In the crush of a 200-strong crowd, beside tables laden with ice-buckets and speakers pounding techno, Sarith*, 17, slings an arm around Amai*, 16. He drags her towards him and kisses her on the mouth. She looks a little embarrassed. “Look, I just kissed her,” he says, proudly. His friend Phirun*, 17, takes Maly*, 16, in a headlock and kisses her too. Side by side, both teenage couples sink into comfortable chairs. The two boys bend over the girls, firm up their arms on the rests and kiss them.
It is five in the afternoon on the last day of Chinese New Year, two days before Valentine’s Day. The crowds are gathered at Apologize café and club on the top level of the Sorya Shopping Centre. The boys met their girlfriends there, and, two days before Valentine’s Day, are making plans.
Many Cambodian teenagers, mostly in Phnom Penh, now celebrate Valentine’s Day. For moral authorities and parents the day has become a nightmare – the young, they say, are scrambling to use Valentines Day as an excuse to have premarital sex and give up their virginity in love-hotels and guesthouses. Last year, police were sent to keep watch on guest houses and clubs, trying to stop under-age sex. They say they will do the same again this year.
“On that day, we will patrol on the roads and the guesthouses to strengthen the public order security,” said Chuon Sovann, chief of Phnom Penh’s municipal police. Since many Cambodians live at home until they are married, premarital sex happens mostly in guesthouses far from eyes and ears of family.
Sarith and Amai’s is a recent relationship. “I just met my girlfriend today at the club. And Phirun? He met Maly yesterday, also at the club.” On each day of the Chinese New Year holiday the boys, with two other school friends, have gone to the club to dance, drink and meet girls, they say. One of them stands next to the table, hands in his pockets.
Sovann*, 16, is alone. “I am not handsome enough to have a girlfriend,” he says.
Two days before Valentine’s Day, Sovann is under pressure to find a girl, as his friends did. Phirin says he will bring Maly back to the club on the day. “We can drink and dance and meet our friends.” He won’t buy a red rose – he has been taught in school that flowers are a fake sign of affection, a cheap trick to persuade girls to have sex. “I don’t know what we will do afterwards yet,” he says. He doesn’t say he will go home.
In another teen club, Fever, in Pencil Shopping Mall, another young man, Pich*, 19, slings his arm around a girl. Here the techno plays even louder. Pich and his friends celebrate Chinese New Year. Every other minute they refill their glasses with ABC stout and clink glasses. Between deep sips of cold, dark beer, Pich kisses his girlfriend Lina*, 18.
On Valentine’s Day, Lina wants to have dinner and later go out dancing or sing karaoke with her boyfriend and all their friends and then go home alone. She says she disapproves of men who give their girlfriends presents like flowers on Valentines Day and then drag them to a guesthouse to have sex with them. “If my boyfriend tried to do that I would break up with him because this would mean he doesn’t respect and love me,” she says.
Her boyfriend has other plans. “I really respect my girlfriend but I want to sleep with her because in Europe people sleep with each other before marriage. It is the same in every culture. In Cambodia it’s just not so open.
When you show [your girlfriend] your love with a flower bouquet she will show her love back to you.” Will he show his girlfriend his love on Valentine’s Day with flowers? “I will show her my love and I hope she will love me back,” he says.
‘Showing love’, however, is innocent for others. Sopherak*, 17 bends forward on the flat stool at Gloria Jean’s Coffee House on Street 51, hands fiddling with a Samsung smartphone. He checks if there is a new text message.
“I don’t want to go on a date with my crush on Valentine’s Day because all my friends at school will ask ‘are you going to have sex?’ Everybody thinks Valentine’s Day is a sex day.” The student at a private high school in the capital has had a crush on a girl one grade below him for two months and thinks that love and sex should be kept separate. He believes that wanting to sleep with a girl would be a sign of disrespect. “I only want to sleep with her when we get married.”
But even he says he is torn between a Western lifestyle that promotes sex, and the Cambodian lifestyle that forbids it. Just because he doesn’t want to sleep with the girl he likes doesn’t mean he is not interested in doing the deed. “Everybody wants to try sex. My friends and I talk about it a lot.”
But, for now, the rumours he has heard about people in his school having sex at the age of 14 and 15 “shock” him. He says friends of his will try to get their girlfriends to have sex. He deems them bad karma. “They don’t care about anything.” He has blocked his ‘bad friends’ on Facebook and doesn’t save their numbers in his phone. “If I had the numbers of my bad friends saved in my phone I fear my crush wouldn’t text me anymore.”
For Valentine’s Day, he is building his girlfriend a present. He crafts a box, inside which will go a fluffy teddy bear. In the West, you would be hard pressed to find such a romantic. *Names have been changed