensure completeness — and a new pit was dug.

I’m touched by the survivors’ stories, which are incorporated in the audio guide. One man recalls landing in a Khmer Rouge prison as a teenager, after he stole food for his pregnant sister. Prisoners were forced into nightly confessions, and when they ran out of crimes to confess, they were executed. Another prisoner, an old man, begged the guards to release the teen because of his youth. The guards freed him and executed his protector. There’s a pond behind the burial site, which is speckled with lily pads. I don’t know where the teenager was held, but I imagine him running through the pond, on his way to freedom. I imagine a family member was left at home to receive him. I hold the anecdote close, as if doing so can put greater distance between past and present.

The mass graves here were emptied in 1980, and forensic testing helped to identify the victims. Their remains are inside a memorial stupa, which is surrounded by a fragrant butterfly garden. Each time it rains, scraps of cloth and bleached bones rise up from the dirt. These are collected and placed inside the stupa. Stacked together, the bones have the feel of a museum collection — a teaching object, perhaps.

As we exit, I spot a couple of genocide survivors. A line of tourists wait to pose for photos with them.

***

After the Killing Fields, we go shopping. We buy gifts for our relatives, and we get foot massages from women who were freed from sex trafficking. While the social enterprise handicraft stores suggest that I can do good and treat myself, I’m skeptical. If I’d been saved from sex trafficking, I’d like to forget about that chapter of my life. If these women want to keep their jobs, they can’t forget. For all its good intentions, does the social enterprise model uphold a colonial paradigm, where it forces locals into dependent roles and centers a helpful and knowledgeable foreign power as savior, one that rescues women from sex tourism jobs but leaves their bodies on display for Western consumption? Am I doing tourism porn, with orgasm replaced with the rush of a good bargain? The hawkers at the night market call out to me: “Buy something, lady.”

I want Cambodia to be a viable vacation destination without parlaying its hard-luck past for pity and tourist dollars. I have hopes for the area along the Tonle Sap River, where expats and backpackers swap road stories on the terraced decks of the Foreign Correspondents Club. The neighborhood’s French colonial architecture and gilt-edged Royal Palace, which is home to the Khmer king, suggest Cambodia’s past can be a source of pride. Where the Tonle Sap flows into the Mekong, and tradition mixes with innovation, I might glimpse a more expansive future for the capital city. With luck I’ll also spot a local ritual: Khmer women doing group aerobics in a riverfront park.

While tourists are allowed to join in, the flash-mob style fitness classes are a homegrown quirk of Phnom Penh life –– and one that centers an often invisible demographic, middle-aged women. Beyond the feel-good pop tunes blasting from an old boombox, there’s something life-giving about the scene: exercise is an indulgence; it means you’re more than getting by.

First we’ve got to reach the riverfront. The streets are choked with motorbikes and the sidewalks are full of trash. As vendors hose off their stoops, the water carries garbage toward us. My flip-flops splash funk all over my calves as we pick our way toward the river. I’m filthy and cranky by the time we reach the walled-off Royal Palace compound.

Needing a break from sweet curries, we grab Mexican food. The food is alright, but the place feels like any cheap Tex-Mex joint in the States, with screeching drunk tourists hoovering frozen margaritas and greasy chips. The tourists remind me of the expats at our hotel.

We hope the night might be redeemed. There’s a gay bar nearby called Blue Chili. We stop by in search of one last drink and a cultural connection. The bar is quiet. A bright light shines on an empty stage; older white men perched on bar stools scan the room. The atmosphere here feels thick with anticipation, but I’m too drained from our excursion to the Killing Fields to stay up for another drag show. All I want is a tall beer and the company of other LGBTQ folks.

The men bristle as we approach the bar. They’re put off by something, our youth or our gender. My mind wanders to dark places, wondering if something salacious isn’t on offer here, alongside karaoke and drag shows. We whisper about whether to stay or go before drifting toward the patio tables outside. The night feels unresolved, and anyway the bar is preferable to our hotel.

Our waiter is fresh-faced and skinny. He speaks English well, so as he drops off our drinks, we ask him something we’ve wondered since checking into the Golden Banana. Where are the gay ladies of Cambodia? I point to my wife, then myself, hoping to clear up any confusion.

He is quiet for a minute — and I start to think I will have to explain the very real concept of gay ladies — and then he says, “It’s more difficult for them. It’s not so accepted here for women to be like that.”

As he joins us on the bench, he says that Cambodian culture is socially conservative. Homosexuality is legal, and the country is popular on the gay travel circuit, but few Cambodians are openly gay. There are some gay women who have arrangements with gay men, he says. Sham marriages, where both partners take lovers but live together to give off the appearance of a straight couple. Other gay women are forced into straight marriages by their families, who believe there’s no future for women who love women. Cambodia’s Prime Minister disowned his adopted daughter for living with a woman. The family unit, traditionally a safe space, seems like it’s the source of oppression for gay Cambodians.

“They can be gay if they go overseas, maybe, but not here,” our waiter adds. So many go — to where, he doesn’t say. Others find work in the garment factories of big cities. They can live with their girlfriends in factory housing and send money home to their families — a cultural compromise, it seems.

Our waiter is from the countryside, and he isn’t out to his family. A distant relative let him know about this bar, so he moved to Phnom Penh for work. His eyes sparkle as he tells us about his boyfriend, a German guy he met at the bar who comes to visit now and then. “I’m going to go over there to be with him,” he insists, scrolling through his phone when we ask to see a picture.

My wife tells him about gay culture back home, trying to show him what his options might be like if he leaves, like the gay ladies of Cambodia. How we are married, and how we traveled here on our honeymoon.

Our waiter seems resigned to leave his country, and I wonder how much of that is his boyfriend’s influence, how much is the conservative culture, and how much is any young person wanting to see the world.

As our waiter drops off our drinks, we ask him something we’ve wondered since checking into the Golden Banana: Where are the gay ladies of Cambodia?

Not that he makes enough to afford the flight. Seventy-one percent of Cambodians live on less than $3 a day. A foreign boyfriend seems like a golden ticket, and maybe what’s playing out inside the bar is a gay version of the arrangement we’ve seen elsewhere, where a young local beauty takes up with an older foreign man.

When the bartender leaves us to get back to work, we trade smiles. The bar has given us the connection we needed, and we set aside a large tip in exchange. With the patio to ourselves, we discuss where to go next. We’ve got two more weeks of travel. We could stay here for a few more days, maybe head south to see the pepper plantations in Kampot, but that would mean another overland journey. We’ve seen all we can stand to see of Phnom Penh. It might be better to push on. We’ll try our luck in Saigon.

Back at the hotel, while we make our travel reservations, the gay ladies of Cambodia whirl in my mind. They exist; that’s a relief. Even if we haven’t met them, it gives me hope to know the gay ladies of Cambodia are out there — and to think there’s a network to safety for them, to help them find a place they can live without hiding.

It’s not foreigners who are helping this time, either. It’s a homegrown initiative. I wonder whether it’s a kind relative, as with our waiter, or if other gay women are paying it forward.

While the gay ladies of Cambodia are leaving to get free, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re fleeing. Or giving up too soon. We’ve closed our eyes to so much, have we missed the good? I think back to the Czech woman in Siem Reap, the one who ran away with the circus. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do want to remember this place differently.

My pack is overloaded with scarves and jewelry, purchased to offset my discomfort with genocide tourism. I can’t get the zipper closed. “Give it time,” my wife suggests, coming to help me with the bag. “They need another couple decades.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I say, shouldering my backpack. While the constant scams and hustles speak of cracks in the facade, there’s ingenuity here, too. I can’t put into words the complexity of my feelings about this place. All I can do is throw dollars at the people who try to help — the drag queens, the charity shop owners — and situate my discomfort in context: culture, history, my own journey. I’ve learned a lot about Cambodia’s specific, dark history, but there are worlds here I don’t know — will never know. The gay ladies remind me of that — one final lesson for the road.

* * *

Lindsey Danis is a writer living in the Hudson Valley, whose writing has appeared in Brain Mill Press Voices, ROVA, Taproot, and Food+City, among other places. She’s currently working on a novel about a family’s search for their daughter, who goes missing while on a gap year in Southeast Asia.

Editor: Sari Botton