The country of Cambodia has a shady reputation after emerging from years of war to rebuild. The only things most people know about it are the long war, Angkor Wat and the unsavory reputation as a magnet for sickos. I haven’t tried to dig too deep into the underbelly of the place, but as far as I can tell the bad reputation the place has is either exaggerated or outdated. There are a lot of working women around but a lot of them are on the older side. That’s relative. Women in their 30’s are older in a country where people die on average in their 50’s.
Most sex work in Cambodia is aimed at locals. It spans from five dollar brothels for poor guys to high end karaoke places for connected guys who want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars. Most foreigners don’t see any of this, or pass by it all without noticing. For foreigners the main realm is the girlie bars in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap.
There are a good number of ladyboys in Cambodia but it’s nothing like Thailand where they are a normal part of everyday life. That’s true even though kathoey, the very word for ladyboy in Thai, originates in Cambodia and the local Khmer language. In Thailand this word is sometimes used to described gay guys. In Cambodia it is too, but it is just as common for gay guys to be called “gay.” The English word and concept seems to have filtered into the language. Cambodian ladyboys usually don’t look as good as the ladyboys in Thailand. I think that’s because they are in general poorer and less accepted. It’s not common to see a ladyboy with silicone tits or any other surgery. A lot of times they don’t even have good clothes. They live more in the shadows too. You don’t see many walking out and about.
There are dozens of girlie bars in Phnom Penh but none are ladyboy bars. The closest thing to that would be the Rainbow Bar near the corner of Street 136 and Norodom Boulevard. In reality, this is a gay bar where local guys entertain a mostly foreign customer base. But on certain days they have cabaret shows where some of the bar guys dress up in fantastical women’s clothes and do a little turn on the catwalk. A lot of these guys are looking for foreigners with money, but they aren’t really ladyboys. Rainbow Bar was attacked with a bomb years ago but it recovered and since then I haven’t heard of any anti-gay stuff. There are some really open gay places in town that don’t have any issues such as Blue Chilli on Street 178. Ladyboys occasionally appear there but it’s more of a place for gays and occasionally cross dressers.
Some ladyboy freelancers hang out at the infamous Golden Sorya Mall, which is a sort of open air beer garden. There aren’t many though. You might see three on any given night. They sometimes filter in and out of the local girlie bars like Plan B, but they don’t work in them. These ladyboys are usually pretty worn down. They will go with customers for as little as $15 US, but usually they want $20 or more.
Other ladyboys hang around Wat Phnom at night. They can also be found on the little bridge just two blocks south of Wat Phnom on Norodom Boulevard. These are street walkers who mainly aim at local guys. They are totally open to meet with foreigners though and most of them speak English pretty well which can’t be said for the “real women” who also work the same streets. They go with locals for as little as $5 but some will want more especially when it comes to foreigners who may make more in a day than their parents make in a month or even a year. Once in a while you’ll see a ladyboy walking the riverside at night looking for customers but they tend to look really rough.
A few of the hostess bars have ladyboys working regularly even though they are greatly outnumbered by regular ladies. This is a pretty new occurrence. It didn’t happen even a few years ago. But now you can usually find some ladyboys working at Island Bar on Street 118 and Candy Bar on Street 136. The ladyboys at Island Bar are generally passable and hot and ready to go with any cashed up guy who asks them.
Finally, there are two well known and quite attractive ladyboys who work the girlie bars on Street 104 near Wat Phnom. They can be found in Rose Bar and Top Ten Bar. They mix in with the regular women who work in these bars but they stand out as they are taller and have enormous fake boobs. I think they used to work in Thailand. You can find a lot of Cambodian ladyboys working the bars in Thailand where they are more accepted, able to get surgery and able to make a lot more money. Some of them then come home later. These ladyboys want $100 a night to go with a guy. Since Phnom Penh is such a small town word gets out and any guy who goes with them will be known at least on the street and around their hotel or home as a ladyboy lover. At most that usually means nothing more than a few jokes cracked in the background but it is something to mention.
So, the ladyboy scene is pretty limited in Phnom Penh. Especially if you are only looking at the pay for play avenues. A lot of ladyboys feature prominently on dating websites and apps though. You will always see a good amount of ladyboys on Tinder, Badoo, Tango and Date in Asia. The ladyboy focused dating sites like Ladyboy Kisses and My Ladyboy Date also have many, and weed out any genetic women. Some of these ladyboys are looking for money and nothing more, but a few are really looking for love.