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Meet the Khmer Muscle Boys challenging perceptions of what it means to be young and gay in Cambodia

This is a project to challenge young, gay Cambodians’ perceptions of themselves.
Photo credit:
Photos © Space Hair Salon and Bar and Alex Buntha

In a small, unassuming bar in the center of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a new generation of young Khmer men are starting a revolution.

It’s not a political uprising, a protest at alleged government corruption, nor an initiative to reduce widespread poverty in the country; it’s goes far deeper than that.

This is a project to challenge young, gay Cambodians’ perceptions of themselves.

By day, Space Hair Salon and Bar is an unassuming place to fashion yourself a new ‘do’. By night, it’s a rip-roaring, pec-pumping, drinking den hotbed of handsome young Khmer men only too willing to serve you your favorite sin-drink with a smile, a tricep-flex and a flirt.

Situated a short hop, skip and a jump from the Tonle Sap river which flows through the city, Space is the brainchild of entrepreneur Chuk Sopheap.

Sopheap (pictured below left) arrived in Phnom Penh with a vision.

Hailing from the city of Battambang in northwestern Cambodia, he experienced anti-gay discrimination and bullying in his teenage years. Like many gay men growing up in rural areas, he knew he had to relocate to the big city to find other gay men and start living openly, as himself.

A trained hair stylist, he opened Space Hair in 2013 and expanded it into a bar later that year. The businesses now employ more than 20 Khmer men, many of whom also relocated to Phnom Penh in search of acceptance.

But Sopheap had even higher aspirations, setting out to celebrate sexuality, the beauty of his country, and the sex appeal of his fellow countrymen.

This summer, he launched the well-received (and practically hot to touch) ‘Men of Cambodia’ calendar, which is thought to be the first of its kind in the country.

“So many Khmer men look upon white Western men as the ideal form of beauty - many use whitening creams to lighten their skin and dress in an American or European style,” says Sopheap. “I want to highlight the beauty of not only Cambodian men, but Cambodian gay men.”

The calendar features fifteen gym toned, dashingly handsome models, eighty per cent of whom identify as gay, according to Sopheap.

Beautifully photographed and presented, shoot locations were carefully selected to showcase Cambodia’s newly opened modern hotels, both in Phnom Penh and on the beautiful coastal province of Kep; the city’s street art, which adorns the capital’s meandering backstreets and alleyways; the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre; the famous temples and fashions of the Khmer Empire era; and the silk and pepper trades. It also presents Cambodia as a haven of male muscle and homoerotica.

A series of behind the scenes videos of the making of the calendar are setting social media alight in the country.

“Many of the models worked very hard in their villages, growing up, which laid the groundwork for the sculpted the bodies you see in the calendar,” Sopheap continues. “Now they’re in the city, they all work out and some even box to keep fit. By immortalizing them in this calendar, I’m hoping their fitness and handsomeness can change perceptions of what Khmer men are like, not only from a Western perspective but also - more importantly - to other Cambodian gay men. This has the potential to have an incredibly positive effect, building self esteem and helping young gay Khmer men to come out and feel proud of who they are.”

A percentage of profits from the sale of each calendar goes to a local charity which supports young Cambodians get a better start in life. Find out more via the Space Hair Salon and Bar Facebook Page.

Photos © Space Hair Salon and Bar and Alex Buntha