“…in that drunken place
like to hand your heart to her
give it back.”
–Charles Bukowski, The People Look Like Flowers at Last
I wasn’t sure how to frame this conversation on my last night in Cambodia. I wasn’t even sure I should write about it at all. But certain conversations stick with you as you travel the world, and parts of those conversations need to be recorded for others.
When I visited Cambodia, I saw a beautiful country that has been through hell — I witnessed extreme poverty like I’ve never seen before or since. I heard stories from longtime expats who worked with NGOs about the struggles in a corrupt nation in which most of the educated people were slaughtered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Without an educated class, the country has sputtered along with a lack of capable leadership.
At the Cambodian Landmine Museum, I was told not to give money to child vendors or beggars. The idea is that they earn plenty of money when they’re young and cute, but they miss out on education. As they grow older, tourists are less sympathetic and the children are forced into other lines of work — the boys turn to gangs and drugs, and the girls end up in prostitution or other exploitative work where they make little or no money. According to a report by Emma Poole in 2001, the sex trade in Cambodia was valued at $511 million, involving about 50,000 women many of whom were under 18 years old. I was told that through the work of many education funds in the country, there are fewer child beggars today, thus improving the overall situation for the future of Cambodia.
There are even some NGOs that have helped former sex workers learn skills and find work. There was one local non-profit art shop in Siem Reap that was established by former prostitutes and employed others. Other small businesses supported education or healthcare.
When I reached Phnom Penh, I discovered that my hotel was not in such a desirable neighborhood — it was between the night market, port, Central Market, and palace. While this area has a lot of restaurants and hotels, it is mostly home to an abundance of girl bars. As the name implies, these bars employ young women whose job it is to keep the customers company and attempt to get the customers to purchase drinks for them at inflated prices (at least $3 for a small glass of soda compared with about $1.50 for a beer for the customer). For a price, patrons can even take these women back to their hotel rooms (or other cheap places as many hotels have signs denying entrance to sex tourists).
As I walked around in search of a bar that didn’t double as a brothel, I watched foreigners casually enter and exit the girl bars. After eating a snack on the street near my hotel, I saw the women at one bar buy some cheap snacks from two young girls who were missing out on their education. The women at the bar offered the girls makeup and let them walk around a bit in their too-large high heeled shoes. Is this the future these poor girls will have to endure?
I wanted to better understand the lives of these women, and decided to find one of the quieter bars with outdoor seating. I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in anything more than a beer and conversation — I demanded to know prices before ordering anything to avoid getting ripped off. As there was only one other customer at the time, a few girls came to my table (all but one left when it was obvious that I wasn’t going to spend much money).
The one that stayed spoke a little English but a lot more Mandarin, which she had only been learning for about a year. I knew China had been investing quite a bit in infrastructure and manufacturing in Cambodia, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that the young women at these bars would speak Mandarin to serve the Chinese businessmen. At first I was happy to practice my Mandarin with someone — it was a bit labored and rusty, but I managed to have a pleasant conversation. The boss was sitting nearby, and he wanted to know why I was speaking to his employee in a language he didn’t understand — it was then that I realized the young woman speaking with me was more comfortable talking because her boss didn’t understand.
The inside of the bar was a bit noisy and dimly lit with pale blue lighting. The small space had white bar next to a full-sized pool table at which a large middle-aged European was playing with one girl wrapped around him and a few others acting as bored spectators. I didn’t make a note of it, but there were at least ten young women working in the small bar with only one real customer.
As we spoke more outside, a few of the other young women came to sit outside — they offered me some of the grilled snakes and who-knows-what that they bought from the wandering vendors. None of them spoke much more than a few basic phrases of English, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Most of what they asked me was translated into Mandarin, and my responses were translated back from Mandarin. They were mostly interested in my age, nationality, and family (an obvious gauge of potential customers), but they also asked me about my travels.
As I had realized that the boss didn’t understand Mandarin, I began asking some serious questions the answers to which I sort of already knew. I began with the simple question of how much education the young women had. I was told that none of them had more than two years of formal education — they only knew some basics and learned foreign languages to drum up business.
The last question I asked was, “Do you ever feel afraid at work?” The young woman replied in Mandarin, “Yes, all the time.” She stopped smiling as she said this and turned her eyes to the floor.
I followed that question with lighter conversation unrelated to their work — I no longer wanted to hear answers to those questions. I bought the Mandarin-speaking woman a drink in the hope that she would keep some of that money. I thank her and the others for talking with me and headed back to my hotel to pack for my flight to Hanoi the next afternoon.