We first came to Phnom Penh 10 years ago. It was our honeymoon, and Cambodia’s capital was the first stop on our 12-day Intrepid tour. November was hot, humid, & bustling. Jet-lagged, we headed straight out of our hotel with a few hours to kill before the welcome dinner. We soon discovered clear footpaths were a luxury not afforded most streets. If they did exist, they were turned over to sidewalk restaurants, mechanics workshops or moto parking lots.
We were an oddity, walking the length of the main street, waving away the constant refrain of, 'Hello, you want tuk tuk?' But we were instantly captivated by the steaming, chaotic city and its surprisingly relaxed inhabitants. There wasn’t much development then; a few shiny banks & less than a handful of high-end hotels.
Fast forward to 2019 & the change is evident. As with Hanoi, the juxtaposition of old & new is stark. But now, the city that seemed frantic to us ten years ago feels different. The pace of life remains far less frenetic than Hanoi. This city, though busy, is more chilled.
We meet with Dirk de Graaff, who owns the Rambutan with his partner Tum Hantitipart. We’re hoping to gain a Westerner’s tips on the gay scene here & to avoid any rookie mistakes, like the one we made ten years ago. (More on that later.)
There's a divide between the city LBGTQI and the rural; the two rarely intersect. Dirk stresses that it's not a community in the sense that we know. We ask about gay bars, having noticed that Blue Chilli has been around since 2006. Most of the others sputter into life and close within two years, he tells us. Finding a lesbian bar is hard. We ask about The L Bar, opened in 2016 by two French women - closed. 'All I know about the lesbian scene is that they head off on motorbikes & go somewhere', says Dirk. ‘I saw a documentary about it once. I don’t know how it works.’
Sarah has a sheepish smile on her face; it’s time to fess up about our one and only attempt to find a lesbian bar in Cambodia, on our last night in Phnom Penh, all those years ago.
At the mere mention of the Pussycat Bar, Dirk collapses in laughter. Seems we don’t have to explain all that much. Our tour guide of 2009 helpfully suggested a bar to us that he thought lesbians could go to. Pussycat Bar - it sounded cute. Somehow we managed to pick up a tuk tuk driver from our hotel who was clearly a screaming queen. ‘Pussycat Bar!’, he trilled, as we tucked ourselves in behind him. We’d dressed down for the evening, in our standard tourist guise of knee-length shorts and long-sleeved shirts. We’d made the mistake previously of dressing up to go to a gay bar in Siem Reap and found everyone was in t-shirts and jeans, so we figured the Cambodian scene was more relaxed.
Our tuk tuk pulls up outside a narrow entranceway, lit with neon, the pavement in front crowded with moto and with some big guys dressed in leather. We head down the stairs to find more neon lighting a narrow bar, a large pool table, and about a dozen girls. They’re all young, they’re all gorgeous, with long, flowing hair, they’re all immaculately made-up, and they’re all wearing very short skirts.
We like to think we don’t stereotype, but we’re pretty surprised at how different Khmer lesbians look to those we’ve met around the rest of the world. We sit at the bar, feeling seriously under-dressed, and look over the menu, trying to make bright conversation with the bartender. They don’t have most of the drinks listed on the menu. As we peruse it, we find a semicircle of girls closing in on us. One in particular seats herself next to Mel and starts asking questions - ‘Where are you from?’ We feel like somehow this cultural exchange isn’t panning out quite as we’d expect.
The girls are looking at us expectantly. They seem to be much more interested in Mel than in Sarah, but it’s clear the ringleted lass doing most of the talking has adopted her, and the other girls slowly drop away as her pout deepens. They try and entice us off the bar stools, to which we are firmly rooted, to play pool. Mel, quite keen on pool from her days as a university chorister, isn't going anywhere, despite encouragement (from Sarah included, who knows her wife likes pool). Mel later confesses she wasn’t bending over a pool table for anybody. By this point we both think there’s definitely something going on we can’t fathom, finish our drinks and pay up. We thank the girls and depart.
As we leave, the burly guys in black leather hustle for our business: ‘Moto?’ ‘Tuk tuk!’ shrieks our driver, waving his hands in the air and leading us across the road to his vehicle at a trot. On the way home, he tries to convince us to go to a drag show at Blue Chilli, but we’re done for the night.
Back in our hotel room, Mel confesses she really needed the bathroom but was too scared to make a move. Sarah says the same, and we both shake our heads and laugh.
It takes ten years for us to find out about ‘hostess bars’, and by that point, Dirk is laughing about as hard as we did. Oops.