This is reposted from my blog series, “Stamped,” at decomP Magazine
Phnom Penh’s Blue Chilli Drag
You arrive in Phnom Penh expecting the New Golden Age. The talk is everywhere. You’ve followed Cambodian artists on Facebook, seen the advertisements for Phnom Penh on backpacker rows in Bangkok and Chang Mai, and in Siem Reap, on your way down Pub Street, you heard the news: Phnom Penh is back. Cambodia is no longer just Angkor Wat.
I imagine this is how a lot of the white tourists came to be here, dancing beside me on Street 272, here to stay for an eleven-hour-long street party. Next to me Kid Rock-like live music drowns out the car horns from near the Independence Monument. Electronic music spills out of every nearby doorway. Every face around me is white. I see white arms sticking up from tank tops; there are more white people in a single place than I have seen since I moved to Asia two years ago. The banner above me reads “Golden Street Party,” and I think, if this is Phnom Penh’s new golden age, what kind of age is coming next?
Eager to move, I climb a stairway up to a well-known club that doubles as a hostel hang out. Inside, tank-topped backpackers, holding bright red balloons, sprawl out on bean bags. Every now and then they kiss the balloons to suck in more nitrous oxide. For better or worse, at least here are some black people I can stand nearby and not feel like part of the monochrome street.
From the balcony I spot street vendors selling kebabs and gyros. I watch dancing backpackers surround a refrigerator-sized tank of Angkor beer, with a sign that reads: ALL YOU CAN DRINK! I watch the backpackers and NGO workers circling around the tall silver canister, handing in their plastic cups, then picking up their beers, then circling, circling, circling, until they arrive back at the vendor where Cambodian waiters give them a refill. I become mesmerized by the pacing, a vortex pleading for me to jump.
Unable to go on in the vortex, I hail a tuk-tuk taxi to the Blue Chilli gay bar, where something completely different is happening. Yes, music also spills out into the street, but it’s not electronic dance music. It’s love songs from pop divas like The Temptations and Lady Gaga. Lounging outside, I meet the expat gays: a man from America, who currently lives in Tokyo and speaks fluent Japanese, and another man from Sweden who is dating one of the dancers. I meet artists from all around Cambodia, ballet dancers, traditional dancers, and a modern dance choreographer from Los Angeles who runs a Cambodian dance crew in America.
At Blue Chilli, Saturday night, like the two nights before it, is drag night. The woman dancing in a black shiny tank top and webbed leggings levitates over us, held afloat by three half-naked back-up dancers. She pulses out a Beyoncé song, asks “Who runs the world?” and the mixed crowd of Cambodians, travelers, men, women, gays, lesbians, chuggers, sippers, and perhaps people high on nitrous oxide, all belt along: “girls!”
“Who runs this mother–?”
I find that word, “girls,” lunging out of me. My voice comes out, chanting with the crowd, some of us raising our fists, others our drinks. We chime along with the songs we’ve heard a thousand times, tunes that never really connect until you’re chanting them with a woman clung into place by three shirtless men, lyrics that never really register until you hear them sung by a queen bathed in green light, splashing the air with the whip of her fingers, her high heels slamming onto the bar top as the disco lights above her pierce your eyes, when all you want to do is gaze.
Only blocks away, Kid Rock imitators perform for a full crowd of over-oxygenated white backpackers. The contrast isn’t stark, it’s cosmic. Another world, another planet, but not another age.
See Blue Chilli Bar