Two years ago, 24-year-old Yi Sal was scrolling through his newsfeed on Facebook when he saw a pretty girl he’d never seen before.
“I added her and start chatting with her,” the mustached singer and drummer said on a recent afternoon at Hun Sen park in Phnom Penh. The two met up at a local coffee shop and hit it off.
“Before, I had a few girlfriends, but now only one,” he said.
Young, urban Cambodians like Mr. Sal are increasingly turning to their smartphones and computers to like, swipe and chat their way to romance, bucking deep-seated cultural norms on courtship in the process.
The digital platforms—which include local entrant Matchstix as well as international services like Facebook, Badoo and Tinder— are capitalizing on cultural shifts, along with technological trends.
“Traditionally, most marriages were arranged and therefore most relationships were deprived of the ‘romance’ associated with the individual autonomy of choosing one’s partner,” writes anthropology academic Heidi Hoefinger in “Sex, Love, and Money in Cambodia.”
Pop songs, karaoke videos, films and magazines have edged aside older cultural mores, according to Ms. Hoefinger. “The dominant sexual culture for contemporary young people in Cambodia is filled with strong themes of romance, love, and heartache.”
One business hoping to take advantage of the changing times is Australian tech company MobiMedia. When the company launched matchmaking app Matchstix last July, they pitched it as a way for Cambodians to meet new friends, out of concern that online matchmaking for overtly romantic purposes might be too risque.
“I think Cambodians are in theory very conservative, and their parents are conservative,” said marketing and operations manager Klara Grintal at MobiMedia’s astro-turfed conference room—filled with neon beanbags—in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang I commune.
“But if you go to the coffee shops, and you listen to conversations young Cambodians are having—and the kinds of messages they are exchanging—these are not very conservative at all,” she said.
Matchstix has been a relative success in its first six months, clocking nearly 200,000 users who have made over 70,000 matches as of February 8, according to Ms. Grintal.
Users of the app, which initially launched in Khmer and is now also available in English, are presented with photos of another user who fits their specific age, gender and distance criteria. They then swipe right on someone they’d like to know better—either as friends, or something more.
The interface resembles a bubblier, somewhat clunkier version of the dating app Tinder, which boasts more than 50 million users around the world. It’s a comparison Matchstix wants to avoid out of fear that Cambodians may find the latter service unfamiliar and unsafe.
In addition to focusing on a Khmer-language audience, Matchstix’s visuals and marketing materials come in various shades of red and pink.
“So if you are—excuse my French—a sleazy 70-year-old trying to find a girl, it’s highly unlikely you’d use [Matchstix],” Ms. Grintal said.
She acknowledged that the app’s aesthetics cannot ward off all predatory behavior among the user base—which is currently almost three-quarters male—particularly if it happens outside the digital realm.
Some 21 percent of Cambodian men admitted to having perpetrated rape at some point in their lives, according to a 2013 U.N. report, which found that just over a quarter of Cambodian women had experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a partner.
Though some young women in Phnom Penh said they would be fine meeting someone in person after chatting on the app, others were less sure. An 18-year-old who gave her name only as Vannarin said she found the idea “scary,” though three of her friends sitting in Wat Botum park said they would consider it.
Another 18-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous, said she would never meet up with a stranger she had met online.
“I almost got rape once, so yeah, you know?” she wrote over the messaging and matchmaking app Badoo.
Still, with more and more users signing up every day, Ms. Grintal said Matchstix has embraced its role as a matchmaker. “This year we are all about love, and dates, and romance, and so on.”
But to win the hearts of Cambodia’s smartphone generation, Matchstix will have to pull them away from an online service not designed specifically for matchmaking: Facebook.
Vannak Ken, a 22-year-old Norton University student, had never heard of Matchstix. Instead, he has found partners on Facebook using a protocol now familiar to many Cambodians his age.
It starts when he gets a friend request from a stranger.
“The person adds me and comes to my profile to like a photo,” Mr. Ken said. “Then they chat to me or I chat to them. After a [few] weeks or days of chatting, we go outside—to the park, or to the cinema.”
The phenomenon has an analog precedent. For years, Cambodians have deliberately called “wrong” numbers to meet new people, according to Daniel McFarland, a Ph.D candidate at Australian National University who has studied the trend.
“This practice has produced new social connections that crisscross the country, leading to marriage, internal migration and a reshaping the the geography of kinship in the country,” Mr. McFarland wrote in an email.
Online matchmaking has some parallels, Mr. McFarland said, but trades serendipity for algorithms and smartphone “selfies.”
“Like elsewhere in the world, I think that physical presentation through photos will increasingly be part of the courting culture in Cambodia,” he wrote.
These rituals are a moot point for the millions of young, single Cambodians who still lack access to smartphones or the Internet. (About one-third of Cambodians were connected to the Internet last year, according to government data.)
But even among those who are connected, there remains a desire for real-world introductions to potential partners.
Seventeen-year-old Phnom Penh high school student Vin Ka has never experimented with apps like Matchstix. He met his current girlfriend at school two months ago.
“We teach each others while studying in Khmer class,” he said, adding that he hasn’t told his parents about the relationship. “They [will] worry that I think about love, not studying.”
And some young Cambodians still think parents are still in the best position to pick their future partners. Keo Kouch Savann, also 17, is single, but said the system of parental matchmaking had its merits.
“Maybe they find a good person for us, better than we would find,” he said. “They know a lot of things better than us.”