I’m in Bangkok at the birthday party of someone I don’t know.
A couple that I met yesterday on the sidewalk and shared a beer with invited me.
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The birthday girl is an expat from Ohio who works as a tour guide in Saigon.
Her friend and coworker is an Australian girl whose boyfriend is from Cambodia.
His name is Don and he speaks English with a painfully adorable mottled Cambodian-Australian accent.
The birthday girl, her friend, and Don all work in the tourism industry so they’re used to having travelers hanging around and it shows; they immediately dispel my awkward traveler’s anxiety with smiles and questions, and a stiff gin and tonic. I try again: “If you like a girl, how do you start talking to her? But now, everyone goes to school and they live life by their own self.
Drunk Frenchman adds seriously, “Yeah, girls in Cambodia, they have sex only after 20.” Don considers and agrees, “Yeah maybe now, you can get married at 18. If you’ve got money, you can.” I ask how old the boys are when they start going to get prostitutes and the question seems to trouble him a bit.
You cannot have sex before you get married.” So I ask if young boys go to prostitutes for sex. “You know in Cambodia they grow up really quick now, so it’s the same as … they start at 12 or 13.” The Drunk Frenchman corrects him, “No, no!
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Their French friend is there too and he is quite drunk and happy to be entertaining everybody. ” Don looks at me, exhales patiently, and explains that in Cambodian culture, chatting up girls is not really a thing. They get more smart.” He explains that he thought the Khmer Rouge made people “stupid” by limiting their worldview.
Halfway into my drink I work up the nerve to ask Don if I can interview him about dating in Cambodia and he agrees albeit hesitantly. But, he says that it has changed a bit since when he was young. I ask if you can be gay in Cambodia and he says, “Oof, yeah, it’s really hard. It’s not…” He looks up, searching for a word, “polite.” He says it’s not widely accepted in Cambodia and that he’d even seen gay boys “smashed in the face” for being gay. ” Seizing the moment, and Don’s long wild hair in his hands the Drunk Frenchman informs me, “Hey!
He has three Cambodian friends with him also, sitting at one end of the table speaking Cambodian amongst themselves. I’m not sure if they’re saying no or just shaking their heads at me as in “hell no, you crazy American.” I think it was both. He presumes that because there have been more tourists and because the politics have changed (this is the first era of relative peace in Cambodia after decades of war, occupation and brutal dictatorship), more Cambodians are educated and “understand about the world.” It’s the same, he says, “as you want to know ‘how about Cambodia? ” He explains that when he was young most girls would only have sex with one man in their whole lives. But then he looks up again for a while and shakes his head side to side, weighing his thoughts. Hopefully there will be more change to be more open.” “For me” he says, “ I feel like I don’t care, you know? You are gay and you have to be a man.’ It’s not like that!