From farm boy to gay bar fame
Sokha Khem visibly enjoys running his gay bar Blue Chilli. He greets arriving guests with his Cambodian smile and a warm welcome. Without a doubt, Sokha’s hospitality plays a big part in the success story of Blue Chilli, the longest-running gay bar in the Kingdom.
But he has come a long way. Born a farmer’s boy in Svay Rieng province, Sokha followed a long and meandering trajectory towards the institution that Blue Chilli has become. “I used to work in the rice fields of my village. But 20 years ago I decided to come to the big city. My village was very poor, I had no future there,” he remembers.
“I had a lot of different jobs in Phnom Penh to survive. I have been a cement maker, charcoal seller, moto driver, tourist guide and ngo worker in the day time. And at night I worked in bars. Thats how my love for the nightlife started,” Sokha explains.
The sun is setting in Phnom Penh, the kickoff for a new exciting night in Blue Chilli. Sokha opens his arms widely to greet a regular guest. Hugs and kisses are exchanged. “Once you know this bar, you can’t resist it. Everyone always comes back.”
A new community is born
Back in September 2006 there was only one gay bar in Phnom Penh and it was about to close its doors. The nightlife options for the gay community were very limited. Then Sokha had a stroke of luck. An English friend loaned him the money necessary to open his own bar.
“Business was slow in the beginning. There were no tourists, only a few expats. Cambodians didn’t know what a gay bar was and were scared to come out. We often had problems with the police.” But Blue Chilli took off and changed Phnom Penh’s nightlife forever.
The opening of Blue Chilli helped to create a LGBT+ community. “It was difficult. But I was lucky, I had friends who worked for the BBC and human rights NGOs. They gave me a lot of support about gay rights.” Soon, Khmer gays were not afraid anymore to come out. The success of Blue Chilli paved the way for more gay bars.
Professional drag shows
“O.K., everybody, remember what I told you,” Sokha tells his team. “Smile a lot. Hug a lot. Tell them how important they are to this place. O.K.?” The crowd in the bar is growing. The friendly staff are juggling with beers, cocktails and glasses of wine, serving the mix of gay and straight, but all like-minded spirits.
Suddenly the volume of the music goes up a few levels and everyone rushes inside. The show starts. A diva with a bright blue dress and a golden canary wig climbs to the stage and gives her impression of Nicki Minaj. “I’m on the floor, floor. I love to dance. So give me more, more.” The crowd cheers.
His boyish eyes shine when Sokha talks about the first drag shows in Blue Chilli. “We didn’t have a stage. My ex-boyfriend performed on the bar. He was the only ladyboy in town at that time. It was a very basic show. But everyone liked my show.”
“Now the drag show has become more professional. After all those years people still come to Blue Chilli to see it. It’s so successful that I recently doubled the number of shows. Now we have shows Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, at 11 pm.”
On stage a crowned diva thanks the audience for another round of applause. Outside new friendships are born and old friends meet again. With a smile Sokha delivers his opinion of the scene: “Good. It feels good.”
“I’m just a normal Khmer guy. What happened to me is amazing. Blue Chilli is still successful after 11 years. It’s more than I could dream of. I have to thank all the people who supported me, the guests and the staff of course.” Now, he is planning to expand the bar to the next door shop. Sokha, who has been in the gay business longer than any other Cambodian, knows he has to invest in the future.
Like his bar, the gay nightlife in general is rapidly growing, much to Sokha’s satisfaction. “Now there is more competition, but that is also part of my success. Without Blue Chilli, it would have been more difficult for the other gay bars in Phnom Penh. Blue Chilli made the gay community better. It changed the life of so many people. I’m very proud of that.”
March 25th, 2017
# 36Eo, Street 178
Khan Daun Penh
012 56 63 53
From farm to fame
Meet Sokha Khem, the owner of Blue Chilli. His hospitality plays a big part in the success story of the longest-running gay bar in Cambodia. But did you know he used to be a farmer and a moto driver? Read more
When Blue Chilli opened 11 years ago, it changed Phnom Penh’s nightlife forever. If you are looking for a fun time, a friendly crowd, great drinks and a fantastic drag show, Blue Chilli is the place to be. Read more