I live in an old converted colonial mansion of royal French ochre, dulled by years of weather and negligence. I have no furniture other then an intricately carved wooden bed frame that I covered with pillows. This is where I write, sleep, bring boys.
The newspaper I work for has a siesta during the peak of the afternoon’s heat. I tiptoe across the floor, close the beige shades, turn off the lights, and lay motionless, hiding from the pre-rainy season’s humidity. But the sun always seems to find me, seeping through some invisible crack, just like the lizards. I’ve grown accustomed to the lizards that adorn my walls and floors – they eat the malaria and dengue carrying mosquitos.
When night falls and the Mekong breeze blows through my metal-barred windows, I am reminded there is life outside of Phnom Penh. That there are teeming blue waters upstream of the city’s brown muck. That the beauty is eclipsed by trauma—trauma from the French colonial past, US air raids during the Vietnam War, and the nightmarish years under the Khmer Rouge. As the shell-shocked nation finally begins its reconciliation process and is forced into its neo-colonial reality, the lingering scars seem to fester all the more.
But upstream, thatched, stilted villages blend in with the forest. Men walk with buffalo across paddies. Women and children laze in the shade of their huts during the afternoon heat, predicting when the rains will begin. Fire crackles through the jungle, casting orange shadows on the faces of grandparents, children and grandchildren shoveling rice into their mouths in the way they always have. The Angkor Empire still exists – a ghost of the jungle – taken over by the vines and fungi, whispering proud songs of a disappeared past.
Each night after the newspaper’s deadline, I walk to Blue Chile – the only gay bar in Phnom Penh – just in time for the drag show. Blue Chili is a one-room bar adorned with rainbow flags and homoerotic photos of South Korean boys – Seoul is the center of pop culture in Asia, setting the ideal of Asian beauty.
The usual older Europeans that have made Cambodia their homes sit with cocktails and cigarettes. Most of them have money-boys surrounding them. Money-boys are the Asian version of male prostitutes, but they are not sex workers in the Western sense. They don’t have a set fee, and most don’t have pimps. Sometimes they just want a meal, a place to sleep, or extra money for their families.
Andrew is across the bar. His buzzed, platinum hair stands out against the black-headed crowd. Normally, I can smell his body odor before he’s in sight – a concoction of cigarettes and ass.
“Brandt, my beautiful bitch,” he says. His face is covered in sweat. He tries to kiss me on the mouth, but I move my face to the side and let him kiss my cheek. I am repulsed by his smell, by the stories he tells me of eating Khmer boys’ butts and craving their ass sweat.
Andrew is a fugitive from Liverpool wanted for drug trafficking. He plans to spend the rest of his days in Cambodia. His other option; prison.
Phnom Penh seems to suit him just fine, a sunny place for shady people.
Andrew is also the Queen of Gay Phnom Penh, choreographing all drag performances, organizing the first ever pride week, convincing clubs around the city to designate specific gay nights.
He sits down at a table, surrounded by his entourage of young Khmer lady boys – the all-encompassing term in Southeast Asia for a boy baring any degree of transgender tendencies, from androgynous to drag to actual transitioning.
On the other side of Andrew sits a handsome Khmer man I’ve never seen before. Tall and muscular, with a soft masculinity. Sun-stained brown skin leads to his dark-buzzed hair; the black and tan meeting in perfect unity.
He looks at me.
His lips are thick and soft – ready to burst – the tips pursed together and glistening with saliva as if he is about to say something important, or cry.
“Meet Din,” Andrew says, and winks.
I bow my head as Din extends his hand, both trying to mimic the other’s cultural greeting. His face is different than other Khmers – rounder, chiseled cheekbones, narrower eyes. Because his mother is Chinese, he tells me. Her parents were merchants that moved to Cambodia in the 50’s. Din is visiting from Siem Reap—six hours north, where he is a tour guide at the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.
The Khmers and foreigners watch us speak. They whisper among themselves. Gay gossip about which local is with which foreigner is a beloved past time. I am the only young gay expat in town, and many of the boys who had previously hit on me stare at us with machete eyes.
“Let’s leave,” I say.
On our way out, Andrew whispers,
“Best money boy in this damn country.”
“He’s a money boy?”
“Does it matter? Who the fuck knows what that even means,” Andrew replies.
“So did you ever have sex with him?”
“I tried too but he wouldn’t.”
I follow Din into the darkness.
We begin our walk through the deserted streets. Late night fires create attractive breaks in the city’s monotonous architecture. I grab his hand. A group of tuk tuk drivers laugh at us and scream something shrill.
Din tells me about his family. His parents were married a few days before the Khmer Rouge came to power. During the mass exodus from Phnom Penh to the rice fields, members of the regime heard Din’s grandparents speaking Cantonese. Knowing another language – having any education whatsoever – was grounds for execution. Din’s grandmother screamed in Chinese for her daughter to keep walking, to not say a word. And as she walked on, the Khmer Rouge dragged her parents away.
Din’s parents were the only survivors on both sides of their families. Their first son was born during the regime, and died at six months from malnutrition. After the Khmer Rouge fell, they had five healthy children. One daughter stepped on an uncleared mine outside of their village and is missing the bottom half of her right leg.
We walk toward the river.
I tell him about my suburban town in New Jersey – how I came out to my friends in high school and to my parents at 18. He asks if they still speak to me. Of course, I reply. They even met my ex-boyfriend. They hoped I would settle down with a man and have children one day. He laughs at the idea of two men raising children together.
We turn from the sleeping street onto The Strip. Fluorescent lights identify the bars: 69, Score, Pontoon, Heart of Darkness. Food vendors call out. Women of all ages wait at doors, motioning the stream of foreigners onward. The pretty ones are sent to the street, to lure the sexpats inward.
“Play billiard. You win I buy you drink. I win, you buy me drink.”
Din and I stop holding hands amongst the crowds and lights.
A familiar, emaciated woman with her sleeping corpse-of-a-baby nestled in her arms jumps in front of Din and I, frowning and heaving. Din yells at her in Khmer. She bites back and storms off
“They always think I’m foreigner here,” he says.
“It must be your clothes and the way you carry yourself. What did you say?”
“I told her to leave. That we are both locals.”
“And what did she say?”
“To mind my business. To let her make money from a rich white man to feed the baby.”
He asks to come home with me.
No, I tell him, I don’t sleep with money boys.
I want to smother the words as soon as they mutter from my lips. Smother them with my thick white skin.
“I’m no money boy,” he says, and stops walking. “You talk to Andrew. He’s angry because I don’t sleep with him. He’s a nasty man. I’m no money boy.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, pulling him toward me. I kiss him, tenderly.
“You smell like buffalo skin,” he whispers.
By an abandoned building, I push him into the alley. We make out against the brick wall, forgetting about the trash around us. We lose ourselves in each other’s sweaty faces and mouths wet with spit.
Music by Lo Ka Ping.