Over the past few days I have been contemplating whether it’s too soon to write this blog post – which shows a darker side to Cambodia. However, I think it is an important message so the sooner I share it the better…
For those who are lucky enough to have travelled to Cambodia, you will know what I am talking about. For those who haven’t I hope I deliver this message well.
Without realising it, I booked our first week of accommodation smack bang in the middle of the ‘red light’ district, next door to the famous ‘Walkabout’ pub. This is where you’ll see Western men drinking from the early hours of the morning and the young Cambodian women seeking out their next ‘customer’. About a block down St 51 you come to the outdoor mall, which is where a lot of the action happens and is precisely where I spent every night last week, sipping coconuts and watching the theatre that is Cambodian nightlife.
As confronting as it is, ‘Sex Tourism’ is huge here. I can confidently say that I saw less than a handful of Western women during my week on St 51. 99% of the men would be over 60yrs and 99% of the Cambodian females would be under 30yrs. I remember this really bothering me on my first trip to Phuket, many years ago, and I am not sure if I have hardened over the years of traveling but I now see the benefits it provides both the girls and their customers.
My first ‘Taxi Girl’ (Read:Prostitute) friend in Cambodia was Ata, she has pretty limited English but asked if I would like to play a game of pool. We didn’t exchange too much in the way of conversation initially but over the coming days I would come to learn her story and that of many of her friends who hang out along St 51. Of course, that is until they go to ‘work’ at around 9pm. They are stunners.
Ata’s day – Wake up in a customers room, on the floor of a friends room, I did see her one morning asleep in a tuk tuk at around 9am, she is homeless and has been in the same clothes every day since I met her one week ago. If there are no customers there is no food, both of her parents have died and she was staying with a cousin but he has since kicked her out, the last of her remaining family. Her afternoon is spent whiling away the hours with friends. There is a real camaraderie between the ladies, if one person gets a customer they buy food for the rest. They have never asked me for anything but to join my table and share what food they have with me until 9pm, when it is time to go out and find customers…the going rate is USD10-15. Some of the girls have excellent English and even German, who can get up to USD50, but this is rare.
Those with little or no English often go with locals, who don’t always pay and can be a lot of trouble. I was chatting to an American social worker who has seen a young girl get in the back of a van with 5 men for USD10. Sickening, so in a way the ‘Barang’ (foreigner) is the better and usually safer option.
Then there is Alin whose mother presumably sold her into the sex industry. She was 13. Yes, thirteen. Her mother told her it was her “Desinty”. Virginity is a prized possession which people pay top dollar for.
Along St 51 you don’t come across any child sex, they are all willing participants and there is a real flow on affect. The whole area benefits, the restaurants, tuk tuk drivers, bars and hotels. The really bad stuff apparently happens out of the city – the kind of stuff that makes you sick to your stomach.
For these uneducated women they pretty much have the choice of 2 options, 1. Sex worker or 2. Textiles worker. That’s some decision to make.
I have met some friends who have been filming the textiles (slave labour) industry just outside of Phnom Penh. These massive factories owned by the Chinese, making Levi’s, ect. have literally hundreds of trucks entering every morning at around 6am, spewing out workers ready for their punishing 12 hour day. Six days a week. For USD60 a month. Check the label on your clothes, as the Chinese have moved into Cambodia. Apparently it’s cheaper labour, but thats another story…
I was joking the other day with a friend that there is a short sightedness amongst these workers, USD15 a week of grueling labour versus USD15 a night with a stranger. Mathematically, it’s a no-brainer but what happens when their looks fade?
Frustrating, confronting, sobering and infuriating – all at once. What can we do to help?
I believe it starts with education. To the credit of some of the older men I have met here, they are paying for their ‘girlfriends’ to go to school/university, which will hopefully break the cycle. There are organisations you can support which are educating children and families such as Child Safe www.childsafe.org. The Cambodia Children’s Fund, which I support www.cambodiachildrensfund.org and am donating 50% of the profits from my cookbook www.urbanforage.co/world-tables to do an amazing job of providing education, food and work to families to help them break out of the poverty cycle. Get on board, make a donation or you can simply buy my book.
I don’t necessarily ‘blame’ the western men – the majority of them just want something maybe they can’t get back at home…attention..or something else. I don’t blame the girls either – the majority of them don’t have the education to see past the prostitution. I just believe it’s important to create awareness and every little bit we can do, will help.
SHARE this post with your friends and family – it’s an important message, sign up for my weekly update if you haven’t already and think about what it is you can do to help.
Here’s a controversial question for you… Is it wrong to teach prostitutes to speak better English so they can get better paying customers?