Hearts and Flowers and Troubling Traditions: Valentine’s Day in Cambodia

Heart decorations in street

When my husband and I planned our vacation to Laos and Cambodia for the first couple weeks of February, we weren’t thinking about Valentine’s Day. We barely celebrate it when we’re at home and weren’t expecting to think much about it while traveling. Vacation is special enough, who needs to plan a special night?

But as we spent our last days in Laos, in advance of moving on to Cambodia, the holiday crept into my inbox. I received a special invitation to a Valentine’s Dinner at our hotel in Siem Reap. I was sure they were catering to us as tourists and that it would be the only place I’d see any mention of the holiday while we were there.

Towels folded into elephants holding a rose

I was wrong. As we walked down Pub Street, Siem Reap’s bar and restaurant hub, we came upon an explosion of hearts. At the bar we stopped for a drink, they offered my husband a rose to present to me.

Another rose was waiting on our bed with a glass cookie jar full of heart-shaped cookies. And yet another rose perched in the towel trunks of the elephants tied on our bed the next day. A few days later if we wanted we could have posed in front of frosted pink Valentine’s backdrop at the Siem Reap airport.

A Recent Phenomenon

As I perused the web after returning home, I learned that Valentine’s Day is relatively new in Cambodia, taking hold sometime around 2008. One researcher, Tong Soprach, has been studying Valentine’s Day in Cambodia since 2009. He has been conducting education campaigns and research with young people there every five years since 2009.

His research is troubling in that it shows young men expect women to have sex with them on Valentine’s Day. In 2009, he found that 17 out of 25 young men, aged 15 to 24, were willing to force their partners to have sex on Valentine’s Day. After his research schools began giving out yearly warnings to young people at school telling them that Valentine’s Day is not a recognized holiday and that they should not participate in activities that go against Khmer traditions or shame their families.

Educational efforts have been made to put the focus on platonic love for families, friends, teachers, and others instead of romance. In 2019, Soprach found that fewer men, but still 12 out of 40, said they would be willing to force their partners to have sex on Valentine’s Day. Those expecting to have sex on Valentine’s Day has also decreased more than half since 2009.

Heart balloons outside a bar

Western Influence

Cambodia is a traditional culture that is experiencing an influx of Western influence and culture. Valentine’s Day is just the tip of the iceberg. Youngsters meet up via social media and dating apps, changing attitudes and shifting them from what has traditionally been acceptable.

Bigger cities such as Siem Reap are catering to these new ideas. As we walked around during our stay there I saw standard bridal shops with white dresses as I would expect to see in the United States.

Later as we visited Angkor Wat, we heard a song over the loudspeaker and our guide told us it was the traditional wedding song so she knew someone was getting married, a day-and-a-half affair. As the West continues to creep in, at least one old tradition was still in play.

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