Zoe Mendelson is traveling the world, talking to friends and strangers about the messy, wonderful business of love. This series tracks her journey, highlighting the best of her encounters.
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. They have a few folding tables set up on the side of a quiet, dark street that’s more like an alley. They have a lot of food, and a lot of gin and a lot of tonic. 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. Their French friend is there too and he is quite drunk and happy to be entertaining everybody.
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. He has three Cambodian friends with him also, sitting at one end of the table speaking Cambodian amongst themselves. They all look like people that look young for their age. I ask them too but they are shy. They laugh and shake their heads. 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. They look at Don and say something in Cambodian, which I’m pretty sure is something to the effect of “you do it.”
I begin by asking ignorantly, “In Cambodia if you like a girl, how do you ask her on a date?”
Don shakes his head: “No! [Don’t] do that!!!”
The Drunk Frenchman interrupts: “Hay! Do you have any coconut trees in Cambodia?” He busts out in a husky giggle.
I try again: “If you like a girl, how do you start talking to her?”
Don looks at me, exhales patiently, and explains that in Cambodian culture, chatting up girls is not really a thing. But, he says that it has changed a bit since when he was young. 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?’ Cambodians want to know how about you too!”
He explains that when he was young most girls would only have sex with one man in their whole lives. There was no real culture of “dating,” as in taking girls out on dates; “it’s not like you would just take a girl out to hang out.”
So I ask: “Now, in Cambodia can you talk to a girl? And how do you talk to her?”
The drunk Frenchman interrupts again: “You say I’m gonna put you under the coconut tree!!!”
Don, ignoring the Frenchman, continues explaining, “You can try to get her phone number and talk to her but you don’t invite her out on a date. You can say, ‘Hey, where do you want to go? I will follow you.’” Girls almost always decide where the date will be. Men are “chiller now and give more control to the girl.”
But then he clarifies again that this is different from when he was young, when men took more control of women. Referring to the harsh Cambodian political past, he offers “the one reason: not much freedom, not much freedom for both.”
I ask if families decide whom you will marry and he replies that that is the case, “But again, now [it’s] not the same. Now you can do whatever you want.” But about 20 years ago you still had to “follow your family.”
Drunk Frenchman, pointing at Don’s stomach: “Hey you want to see something, something hot, eh? He has a six-pack, eh! Six-pack! Bigger than mine!”
Don, shoots back laughing, “Yah bigger than your one-pack!”
I asked how old girls are when they start having sex and Don replies by shaking his head, like I am confused again. “It’s really hard for a man to have sex with a girl,” he restates.
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. You cannot have sex before you get married.”
So I ask if young boys go to prostitutes for sex. Don said, “Yeah, now. It’s okay. 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 know in Cambodia they grow up really quick now, so it’s the same as … Europe or the States or Australia … they start at 12 or 13.”
The Drunk Frenchman corrects him, “No, no! I think in Europe we have sex a lot…uh… younger. Hay! I had my first sex at 6! With eh… my dog!” He breaks out into wheezy giggles. “Eeehhhh who knows? Maybe I’m lying.” He gives me a labored wink.
Don, side-eyeing the Frenchman, begins again. “Before the culture was really strong. But now, everyone goes to school and they live life by their own self. They get more smart.” He explains that he thought the Khmer Rouge made people “stupid” by limiting their worldview.
I ask if you can be gay in Cambodia and he says, “Oof, yeah, it’s really hard. The family, they [don’t] like it. 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. But then he looks up again for a while and shakes his head side to side, weighing his thoughts. “It has changed some though. Hopefully there will be more change to be more open.”
“For me” he says, “ I feel like I don’t care, you know? If what they do is good or bad, just let them do it. Much better. I don’t have to say, ‘Okay, stop with that. You are gay and you have to be a man.’ It’s not like that! What they do or how they think, it’s not my problem. Just let them.”
He takes another long exhale, watching the Frenchman who looks like he’s about to come out with another crack. We both wait. Don takes a sip of his beer and suddenly looks concerned. “Hey!” He smiles. “Don’t think too much about this shit! Just be easy; be happy!”
Seizing the moment, and Don’s long wild hair in his hands the Drunk Frenchman informs me, “Hey! You just interview Jimmy Hendrix!”