taken us five hours to drive the 300 km from Phnom Penh and we're relaxing
over a beer while waiting for our lunch. The day is hot, but we're
cooled by a fan and we're enjoying our surroundings in this quiet
backwater, surrounded by trees and plants and the newly-built chalets.
Siem Reap, Cambodia, May 2004: It's the middle of the day and five of us are having lunch in the
courtyard of the Golden Banana, Siem Reap's (and probably Cambodia's)
only "gay-friendly" hotel (click on the picture on the right). Angkor
Wat is under twenty miles away, but I've been there twice before and
this is a business trip. There's Sophat, my contact on this fact-finding
trail; Phearum, my translator; a colleague of Sophat's and our driver,
both of whom have names that I have not been able to catch. It's
The Golden Banana
For most of the journey, as my four companions talked and joked in
Khmer, I stared out of the window at the endless plain we drove across,
criss-crossed by dried up rice paddies and punctuated at intervals by
tall palm trees. Every so often we drove through a village or small
town. The houses were on stilts, the older, wooden ones with palm leaf
roofs, perched on rickety dead tree trunks that threatened to collapse
under the first wind, the newer ones trim and smart on their upright
concrete pillars. Motorbikes were the affordable and ubiquitous
transportation, except for the hordes of white-shirted and blue skirted
or -trousered schoolchildren who flooded the roads on their ancient
Over lunch, however, I could bring the conversation back to English and
the goal of my trip: to learn what was known about the sexual networks
of men who have sex with men in Cambodia. In almost every meeting I had
had, however, I had tripped over the problem that nobody seemed sure
what we were talking about. Yes, men had sex with men in Cambodia, but
there were two kinds of such men: short hair and long hair. otherwise
known as srey sros ("pretty girls") and pros saat
("handsome men"). Pretty girls with their long hair and feminine
mannerisms can't hide in Khmer society, while short haired handsome
men can pretend that they really love women. That much was agreed on -
eventually - but other problems arose. Are short hairs really men who
haven't grown their hair long, as one informant suggested? Does
"handsome men" refer to all men, or only the men who have sex with men,
or only the men who have sex with men and are willing to admit it? And
what's this division between MSM (men who have sex with men - an acronym
I have long disliked: read here) and "real men", who also have
sex with men?
To try and cut through the confusion, I'd arranged to meet Chart. P.
Cambodia's gay activist, the evening before coming to Siem Reap. Chart,
a short, intense, energetic designer who has spent half his life in the
US, surely had both the Western and Khmer perspective to explain the
situation to me. So sitting in the Black Eagle, Phnom Penh's (and
Cambodia's) only exclusively gay bar, half-watching the part time rent
boys play pool, I listened to Chart's explanation of terms. Listened,
and had my suspicions confirmed. There is uncertainty over terms,
because not only are terms new, but so is the concept. The idea of men
having sex is new in Cambodian society. The closest Khmer can get to the
idea is kteuy, a term close in meaning to transgender. Only
kteuy is more of an insult than a statement or a compliment and
those who would once be called kteuy now prefer the term pretty
Chart's hair was definitely short. What do you call yourself in Khmer, I
asked him. Short hair? Gay? He shook his head. A man who loves men. Not
MSM he insisted - in either English or Khmer. Not sex. Love is better
than sex. So what was the Khmer term he put on the leaflets of the
parties he organised? Man-love-man. Women-love-women for lesbian. And
pretty girl for transgenders - except not all pretty girls are
transgenders. but that's another detail that gets lost in the
Wind forward 16 hours to the Golden Banana. What, I asked Phearum, was
the transliteration of the Khmer term for a man / men who love(s) men (Khmer is one of the lucky languages that doesn't have a
plural form.) He took a pen and my notepad and wrote boros sralanh
boros. It's very long, I said. Maybe it will be supplanted by "gay".
He and Sophat shook their heads. "Gay" is too foreign, too suggestive of
pretty girl. But boros sralanh boros doesn't trip off the tongue easily,
I pointed out. You could say bros sralanh bros Phearum suggested.
Two syllables shorter, but still a mouthful. Some new term is bound to
emerge, I said, something to describe the emerging awareness of both
short and long hairs that there is a community, and potentially a
culture of men have have sex with / love men. Something short and
snappy. How about bor sor bor? Phearum suggested; more
accurately, sincewrittenCambodiandoesnotseparatewords - borsorbor.
Like MSM but nicer, said Sophat, more Khmer and less emphasis on sex. As
our two other companions listened, Sophat and Phearum repeated the word
several times. They liked it. They could see it catching on. "Are you
borsorbor?" Sophat asked. Maybe, said the driver. More like
borsorbeer, I suggested, indicating his glass. He smiled and nodded.
So now we have a Khmer word for MSM, Sophat said. No! I said, you don't.
There's a difference. Borsorbor are men who want to have sex with
them. But lots of MSM only have sex with men for money, or because there
are no women around. I had heard enough stories in the previous 48 hours
to convince me that there was an epidemic of drunken, nominally
heterosexual men being waylaid late at night in the toilets of bars by
long-hair, and sometimes short-haired, men looking for quick sexual
partners. Men who prefer women aren't borsorbor. Sophat nodded
doubtfully. Well, I thought, it doesn't really matter. You can't dictate
how a word is used, particularly when it isn't your language. Anyway,
for the first time in my life, I had been present at the birth of a
neologism; for history's sake and mention in future editions of the
Khmer version of the Oxford English Dictionary, I noted the date: it was
Wednesday 12 May 2004 - A Day That Should Go Down In History.
History is history because time passes. Three hours later the three of
us were in the suburbs, in the yard of an anonymous house that served as
the offices and training grounds for Long Hairs who learned about
HIV/AIDS to pass on the information to their friends and peers. They
talked about their lives and their dreams. They were all young, and all
dressed very effeminately and all wanted "real men" as their longterm
partners, but although they sometimes called themselves Pretty Girls,
they didn't want to have a sex change, at least partly because they had
heard that those who did become women died young. One was in tears every
night because her boyfriend was marrying a real woman that day; another
bore the parallel scars on her arm that told of the time when deeply
unhappy she had cut herself; a third joked about how she was beaten up by
a gang of men offended by his effeminacy and how she had managed to run
away; others, no doubt, had been raped but did not talk about it. All
were proud of the work they were doing with both long and short hair,
telling them about HIV and how to protect themselves, and proud of
standing up in the community and saying I am a Pretty Girl - respect me.
As the sun set, Sophat, Phearum and the group leader drove off into the
countryside and eventually down a dusty dirt track through a small
forest, passing the occasional man on a bicycle or shack where a young
woman sat patiently to sell a rare customer stopped a can of something
or packet of something else. Here and there in the fading light through
the trees could be spotted the poorest houses I had seen so far.
Eventually we turned off the road and drove through an arch that marked
the entry to a village and soon stopped. Small children, naked,
half-naked or in the dustiest old clothes watched we walked towards one
of the houses. At the back an old man in blue shorts and a body covered
in long-faded tattoos squatted on the ground hacking a piece of bamboo
into shape for a structure that I could not identify. He smiled an
acknowledgement at us and carried on his work.
In the next fifteen minutes, emerged out of the gloom, on foot or on
bicycle, over twenty youths, most in their
late teens, a few younger, to sit round a table in a small half-open hut in the corner
of the yard. Some greeted each other quietly, others sat and waited,
only a few glanced at the bald Westerner watching from a few feet away.
A small fluorescent light attached to an unseen energy source was
switched on. As Phearum whispered a translation to me, the son of the
man in blue shorts, a 25 year old primary school teacher, explained my
presence and said that today's topic was the impact of HIV on Cambodian
society. What did they think that impact would be?
They're not long-hair, I whispered to Sophat and the group leader, who
was watching. No, they're short hair. I looked again. A group of under
twenty year olds in rural Cambodia who identify as men who have sex with
men? Yes, this one had long fingernails, a couple had shirts that were
bright or well-tailored, another's mannerisms were gentle and
effeminate, one or two rested their arms on a friend's back. How many
villages do they come from? I asked. Three - about 700 families overall.
That meant 1 in 35 families had a young son who was becoming aware of
his different sexuality. Not only that, but there was a group that
welcomed him. And the teacher's family, I asked, they have no problem?
Well, the mother knows that they are borsorbor - that word again
- but the father thinks they're just talking about HIV.
The seminar was not going well - few seemed to understand the question
and the answers were vague. But they were all paying attention. Lack of
tv, I thought, lack of anything else to do - too dark to play football,
no money or too far to go into town. So why not join this group of
like-minded friends. There was a commotion above me. Against the night
sky, I could see the silhouette of man climbing a palm a few away. There
was a sawing sound and the thump as coconuts hit the ground. Five
minutes later, one was thrust into my hand, a hole pierced and a straw
inserted. It tasted good.
The teacher came up
and in good English asked what I thought. I could only be complimentary.
How do you get to know each other, I asked? At pagoda dances, he said.
We see someone standing on his own, we get to know him, we go and talk
to him, invite him to our meetings.
An hour later, I was on my way back to Siem Reap. I thought of gay rights groups back
in London and the US - the offices, the telephones, the computers, the
suits and the rolodexes detailing members of Parliament and Congress.
These young men had a long way to go before they felt comfortable
expressing themselves in their society, but some of them, I was sure,
would make it.
for more recent articles about gay life in Cambodia, click here
for another article about Angkor Wat Siem Reap, click here