As the orange sunrise peaks through the worn out walls of the Angkor Wat temple, the province of Siem Reap, Cambodia wakes up to start a brand new day.
This spontaneously planned trip with two of my colleagues was by all means a budget trip. Staying in a cheap hostel, eating authentic street-side Khmer food by the Old Market, and visiting the Angkor Wat temples and other neighboring temples, were just some of the bucket list plans for this four day vacation away from our course work.
A Google search will give you great tips on purchasing cheap souvenirs and memorabilia from the Old Market and Night Market in central Siem Reap. For $64, a three-day ticket, you’d be given the extraordinary opportunity to explore the Angkor Wat temple complex, which has close to 50 varying structures.
Angkor Wat was originally built to be a Hindu temple for the god Vishnu and only later became a Buddhist temple. The architecture is an amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist symbols engraved deep into the solid rock walls. I learned that the ‘linga’ and phallic shaped towers and the temple’s architecture represents the meeting of heaven and earth (of male and female). It represents divine processes of creation and regeneration and the unity of the feminine and the masculine.
Other tourist destinations, like the Angkor National Museum, Cambodian Cultural Village and the Tonle Sap floating village will get you an over-all experience of Siem Reap.
Queering Siem Reap, a rough guide
However, while all those in our bucket list being integral to the over-all Siem Reap experience, the adept queer traveller would not complete a trip without having to visit the gay destinations in town.
Let’s talk about some of the LGBTIQ-friendly and owned establishments in Siem Reap. Disclaimer this list is not exhaustive and only includes the places that we visited. A vibrant Khmer LGBTIQ+ community awaits you in queer Siem Reap.
Siem Reap’s Pubstreet offers a festive ang colorful nightlife. I highly recommend two really distinct places for those who like to drink hard and party even harder. Miss Wong Cocktail Bar is a cozy Chinese’s themed lounge.
Classic Asian influence inspires the selection of beverages and dishes in this bar’s menu. Miss Wong is located just within Pubstreet. For those who prefer more flamboyant entertainment coupled with a wide-array of alcoholic beverages, come to Barcode Siem Reap. T
his nightclub offers drag shows and unique Khmer entertainment from their resident performers and DJs. I find the place rather quaint because of its small space and location (only because it’s a little further away from Pubstreet), but also because it’s one of the very few LGBTIQ+ locations in Siem Reap
The Hangout and ‘I Am What I Am’
This trip was satisfying, getting to see the historical (and not so historical) sights of Siem Reap. However as a passionate LGBTIQ+ activist, I was looking for something a little bit more on the social responsibility and local LGBTIQ+ advocacy side of things. There was a great community around with LGBTIQ+ friendly establishments, but what is the local community doing to forward LGBTIQ+ rights?
Then on our second to last day, still feeling a little bit unsatisfied with my queer tour, I simply Googled about their local pride march, which they have every month of May since 2015. Over the course of my very rough research, I found a place called The Hangout, which was one of the yearly hosting partners of the pride march.
I found out that The Hangout was hosting as special community event in conjunction with The Chicken Coop podcast. The Chicken Coop is a weekly podcast, posted in audioboom.com, featuring discussions with locals and expats about social issues and Siem Reap life. The show aims to bring the local Khmer community and the expats and foreigners that were living in or visiting Siem Reap.
Coincidentally (as if the rainbow gods heard my prayers), the said event was on the same day. So off we went.
We found ourselves in a homey and welcoming little cafe, a ten minute walk from Pubstreet. We were greeted by decorative rainbow lettering and a friendly staff.
Attendees heard testimonies from community leaders across Cambodia, including Pros Nix, the founder of I Am What I Am, a campaign which seeks to raise awareness and support for the LGBTIQ community here in Cambodia. The campaign which is part of the over-all Cambodia Pride March celebration is an empowering step in creating inclusive and safe spaces for the Khmer LGBTIQ community.
Another inspiring thing about this event is that it was organized as a fundraiser initiative for ‘A Place To Be Yourself – APTBY’.
Discovering A Place To Be Yourself – APTBY
APTBY is a safe place for Khmer LGBTIQ+ individuals that fosters a safe knowledge sharing and peer support environment on basic information, health care and human rights. They aim to challenge preconceived stereotypes and fight against the discrimination of the Khmer LGBTIQ community. They offer private counselling sessions and community support capacity building.
Donations at the community event went to supporting the APTBY platform as their continue their services for the local community.
Jason Argenta is APTBY’s founder and director APTBY and was part of the panel discussion on the night. There is so much passion and enthusiasm in the concept behind APTBY that acknowledges the need to provide services on issues like sexuality and gender, isolation, family issues and substance abuse. One might not even recognize that in this small touristy destination a local-led non-government organization is providing much needed support for the community.
Along with several other panelists during the community event, they shared their struggles living in conservative Cambodia. Guests shared stories about pressure from family members to conform to gender norms and the occasional discrimination from the general public.
These narratives are important when we talk about the need for places like APTBY in or own communities.
Siem Reap is a young ‘queer’ hub
I think because I’ve been living in Thailand now and whilst it is a more liberal and open society, there is still so much work that needs to be done in a place like Siem Reap where the community is fairly young, in terms of having a ‘queer’ scene.
Regretfully I didn’t get to visit the APTBY center but that will surely be part of my agenda next time I visit Siem Reap. I am coming home to Thailand fulfilled that I got to meet the local LGBTIQ community and was even luck enough to actually attend one of their events. It was worthwhile and I highly recommend many of the places and locations I mentioned above. Come to Siem Reap a vibrant LGBTIQ community awaits you.
Justin Francis Bionat is a Masters degree student from Mahidol University, Thailand. He is as a project officer at Youth Voices Count, a regional network of young LGBTIQ individuals working on human rights advocacy. Justin is the LGBTIQ representative of the United Nations Youth Advisory Board (UNYAB) in the Philippines. He is passionate about coffee and everything queer.