Lessons in Cambodian Drag

Travel Features
Lessons in Cambodian Drag

On a tinseled stage at the back of the Siem Reap Night Market, the ladyboys emerge from glittering curtains, swivel their narrow hips, twerk in miniskirts, and squat in stilettos, revealing muscular thighs. For the opening number, the lead lip-syncs to Beyoncé, flipping her perfect, glossy ponytail with a bow down, “b*tches divatude” I’m convinced would make Queen Bey proud. Two floppy-haired, denim-clad backup boys flank her, performing choreography with zero swagger but total heart.

“Don’t just stand there on the wall/Everybody just move your body.”

Meanwhile, local Cambodians and tourists relax in bubblegum pink recliners at the open-air massage parlor that assumes the dance floor. The deal is three dollars for a 30-minute foot massage and a “Free Daily Ladyboy Show,” during which they talk, text, clap along, or pay no attention at all.

Of all the responses one could have to this scene, I think of that ubiquitous quote, the one that you see on magnets, bookmarks and email forwards, and is attributed to pretty much everyone famous—Gandhi, Mother Teresa and probably Beyoncé, too.

“Love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching.”

There is no reason that cliché should make sense right now, at the night market/massage parlor/ladyboy show. The ladyboys are dressed to be seen, in platforms and sequins, a bold stance made more remarkable by the fact that 40 years ago, in 1975, Pol Pot converted Cambodia into a nightmare for performers. He trained the Khmer Rouge to fear, hate, and massacre its own people, roughly two million of them, 90 percent of Cambodia’s artists, a generation of intellectuals, homosexuals, and “others” erased in four short years. Any sign of curiosity—cross-dressing, carrying books, wearing reading glasses or elbow patches—could lead to the Killing Fields. It was a death sentence for dancing.

“There was a rule against ‘immoral offenses,’” survivor Sok Samith reported to the Cambodian Women’s Oral History Project. “Women and men could only be assigned by Angkar to marry. If you were found to be in love, you were killed. Only those not afraid of dying dared to love each other.”

Under that twisted morality, Cambodians were forced to out neighbors and friends, sometimes even kill their own parents, children, or lovers. You could not be yourself, not as a ladyboy, a teacher, a philosopher or a poet. You did not sing as if no one was listening because somebody always was.

Caitlin Jenner’s splashy debut put a new name, face, and platform to “transgender” in the U.S. But like neighboring Thailand with its kathoeys, Cambodia has traditionally recognized a third gender. Pet ti bai means ladyboys, or male-bodied human beings “with a female heart,” as one saying goes. However, the terminology quickly gets complicated in a culture that sees gender and sexuality more fluidly than we do in the West. No words for “gay” or “lesbian” exist in the Khmer language. Instead, myriad terms define sexuality not on the basis of sexual preference, but on gender, personality traits and characteristics.

But recognition, a flexible lexicon, and a Buddhist-based tolerance haven’t always equaled acceptance or fair treatment in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

In February 2015, Cambodia’s Pannasastra University published the first in-depth study documenting LGBTI treatment under the Khmer Rouge.

“All interviewees reported having to hide their sexuality for fear of being killed,” the Cambodia Daily reported, “while many said they were subjected to forced marriage, rape and sexual abuse by Khmer Rouge soldiers and officials. All gay men and most of the transgender women surveyed said they had experienced sexual violence.”

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Aspara Dancers on Angkor Wat Photo by Anna Vodicka

After the genocide, artists, teachers, women, men and ladyboys rose slowly from the dead. Inside refugee camps in the 1980s and 1990s bold spirits practiced art as a therapy, distraction, or transubstantiation of their pain. Only a dozen of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s 300 dancers remained. They resumed classes at the national theater, slowly retraining their hands and feet in Aspara hyperextension, passing on what they remembered of the country’s hypnotic classical dance.

Decades later, Cambodia still struggles to recover its cultural identity, its lost arts and histories. Poverty starves and health crises and corruption kill. At the night market, vendors hawk t-shirts and checkered Khmer scarves, paper lanterns, marble-headed Buddhas and cheap knock-off jewelry, anything to make ends meet. Tourists stumble in from nearby Pub Street, looking to bargain or to be massaged and entertained, with happy endings. You could see the legacy of Cambodia’s genocide as a carnival of greed, another kind of starvation: capitalism on speed with the whole country for sale.

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Peace Bracelets Photo by Anna Vodicka

And yet, as a first-time visitor, it’s hard not to notice signs of hope in unexpected places: the bright bracelets—symbols of peace—tied around mass graves of the Killing Fields or the inaugural issue of Q Cambodia, the first LGBTQ magazine to hit shelves in a country that once eliminated both its queers and its readers.

And the ladyboys, they shine. They sing bravely, knowing every song by heart.

“I wanna be myself tonight/Wanna move my body/I wanna let it out tonight.”

In this mashup of pedicures and drag, I am a tourist passing through, a Westerner, a woman’s mind in a woman’s body born after the Cambodian genocide, raised on the Bible and Beyoncé. Somehow, in the shadow of Angkor Wat and Pol Pot, all the vile and courageous acts of human history, I feel suddenly as if I am inside a kind of church, a sanctuary with bubblegum pink pews, and radical truth raining from the pulpit.

Preach, Sister!

Before me, a congregation of strangers practices the ancient tradition of foot washing—the ultimate expression of humility, I was taught, a symbol of selfless love and egalitarianism. This song, this dance, this gesture of grace so intimate and yet so plain, stops me in my tourist tracks, and I am filled with hope, waving my hands in the air and moving to the beat, paying my respects to the Free Daily Ladyboy Show, where you can love like you’ll never get hurt, and dance like nobody’s watching.

Anna Vodicka’s essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including Guernica, Harvard Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Longreads, and Lonely Planet’s recent anthology of travel writing, “An Innocent Abroad.” You can find on Twitter @AnnaVodicka.

Top photo courtesy of Rosana Broadway
Lead photo courtesy of Station Wine Bar.

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