The gay scene in Phnom Penh is not limited to drag, but err, I only took photos of drag queens.
I have been in Phnom Penh for a couple of months, and it’s taken me this long to put together my thoughts about the gay nightlife here and let you all know about it. I find that my travel experiences are greatly shaped by the places I have visited just before – before Phnom Penh I was in Saigon and I pretty much hated the place and there was little-to-no gay scene there in spite of it being much larger than Phnom Penh. Vietnam can be priggish like that. And so I was massively excited to reach the capital city of Cambodia because I had established from a little Googling in advance that the city has at least some kind of gay scene. Reaching a new gay bar and uncovering the local scene is obvs one of my favourite things to do on my travels, and even more exciting, I was arriving during Gay Pride week.
But here’s the thing. I haven’t managed to connect with the Phnom Penh gay scene at all. It’s a bit of a disappointment because in spite of feeling like I might not fit in with people and struggle to make connections in a hetero-normative environment, I’m usually much more relaxed in a gay bar. It is not really the fault of the specific bars in the city – the two of us just didn’t hit it off, even though I love so many other aspects about Phnom Penh.
So here is my breakdown of the main gay bars and clubs in Phnom Penh, and my experiences in each of them.
Blue Chilli is the most popular gay bar in town and it’s ideally situated by the National Museum, right in the heart of town on Street 178. When I first showed up it was a Tuesday, and so it wasn’t very busy. Still, the staff were pretty friendly and were just as welcoming every time I visited. Fridays and Saturdays are the time to come to this bar as the 11pm drag shows are incredibly popular and draw a large crowd. But whether it was empty or full, I found that people didn’t really want to speak here. Unless they were rent boys, which over half of the men who frequent the place are.
Just a stone’s throw from Blue Chili, this place doesn’t quite draw the same crowds. I can’t really say much more about it – the same rent boys are there, and the staff are friendly. There isn’t really anything special about the place.
Of the three main gay bars in Phnom Penh, Rainbow Bar is my favourite. This place is a little further north on Street 136, and it would seem that the guys working for money stick further south. Again, the staff are friendly, and the best thing about this place is that they have a drag show every single night of the week at 10pm. How bloody cool is that? Very. If you go on Monday you can join in with karaoke (they have a huge list of English songs, but no Spice Girls much to my dismay), and on a Tuesday you can enjoy $2 cocktails. A word of warning: after a night of downing $2 cocktails, I woke myself up by vomiting in my sleep – delightful. I felt comfortable here and would encourage you to have a drink with the friendly staff – the only big negative is that it hardly ever draws a crowd – you’ll pretty much always be drinking with just a couple of the barmen.
The night of the infamous $2 cocktails.
Wanna take yo’ gay self to the club? You have a couple of options. On Thursday nights, one of the biggest clubs in town, Pontoon, has a gay night. I went once and I couldn’t tell that it was a gay night at all – perhaps you will have better luck. The other late night place in town is the infamous Heart of Darkness. At this popular club on Street 51, you will often see young gay guys dancing on a Friday or Saturday night, but the club is not exclusively gay.
I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer about any local gay scene, and I saw that there were Khmer guys having a good time in these bars. And it’s also very cool that Cambodia has a far more developed gay scene than its neighbor, Vietnam. But I just couldn’t quite find my footing or make any gay friends here. If you visit this fantastic city, I hope you have better luck.