Being gay can be a magic key, especially when you’re travelling. The key turns and suddenly you’re meeting people, being invited to things: it can bridge some of the differences between you and people from another culture. You have your sexuality in common, and your sense of living outside the mainstream: that can be enough to build a fast friendship. That’s what happened to us in Phnom Penh.

It took us a while to settle into the Cambodian capital. This was partly due to the travel advisories we’d read, all of which laboured the danger of theft there: we spent our first day in the city with our bags clutched defensively to our sides. It’s grottier than Hanoi, and not as distinctive visually: the Western influence is more pronounced, which makes it look more like other places. That openness to external influence also reflects an environment that’s more relaxed – more liberal – than Vietnam. The Phnom Penh Post publishes criticisms of the government that would be unthinkable in the Vietnamese papers. There’s a vibrant street press: one free paper I picked up had devoted its front page to the experience of transgender people in Phnom Penh. There were art openings and film screenings – a real sense of buzz, of a multiplicity of voices. The visibility of the gay culture stood out to me too: there were bars with rainbow flags displayed unambiguously in their windows. In Vietnam the scene had been almost invisible. Ben and I never felt uncomfortable there, but people’s assumptions about our relationship imposed a certain discretion: the word most often used to describe us was “friends,” that slightly euphemistic term that I associate with my mother’s generation. It was a relief to arrive somewhere where we were recognised as the couple we are.

Our first encounter took place in a trendy café on Street 240. (The streets in Phnom Penh are numbered: even numbers for the streets running east to west, odd for north to south.) There were two people beside us conferring over coffee: they would not have looked out of place in a Melbourne laneway. When Ben and I were leaving, one of them leaned over and handed me his card. He’d opened a laneway bar nearby: he invited us to drop by. We took him up on his invitation: up a winding flight of stairs into a space elegantly furnished with recycled timber. Our host Vithara sat with us all night. He seemed emblematic of the city we were getting to know: its exciting sense of activity, its design sensibility, its hospitality. The bar we were sitting in was not his only enterprise; he also made clothes and was outfitting the shop space below to sell them in. The meeting we’d witnessed that morning was about a second bar he’s opening around the corner. Later, a middle-aged Swiss man came in and sat at the bar. Hans had been living in Cambodia for five years: expats seem more common than tourists in Phnom Penh, which changes the way they inhabit the city. (You’re as likely to see a Westerner riding to work in a suit as walking around with a camera.) We’d been afforded a glimpse into everyday Phnom Penh, and it was thanks to the magic key.

The next morning we discovered how small the city is. (Phnom Penh’s a city of about 2.2 million people, making it a little larger than Perth.) We went out to breakfast at a café on Street 136, and it turned out our barista Kosal (who prides himself on the elaborate drawings he makes in the milk froth on his coffees) was Hans’ partner of almost five years. On the strength of this coincidence he invited us out to dinner. Later that night, Kosal and Hans showed up on their motorbikes outside our hotel, and we rode through the warm night to a restaurant near the Independence Monument. At dinner Kosal told us about his childhood in the countryside; like Vithara, he moved into the city to make a living. Hans told us that our hotel used to be an apartment building: he lived in it when he first moved to Cambodia. (We worked out that our room used to be his kitchen.) We’d only spent three days in Phnom Penh, and already we’d met more people socially than we had in three weeks in Vietnam. The easy, expansive welcome we encountered was especially noticeable after the more matter-of-fact manners of the Vietnamese: it seemed to be typical of the Khmer people. (I quickly learned how to say “I’m well,” in Khmer because in Cambodia people actually ask you how you are.)

Cambodia is emphatically a kingdom. The reign of the last king, Norodom Sihanouk, spanned the first 50 years of the country’s independence: he was its prime political force until the coup that overthrew him in 1970, and he returned to the throne in 1993. In many shops and homes you still see portraits of Sihanouk and his wife, along with Sihamoni, the son who succeeded him in 2004. On one of our nights out, I asked about the special regard that Khmers seem to have for their rulers. The guy we were chatting to was about our age; he was frankly ambivalent about Norodom Sihamoni. The king, he implied, is gay, and came to the throne only reluctantly. Sihamoni is (for a monarch) conspicuously single; his father said of him that he “loves women as his sisters”. (Prior to his death, Sihanouk came out in support of gay marriage.) Before he was summoned to the throne, Sihamoni studied dance and film; later he lived in Paris, working as a dance instructor. I thought the guy’s ambivalence was interesting: the possibility that the king was gay wasn’t cause for identification, but rather a sense of disappointment. It reminded me of the way some people used to talk about Ian Thorpe before he came out: sure he must be gay, frustrated because he wasn’t upfront about it. (Ben thought it was the king’s reluctance to rule that disappointed him: the fact that he served his people only unwillingly.) I found the idea of a reluctant, artistic prince being thrust into power quite touching.

Soon afterwards, an ocker Australian man came over and introduced himself. He was a farmer from remote South Australia, he said, in the closet at home; until recently he’d been responsible for the care of his ailing mother. He’s spending a year now travelling the globe. In his sixties, he’s travelling like a backpacker in his twenties: with rough good humour he described his border crossing from Thailand on the bus. Now here he was in this unpretentious gay bar in Phnom Penh, introducing himself to everyone in turn, looking forward to his stay in a “men’s resort” in Siem Reap. In some ways his story was much like the king’s: duty at home, a measure of freedom abroad. The magic key is not always liberating; sometimes it can lock you in.