Who is she?
The biggest addition to this website in recent months is my newly published Cambodia FAQ. In writing this FAQ, for the first time on this website, I crossed a line which I had mulled over crossing for months. I began discussing prostitution in Cambodia and in doing so I, albeit tersely, provided some information about getting companionship for the night. Now that I've crossed that line, it's best I start trying to explain the culture of prostitution in Cambodia as I see it.
As I comment in the FAQ, prostitution in, not just Cambodia, but all of Asia is not the same as it in the west. There is a myriad of cultural, social, and economic factors that are absent in the western model and passing judgment on the workers, their customers, or the whole culture of prostitution using western ideas of morality, ethics, male-female dynamics, etc is specious at best. It is a different world over here and trying to argue the prostitution industry, either pro or con, from a western perspective is like explaining how to fly an airplane by using a helicopter.
There is no unilateral generalization one can make either about the girls in the business or their customers. Though consistencies abound, there's a story for every one of them. Here's the story of one such girl. Call her Navi. You've seen her at Martini's. Cambodian, about 5'1", 22 years old, long dark hair, smiles a lot, yeah, that's the one, right, you know her. Sure.
Navi was a good kid raised in Phnom Penh. Though her family wasn't dirt poor, they were still a working class family, surviving on the couple of dollars a day her father earned as a laborer and her older brother earned as a motorcycle taxi driver.
She respected her parents and tried to be the obedient daughter. She believed that if she did as she was told by her parents and tried her best to maintain behavior as dictated by her culture, life would be okay.
When she was 18, a neighbor she knew, though not well, came to visit her parents. Thy, 20 years old, worked as a welder in a metal shop. He wanted to marry Navi. The parents knew Thy's family and thought he was as good of a suitor as any and suggested to Navi that she should take this opportunity. Respecting her parents wishes, Navi agreed. Eight months later they were married. Navi was now 19.
But Thy was not a good husband. He stayed out with his friends, drinking and gambling. One night he came home drunk and angry for having lost his salary in a game of cards and he took his anger out on his wife. It would not be the last time. He ordered her around and demanded sex from her regardless of what she wanted. As with many Cambodian couples she became pregnant soon after marriage and then, barely 20 years old, she had a baby girl.
With a baby to care for, Navi expected better from her husband and began complaining of his irresponsible behavior. He responded by throwing both her and the now six-month-old baby out of the house. She returned to her parents who told her that if her husband was displeased with her then she should try harder to be a good wife. She went back to her husband who refused to let her into the house, telling her there was no reason why he should put up with her nagging when there were plenty of other women out there he could have any time.
Again she pleaded with her parents to take her in but they'd have none of it. She was married now. She had responsibilities to her husband. Try harder they told her.
She was at the end. Her family wouldn't take her back. Having been married, she was no longer a virgin and as a single woman with a baby, she was of no use to anybody. No Cambodian man would ever take her in, either.
A friend agreed to take her in for a few days, but her friend's husband didn't want Navi and the baby around for long. She'd have to find another place and soon.
Navi was deeply depressed and one evening, after a little too much cheap whiskey, she burned a few holes in her arm with a cigarette. Not satisfied with the cigarette burns, a few shots of whiskey later, she slashed the wrists of her left arm a dozen times. But she lived.
A trip to the hospital patched her up but she had to find another place to go. She called on an old neighbor who had been through a similar situation but was making it on her own now. Her friend, Sochea, agreed to take her and the baby in, but Navi would have to find a way to make money. Jobs? Navi has hardly a grade school education and like many Khmer girls from poorer families she's barely literate. Perhaps she could find a job cleaning rooms in a hotel for $18 a month plus meals... or... perhaps not.
The physical wounds on her arm would heal, but inside she was still depressed and desperate. She had to make money. Sochea suggested Navi do what she does to support herself. Work the bars.
Be a taxi girl? Navi didn't think much of this idea. She didn't really understand what this entailed except she'd be using her body to make money. Brothel work, karaoke parlors, what?
Sochea explained. Work the bars. Work the foreigner bars. Freelance. Two nights, three nights, four nights a week, maybe every night, whatever you want, go where the foreigners go. They pay better and they will rarely ever hit you. Forget Cambodian men. And who knows, Sochea told her, you might find a boyfriend to support you and your baby.
She spoke no English at the time, but Sochea would teach her enough to get by. And with some trepidation, Navi followed Sochea out to Martini's one night.
That was over a year ago. Navi still works. She'll take at least eight or ten customers a month usually getting $20 each time. It's more money than she ever thought she'd make. Does she like it? No, not really, but the other alternatives are far more grim. And it's a living and her daughter is cared for. And for better or for worse, it's a lifestyle she's grown accustomed to.
She still sees her family. Navi will visit them a couple of times a month and give them some money, usually around $20 with each visit, which they gladly take, never asking her how she got it. But she figures they must know. She's bitter about her parents and their refusal to take her in when her husband threw her out, but family is family and she helps them. After all, there are younger brothers and sisters who did nothing wrong. But Navi feels she didn't do anything wrong, either.
She knows she's dirt in the eyes of her own culture, but she couldn't care less about that. Not anymore. There was a time, she recalls, returning to a hotel with a customer, that a local man rode by on a motorbike and yelled at her that she was a rotten whore that should be ashamed of herself for screwing foreigners for a living, with emphasis on foreigners. The words hurt but she got over it. The motorbike driver could just as easily been her husband, or any of her friend's abusive husbands and former husbands. And she reminds herself that she did exactly as her culture dictated and her culture failed her for doing so. If a Cambodia man doesn't like what I do, so be it.
She's still legally married to Thy, who can't be bothered to go through the legalities of divorcing her. Still, Thy has expressed no interest in Navi or his daughter and she has no desire to know what he does now.
She also knows that she's lucky. She knows that many girls in the business work in brothels with little choice of who they serve or how often. Navi does as she pleases. If she doesn't like a man, she can tell him 'no'. And she has another option - no condom, no service. Well, most of the time.
Sometimes she enjoys her customers, genuinely liking some of the guys she meets and she has a couple of regulars she's always happy to see. There are others, though, who are stinky old drunks that she can't wait to be rid of. But what she really hopes is that one of these regulars will become her boyfriend one day and take care of her and her daughter. She'll wait. She'll even try to be a good wife again. If she can remember how.
Sometimes she looks at the scars on her left wrist and forearm and she worries. She worries about the future and whether circumstances might lead her to another episode like that night well over a year ago. 'What can I do? My life is not my choice," she sighs in resignation.
In the meantime, she's standing around Martini's. She's one of the friendlier ones. Walk up and say 'hi'.
In mid-April they officially opened the Koh Kong to Sre Ambel road. Much ballyhooed, this road is the long awaited overland link between Phnom Penh and Thailand. We all heard the fanfare and optimistically expected a wonderful advancement in Cambodia's infrastructure.
I tried out this new road in early June. It was actually my second time on this highway, as back in January I covered the still yet to be completed (well, it’s still yet to be completed) road on motorcycle and was foolishly and naively excited by what I saw.
This time I was in a share taxi, your standard Toyota Camry thing. If you've been to Cambodia you’ve seen, umm, a few. I stupidly expected a fast and comfortable ride. That didn’t last long. Only six weeks since the road’s Grand Opening, and this road is crap. It took six hours to cover the 145 kilometers and it wasn’t so much the ferry delays but all the mud. We slipped. We slid. We slopped. Several times we, the five passengers, had to jump out and push our taxi out of the mud. Hey, this is Cambodia, I should be used to this, right? Yes, I am used to it, but this is a new road!!! Brand spanking new road!!!!
I can understand the desire to get these roads open to traffic as quickly as possible, but please, if you’re going to “open” a road, at least see that it's usable. Six weeks this thing’s been “open” and it’s already virtually useless. A few really heavy rains and nothing is going to get through.
Guys, do us a favor, next time you tell us a road is “open”, finish it first.
On that note, anyone been on the Siem Reap to Sisophon road lately? The road that in early 2001 was reconstructed and surprisingly (and most unlike the Koh Kong – Sre Ambel road) held up beautifully through the last rainy season. Well, that road is fast disappearing. Seems during the dry season a bit (okay, more than a bit) of the top layer blew off into the surrounding rice fields.
At least because they had the sense to raise this road, it’s not going to flood out, but the ride is once again as bone-jarring as it ever was. Guys, maintenance. It’s in the dictionary. Please look this word up and after digesting the meaning, throw some fresh dirt on that road. You can find plenty of it in the rice fields. It’s the dirt that used to be part of the road. Put it back.
Solving the share taxi problem
Share taxis. If you live
here you’ve had to use them a few times. If you’re a tourist you might
find yourself in one, but more likely you’re going to put yourself in
a tourist bus (bad idea). But the taxis/trucks can sometimes be a real
pain themselves. You head to the taxi/truck stand where the vehicles are
but before you even reach there some truck driving around in circles practically
runs you over hoping you’ll hop in. Ignoring him, you reach the taxi/truck
stand and thirty touts are running around like baboons trying to fill
ten vehicles simultaneously. No wonder you have to wait an hour or two
Then there’s the matter
of money. Believe it or not, these routes run more or less on fixed rates
and bargaining doesn’t really come into play – unless you’re a foreigner,
then suddenly you’re expected (or they hope, anyway) to pay double, triple,
or whatever they can rip you off for. Never mind the locals are all paying
the same price with little or no negotiation.
Here’s A VERY SIMPLE SOLUTION to a big headache:
All long distance taxis,
vans, pick-up trucks should be required to wait in organized queues at
specific locations in each town. No vehicle may take on a passenger until
the vehicle in front of it is full and departed. Exceptions may be made
in the case of trucks, if for example, a passenger wishes to ride in the
front, but the next vehicle out is full in the front and is only waiting
for a couple of more people to ride in the back. Any vehicle that takes
a passenger outside of the queue would be subjected to a considerable
fine. I’m sure the police would be happy to enforce this law. Imagine
what would happen! No more annoying touts, no more trucks driving around
in circles, no more waiting for an hour or two while ten vehicles all
fight for the same passengers.
And as for pricing, well, seeing as pricing is fairly standard if you know the game, why not require all share taxis, vans, trucks to post the rates in the window? This would eliminate tourist rip-offs and give places like Banteay Meanchey province (Sisophon/Poipet) no excuse for silly ideas like all tourists have to ride in tourist buses because of too many problems with the trucks. Standardize the rates and require them to be posted. Any vehicle that takes passengers and doesn't display the posted rates in the window or charges above the posted rate – big fine. There. Simple. Done.
A sure fire way to increase tourist revenues in Siem Reap - eliminate the requirement that Angkor tickets must be used on consecutive days.
I brought this point up last year, but seeing as it's the low season and things are rather quiet in Siem Reap, I see no reason why I shouldn't bring it up again.... really, why not allow three-day Angkor tickets to be used on any three days, in say, a one-week period, and allow seven-day tickets to be used over the course of two weeks?
What is the point of requiring tickets to be used on consecutive days? If they’re worried that someone will get into the temples without having their ticket punched, why not, with each day's entry, punch or stamp the actual day on the ticket instead of just a hole as they do now? That way any ticket checker in the temples can verify if the person is punched in for that particular day and send them back if they aren't .
I see no reason why there would be any difficulty in implementing this policy and it would certainly encourage tourists to stay in Siem Reap longer. Longer stay = more money spent. There. Simple. Done.
Fielding's Most Dangerous Places
I was recently in a bookstore in the USA (I'm presently making my annual three-week visit to the States and having quite a laugh at everybody complaining about the terrible heat, it's what, all of 93 with humidity the fraction of what it is in Southeast Asia... c'mon folks, get real). Anyway, I chanced to see the latest edition of Fielding's Most Dangerous Places and expectedly, Cambodia is still listed, though it's only a two-star destination now.
But what absolute crap!!!
This book has to be one of the most irresponsible pieces of garbage published on Cambodia in, oh, about four or five years. They talk about the perils of Pailin, of the dangers of rural travel, the trouble of Ratanakiri, roadblocks! extortion! guns! robbery! murder! And then, Fielding's, a company that purports to promote independent, make up your own mind adventure travel goes on about how various embassies and consulates offer dire warnings of the perils of overland travel. Get real guys!
I have been all over Ratanakiri. I have been to Pailin. Hundreds of foreigners travel overland daily without incident. Nobody's been held up on the highways here in ages. And Fielding's certainly ought to know that embassy reports are irresponsibly conservative to the point of being highly questionable as to their usefulness.
Without question, where Cambodia is concerned, the Fielding's Most Dangerous Places is absolute fiction. It reports half-truths, out-dated information, and reports isolated incidents as commonplace. If you purchase this book, be advised, you have purchased a book of FICTION.
More on Guidebooks
Later this year Rough Guide will be offering its first Cambodia guidebook and Lonely Planet will be bringing out the fourth edition to their Cambodia guide. Upon publication, I will review on this website both of these books in detail.
Baggage trolleys at Siem Reap airport
A while back I complained in one of my columns about the lack of baggage trolleys in the domestic arrivals terminal of the Siem Reap airport. On a subsequent arrival I found a generous supply of baggage trolleys and praised CAMS (Cambodia Airport Management Services) for this change. Well, that was rather stupid of me.
A couple of weeks ago I flew up from Phnom Penh with 95 kilograms of packages (picture frames, as usual). No trolleys. I walked outside, ignoring all the shouts for 'taxi, taxi', and looked around. No trolleys. I asked one of the CAMS employees for a trolley, "no have," he said. "I have 95 kilograms of packages," I answered. Then with one of those stupid grins that makes westerners want to punch somebody in the face, he reiterated, "no have" with the obvious intent of making no effort to locate one for me. "I have 95 f#%king kilograms of packages," I replied in a quiet, yet firm and icy manner. Silence.
That does it.
Regrettably, lack of time prevented me from popping over to the international terminal and bawling out one of CAMS managers, but CAMS is going to hear it good and loud from me if this EVER occurs again (actually they're going to hear about it good and loud when I get back to Siem Reap, but I'm in the States at the moment).
Are you people f%&king retarded? This is an airport, which you are trying to upgrade, in one of the world's premier tourist destinations and you can't supply a simple baggage trolley? And your idiot employees can only stand around with an incomprehensible shit-eating grin and say "no have". And for this crappy service you have the audacity to charge $5 domestic departure tax and $15 international departure tax? And might I add, that CAMS is NOT a Cambodian operation, but it is FRENCH. Wankers. All of you.
"The Magic of Cambodia"
Going to be in England on the 17th of August? Andy Brouwer is sponsoring the following:
Magic of Cambodia' - Saturday, 17 August 2002
'The Magic of Cambodia'
- Saturday 17 August - will be a day to celebrate all that is positive
about this wonderful country.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Re: A sad passing (June 2002 column):
Sorry to read about the passing of another of your friends. For what it is worth, you should consider yourself lucky to have such good friends that you mourn their passing. Unfortunately, it will become more frequent as time passes. As for the US Embassy, it has been my experience in 36 years of dealing with them, that their level of stupidity, ignorance, arrogance, and self-righteousness is unsurpassed. Unfortunately, we are reminded of this every time we are forced to use their service.
Another Poipet nightmare, as titled by the writer, "Nightmare in Cambodia":
The trip from Bangkok to the border was pleasant. Once we got off the bus and arranged transport to the border by tuk-tuk, then all hell broke out. When we approached the border, hooligans approached the tuk-tuk and boarded from the rear. After much persuasion, the driver was able to dislodge them. When we arrived at the border, several hooligans arrived and insisted on helping us through immigrations. They were helpful in filling out our forms, but it appeared that they were after was separating me and my wife and also separating our carry on suitcase and our individual passports. The man outside of immigration told us he wanted 2100 baht for the visa plus 300 more baht from each of us. I asked him what the 300 baht was for. He said for himself. I told him 20 baht, and no more. He accepted. He then handed the forms and the money - minus 20 baht to the person inside. It appears his does not work for the government and that the government employee is fully aware of the scam. Once we got into Cambodia, we asked to be directed to the bus station. The hooligans said they would take us to the bus station. They tried putting us on separate motorcycles, but we said no. Then a tourist cop showed up. He assured us it was okay and that both of us could ride on the motorcycle along with the driver. The hooligans started to take us to the edge of town. At this time, they arranged for a car to take us to Siem Reap. The driver wanted 2000 baht. I said that was too much and I wanted them to direct me to the bus station. At this time, the tourist cop (the same one as before - tall, dark skin, heavy) appeared. He said the bus would be leaving, but it would be in about 1 and 1/2 hours. He suggested going by car. I said no. I asked to go to the bus station. At this point, the tourist cop told us that only two people can ride on a motorcycle. At this point, we both got off the motorcycle and I once more asked him where the... [Gordon here: At this point the e-mail abruptly ended. Perhaps the author's blood pressure had reached a lethal level and he dropped dead at his keyboard.]
An overseas Khmer pays his homeland a visit:
I was in Cambodia in September 2000! I 'see' exactly the scene when you talk about touts! I think, as an overseas Cambodian, I met more problems about touts than the westerners! At the immigration in Pochentong, I was "obliged" to give USD 5 tip.
When I arrived at the bus station in Sisophon (Sway) en route to Siem Riep, many taxi drivers jumped on me (and my wife who didn't understand Khmer) to propose their services (I think we paid more than the price you mentioned even I speak Khmer)! I was surprised, shocked, nervous, .... and not very happy. BUT when I reviewed the scene later and saw that among the touts there were a lot of children, I was shocked to unable to help them! They are obliged to do that to survive! Anyway, overland travel through Cambodia is a big experience and that is the only thing -- good and bad -- that I have never forgotten until today! I have to mention also that the problem of touts is not the image of Cambodia, there many places where this problem is in existence!
Things are really slow in Siem Reap in June. It's historically one of the two slowest months of the year (September is the other) so it's a good time to leave for awhile. Of course I said that in April on account of it being so darn hot that I bailed and went to China for five weeks as I've done four of the past five years. But I went a little further this time, flying back to the USA, seeing the folks and stuff and it's from there that I'm sending this column.
Not much culture shock, I'm only visiting. I suppose if I was returning to live I'd be in a pickle, but I'm not and have no intention of doing so. It's just another country to pass through.
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