At Java Cafe by Independence Monument, that ever-popular daytime haunt of non-traditionally employed Phnom Penh expats, Nerd Night organisers Lizzie and Mitsy are having a spirited discussion about the Netflix documentary series, Wild Wild Country.
Debating the teachings of a fringe cult leader seems appropriate for people involved a forum for passionate individuals to hold forth on often niche obsessions – and since its conception in 2011, Nerd Night has built up a cult following, too. Like all great things, the event grew out of drunk chat in the back of a tuktuk, when a group of expats excitedly nerding out over subjects they knew and loved decided to try and have those conversations sober.
Inspired by an event of the same name at the Rhode Island School of Design, Nerd Night lets anyone give a talk on anything from Scientology to the history of tattooing, as long as they can do it with 20 slides and 20 seconds per slide. After each talk, the audience can ask questions, and there are usually 4-6 talks per night.
Lizzie, whose Nerd Night title is “Party Bong” has made a career out of curiosity, working in development and social science research. Her first Nerd Night Talk, given on her third night in the ‘Penh in 2012, was on her Master’s thesis: Macaus in the Peruvian Amazon. So yeah, niche.
Back then, Nerd Night was held at Pontoon. The social aspect is, she says, still a big draw, and one she builds on by organising special events, games and generally creating a fun atmosphere. Lizzie also met one of her best friends through the experience – another speaker, who was doing a “not very scientific, but fun” talk about undercover sex signals.
Mitsy, or “Slide Bong” as she’s called at Nerd Night (she runs the slides), also comes from an academic background – she has a PhD in Social Anthropology – and fell in love with the concept within a few weeks of arriving in the city. Having just ended a relationship with a woman back in the States before moving to Phnom Penh with her male partner (Mike Dynamo of Hypnotic Fist Technique fame), her first talk was on bisexuality – something which, she admits, made for an interesting Q&A with her boyfriend in the audience!
Nerd Nights that stand out most to Lizzy and Mitsy over the years include one on ‘smart cows’, a recent debate on whether Cambodia is a developing country, and a fascinating presentation by a choreographer on the 20-or-so dance forms seen in Cambodia, from traditional ballet all the way to the ‘drunk backpacker.’ A pee-ce on the research behind why asparagus makes some people’s pee smell weird was awarded a Pee-HD by the committee, while a serious piece on gender by a trans speaker from the Philippines silenced an overtly masculine audience at Score Bar. Topics range anywhere from political correctness to Flat Earth and Lizard People conspiracy theories.
They don’t all go down well. Lizzie warns against self-help/motivational speech-style talks, while Mitsy doesn’t enjoy ‘empty opinionated rants.’ They agree that you should decide what you want your audience to take away from the talk and be prepared to defend your ideas to the audience during the Q&A.
Nerd Night offers a fun, engaging and intriguing alternative to the usual range activities in Phnom Penh. It’s great for a curious audience, while for speakers, provided you have a passion for the subject and can talk about it for six minutes, you’ll be welcomed into the fold with open, nerdy arms.
The next Nerd Night will be held on August 27th at The Factory and will be all about conspiracy theories. If you want to get involved in future events, email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.