For news organisations worldwide, the arrest of 10 foreigners in Cambodia for “pornographic dancing” was the perfect story – a heady mix of outrage and titillation, all but guaranteed to generate website clicks.
The backpackers had been hauled away by Siem Reap police after a raid on a bar-crawl event where they’d reportedly been simulating sex acts during Club 18-30-style party games on Pub street.
The culture clash narrative was pretty clear: debauched, booze-sodden Westerners on one side and the chaste defenders of Siem Reap’s honour on the other.
Siem Reap is not Ko Pha-ngan, local authorities seemed to be saying, show some respect.
The northern city is the jewel in Cambodia’s tourist crown for its magnificent Angkor Wat-centred temple complex and has become one of Southeast Asia’s biggest draws, bringing in more than two million visitors a year.
However, for expats in the city, the arrests were merely the culmination of local grievances which had been bubbling under the surface for quite some time.
Flashpoints over the past two years have included Western tourists stripping off for ‘naked selfies’ at Angkor Wat – considered a sacred site in the country – alongside the general rise in wild party tours, taking advantage of a younger less culturally-inclined crowd.
In fact, merely the sight of tourists clad in bikinis, flip-flops and little else, strolling down ‘Pub Street’ has been enough to raise the hackles of locals, who dress modestly even for the region.
Having lived in Siem Reap between 2010 and 2011, I witnessed the gradual growth of the city as a party destination – and the difficulties a little cultural ignorance could cause.
While lounging at a local pool, we’d commonly see fellow Westerners clad in bikinis stroll towards the exit – and the street outside – to seek out some food or a cold drink.
Staff would have to frantically chase after the unsuspecting tourist – and politely inform them that wearing beach-attire on an inland Cambodian street was akin to strolling naked through Paris or London: guaranteed to generates gasps – if not traffic accidents – from open-mouthed locals.
Cambodia’s proximity to Thailand – a magnet for hedonistic young people for the past two decades at least – means it’s perhaps forgivable to presume they share cultural values.
But Cambodia has always been the ‘country cousin’ of its much more affluent neighbour.
And while Thailand has had plenty of time to become accustomed to the hedonistic excesses of some tourists, Cambodia is still trying to carve out its own personality – and retain its traditions.
However, like many Southeast Asian countries which profess social conservatism, it doesn’t tend to apply to the local sex trade. ‘Girly bars’ – where prostitutes ply their trade to locals and tourists are a familiar sight on the streets of Siem Reap just as they are across the region.
In other words, Cambodia’s ‘modesty’ is somewhat selective and perhaps dependent on which establishments are willing to shell out bribes to the local police force.
But be that as it may, it pays to be aware that in Cambodia – and especially outside of the main tourist destinations of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville – modest dress is generally expected.
And “pornographic dancing” is best kept in the bedroom.