With an increased number of expats and locals signing up for mobile dating apps, the country’s romance scene has shifted. Ahead of Valentine’s Day, writer Joanna Mayhew explores the world of digital love. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

For better or worse, the advent of dating apps has changed how we make relationships in the modern world. As opposed to online dating sites of the past, which required long profiles and monthly fees to create ideal matches – not to mention old fashioned, real-life connections – current-day applications can be downloaded from smartphones in seconds and at no charge, immediately presenting users with a stack of potential matches, based simply on their proximity.

As the fad has been growing globally, particularly among those in their 20s and 30s, it perhaps comes as no surprise that dating apps have hit Cambodia. While a handful are now available in country, from Grindr to Badoo and Twoo, the most prevalent among expats is, by far, Tinder, which boasts a worldwide total of nine billion ‘matches’ and has steadily gained popularity in the capital during the last two years. Known more commonly as a hook-up app, it allows users to swipe right on photos of potential connections for ‘yes,’ and left to discard them. When both people swipe right, they are notified and can start chatting, if desired.

Seeking Connection
Tinder holds appeal within Phnom Penh’s expat scene for a variety of reasons. Many users turn to it after a break up, and some say it has allowed them to move beyond their friend groups and typical hangouts to meet new people. For others, it can squash loneliness, or serve as just another way to pass downtime.

“You make it what you want,” says 35-year-old Rory Burke, who has used Tinder intermittently for six months. “If you really want to meet a bunch of people, you can swipe right hard.”

As the app encourages users to “keep playing”, many people see it as akin to a game. “It’s nice to get attention; it’s nice when people flirt with you,” says Rose*, a 34-year-old expat who has been experimenting with the app for nine months, by reaching out to both men and women. “It becomes this addiction.”

While Tinder gets a bad rap, users say in a city like Phnom Penh – where limited other online dating options exist – people can sign up for numerous reasons, including simply getting travel tips or looking for more long-term relationships.

“I’m actually dating for the first time in my Phnom Penh life through Tinder,” says Claire*, who has lived in the city for several years but has more recently used the app for casual dating. “It’s changed my whole romantic life here.”

Users say the online format allows you to put your best face forward, and to have serious conversations that would not happen straightaway in bars. “It’s made me realise what I want in a relationship, and what I don’t,” says Rose.

Claire and Rose say they see a growing number of Cambodians on Tinder. But Khmers are also downloading the first exclusively Cambodian app, Matchstix. Launched in 2015, the platform has 174,000 users, according to creators, Mobimedia. While it has a similar interface to Tinder, the dating app is a more “innocent application,” akin to Whatsapp, says marketing and operations manager, Klara Grintal. “People are curious; people are looking for connections,” she says.

Sokonitha Sok, 20, a Matchstix promoter, says the app allows her peers to chat with those they’re interested in, without having to challenge cultural norms by approaching them directly. “It’s quite fun,” she adds.

Romance Ahead?
Of course, many dating apps have down sides. For those seeking a lasting connection, Phnom Penh remains transient, and many users are only passing through.

Women often face misogyny (see #ByeFelipe for the most shocking examples). Or, there are the more odd encounters. Claire recalls coming across a couple seeking a third person for “erotic adventures” while travelling. “I swiped left,” she says.

By design, dating apps can also scream superficiality, as users are judged by a handful of photographs alone. However, many contend this simulates real life more than we’re willing to admit. “When you walk into a bar and you’re single, you’re automatically live swiping – yes, no, yes – to a certain degree,” says Burke.

And users say the app can provide more clarity than meeting someone in passing. “You know where you stand,” says Claire. “There’s no bullshitting.”

In addition, the ease of signing up seems to lessen expectations – perhaps making user experiences more positive. “The apps are built on speed, so maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t,” says Burke. “You’re not as invested… It’s pretty inconsequential to swipe.”

Plus, if things don’t work out, an app debuted last year that does the dumping for you: Binder advertises that with a swipe it’ll notify your other half it’s over.

As Mobimedia expects more app developers to join the game, the platforms look set to stay in Cambodia. Luckily, through them, a surprising number of users seem to have found whatever it is they’re seeking.

“If we take away the stigma about it, at the end of the day, it’s just two people meeting up,” says Claire. “And what’s wrong with that?”

*Names have been changed.