The Game is Afoot – Prostitution in Phnom Penh

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The Game is Afoot in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Prostitution takes many forms.

It’s my first Ugly American sighting and I’ve spotted a fine specimen. He’s in his 50′s, with salt and pepper hair and a Just for Men mustache. He’s stomping up and and down the motel cafe, raising hell because his ‘girl’ is late.

“Call her again. Damn Cambodians are always late!”

“Call her again. Damn Cambodians are always late!” he bellows to the waitress — though, why she’s involved I don’t understand. He’s getting glares from everyone in the area, but is –of course– oblivious. I hate him immediately.

About this time, the ‘girl’ shows up — she’s a pretty Cambodian woman around 18-19 years old, with long black hair and is dressed in designer jeans and the obligatory sparkly top. The US may have invented the Bedazzler, but the Cambodians and Thais have elevated it to an art form.

After enduring a long harangue about her tardiness, she explains that she lives on the far side of the city (a city of 2 million people, no less) and that traffic was slow. “Well, then… you should have left earlier!”

Does foreigner-on-foreigner crime count in this country?

As they sit down to order, he explains that she can have anything she wants and that “they even have Cambodian food here.” She can’t find what she wants on the menu and speaks to the waitress in Khmer.

This provokes a huge laugh and a disbelieving “What? Can’t you read Cambodian?!” from the Ugly American. I start wondering just how much trouble I’d get in if I strangled him — does foreigner-on-foreigner crime even count in this country?

After they finish eating, he pays the meager bill and they stand up from the table. I’m thinking that from here they’ll head to a club or a bar, but instead he marches up the stairs to the room as she follows quietly behind. Apparently, the “wine and dine” portion of the evening is over and it’s time for business.

The next day I find myself sitting once more at the Riverfront Restaurant, checking email and editing photos from the day before. The Riverfront has been my favorite spot for the last couple of days because of its optimal mix of shade, breeze, free wifi, and cheap beer ($.70 draft). It’s a surprisingly tough combination to find — cheap beer spots have wifi that never seems to work or none at all, while the spots with good access want $2.50 for a beer, with food prices scaling accordingly.

I notice that the very sweet and shy waitress is smiling more than usual and paying me a lot of attention.

I notice that the very sweet and shy waitress is smiling more than usual and paying me a lot of attention. She’s quite beautiful and probably about twenty years old, dressed in a matching yellow uniform of a white blouse, tight jacket, and even tighter skirt. Her name turns out to be Chea and she asks me the usual questions of where I’m from, whether I’m working or on holiday, and what I do for a living.

Without prompting, she volunteers that she only makes $15 a month working here and that English school eats up a lot of that. She’s fascinated by my iPhone and says she wants one herself, but they sell for over $400 here in Phnom Penh. As she leans over the table to pick up a glass, she casually adjusts her jacket, giving me a glimpse of her bra. If I had any doubts before, I don’t now — the game is definitely afoot.

As she leans over the table to pick up a glass, she adjusts her jacket, giving me a glimpse of her bra. The game is definitely afoot.

Chea hovers about my table while I tinker and, after awhile, asks if I’ll be here until 5:00. She is about to get off at 3:00, then has English class for two hours. While I’m trying to decide where to go with all of this, she blurts “You go to supermarket?”

I look confused and say “Supermarket? Why?” Suddenly, she’s very embarrassed and I’m not sure what I did wrong. I try again: “Sorry, I don’t understand. What is supermarket?”

Her eyes light up. “Supermarket is big market over that way,” she says, pointing. “They sell all kinds of things there — clothes, dresses, skirts…”

Ahhhh… Now, I understand. I’ve always been too poor to be a Sugar Daddy, so I’m really not quite sure how to react. She’s beautiful and sweet, but the situation involves a kind of sexual calculus that I’m not quite ready for.

“Oh, I see,” I say. “No, I not go tonight — I have to meet a friend.” The look of disappointment on her face is genuine and hits me right in the gut. “But I will see you tomorrow morning, yes?”

With that, she smiles brightly. “Yes, I work tomorrow. I will see you then!”

I pack up and head to the hotel, feeling like a complete bastard. My bus leaves at 7am.

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

DTravelsRound April 26, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Don’t feel like a complete bastard. Don’t even feel a little like a bastard. The person who should feel like a bastard is Ugly American. He only instigates the sex industry in a place where girls don’t really have a choice.
.-= DTravelsRound´s last blog ..Taking it off in Budapest =-.

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Dan - Voyagner April 26, 2010 at 4:50 pm

I can’t think of the name of the place but I recall yellow uniforms on the riverfront. There is no way she is earning $15 a month there more like at least $60 which is still not a lot, more likely around $100. A kid selling those tiny bird eggs on the street will make at least $10. Its sad but I guess it could be worse.

A couple of interesting Cambodia stories you got.
.-= Dan – Voyagner´s last blog ..Travel Money Guide: Travel Debit and Credit Cards for Australians =-.

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wes April 26, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Thanks, Dan. I’m sure she was downplaying it a bit. I asked if she got tips and she said “maybe a dollar a day”

I did meet an expat in Siem Reap who said that police officers there only make $30 a month. No wonder corruption is rampant…

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Stephanie April 26, 2010 at 8:20 pm

This is a really interesting post Wes. It must be interesting to find yourself shoved into the role of “Sugardaddy Western Man.” Probably very uncomfortable for a nice guy like yourself. Not sure how I’d deal with that although I think you handled it as well as can be expected.

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Heath April 26, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Great read . . .

Thanks for sharing this. You’re a better man than I, sir.

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SpunkyGirl April 26, 2010 at 8:32 pm

It’s horrible that things have become such that even a waitress will proposition herself. I think you handled it well. Although the “see you tomorrow” part was a little harsh, I can see where you were coming from. It’s hard not to hurt someone’s feelings. You’re heart was definitely in the right place.
.-= SpunkyGirl´s last blog ..It’s not easy being green… |Photo Contest =-.

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Todd April 26, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Hi Wes,

Nice post and I’m glad you where a bastard who left the next day and didn’t take advantage. I worked for a bit in Phnom Penh as well as Bangkok and it can get really depressing seeing all the fat old guys with the young girls. Unfortunately, the stuff you see on the service is on the tip of the iceberg.

I’d be interested to see when you get used to being a sugar daddy ;)

Cheers
.-= Todd´s last blog ..Sexual Secrets of a Japanese Buddhist Temple =-.

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John Berns April 26, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Always well written and funny, I am staying abreast of your post-Bangkok travels and enjoying the dispatches.
.-= John Berns´s last blog ..The TAO of Travel Guides: Trust, Authority and Opinion =-.

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Casa De Hamilton Pool April 26, 2010 at 9:55 pm

Fantastic writing, as always. Bittersweet.

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ayngelina April 27, 2010 at 12:37 am

I was in Phenom Pehn in 2008 and I have to say it was the hardest city to travel. As I was traveling with my boyfriend I’m sure I only saw 1% of what you have seen but I found it very overwhelming, much moreso than in Thailand.

I’m not sure if it was the history or the immense poverty but I’ll never forget it.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Campeche at night =-.

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Nick April 27, 2010 at 4:30 am

That is definitely a difficult situation. I think you holding you ground and saying you’d see her tomorrow was the right move.
.-= Nick´s last blog ..Interview with Hollywood Producer Marvin Acuna =-.

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wes April 27, 2010 at 7:02 am

Thanks for all the great comments, everybody!

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Nomadic Chick April 27, 2010 at 7:43 am

Jaysus, Wes. I’m a small woman with a big mouth… frankly, I probably would have given that a-hole a tongue lashing, just to top off the other tongue action he was about to receive. Talk about a pathetic loser – he humiliates the very culture/woman he desires. Very cool how you handled both situations.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Outdoor Adventure & Travel Show – Part 2 =-.

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TR April 27, 2010 at 9:34 am

Watch it, or you will make the tuk-tuk drivers jealous. . . .

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Josh | The Wander Project April 27, 2010 at 10:59 am

Great post Wes….I’d have seriously considered slugging the guy as well. You definitely handled the situation with the waitress well, too. And all this while you’re just trying to have a beer!
.-= Josh | The Wander Project´s last blog ..Weekly Steals: The Best Deals on Travel Gear =-.

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Erica April 28, 2010 at 9:49 am

You really do have some of the best stories. Well written, well executed, and thoughtful. When you get home I totally want to meet up for a beer to hear some juicy stories. <3

Honestly, I wouldn't feel too bad. She set herself up for that situation.
.-= Erica´s last blog ..Fuzzy Friends =-.

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wes April 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Why, thank you Erica. I’d love to meet up for beers, though by the time I’m home I’ll probably be so broke you’ll have to buy ;)

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Erica April 29, 2010 at 6:11 am

I think I can do that. ;)
.-= Erica´s last blog ..Fuzzy Friends =-.

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Kevin (Mad Traveler) April 28, 2010 at 11:56 am

Uncomfortable moments in travel. Thanks for the great post. We judge or pity people on how they choose to advance in the world but it wasn’t so long ago that our grandparents or maybe a generation or two further back were married to people they barely knew through family wheeling and dealing. Dowries, land claims. Romantic relationships are a relatively modern phenomenon. Who doesn’t know an American girl who everyone said was just there at university to find a husband? “I’m gonna marry me a doctor!” Not judging. Just sayin’.
.-= Kevin (Mad Traveler)´s last blog ..Bangkok Dangerous: Grenade Attacks Tonight =-.

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wes April 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm

I can’t argue with that. In fact, in many parts of the world it still continues — arranged marriages are still the norm in India, for example…

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Sally April 28, 2010 at 3:15 pm

This was interesting to read from the man’s perspective (a DECENT man’s perspective). Honestly, after living and traveling in Asia for over three years and seeing lots of guys like the aforementioned Ugly American, I’m sorry to say my outlook on Western men has suffered big time which I’m not happy about (and I can’t say I’m exactly alone on this… I’ve met lots of Western and Asian women who feel the same way). With a year in Southeast Asia ahead of me, I’m actually scared that I’m going to come out of the experience hating all Western guys… sure I’ve met plenty of decent men, but sometimes it’s the bad you remember more than the good! Keep on being decent! You’re restoring my faith!

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wes April 28, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Ha, thanks Sally! You know we’re all in trouble when I’m put up as a good example ;)

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Gi April 29, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Wow, so that’s how ladies over there throw out their sugar daddy net. Interestingly enough, I’ve seen it happen the exact same way, with the same expeditious boldness and all, over here stateside; at least in LA. I have to say though that I feel more understanding to the waitress in Cambodia than the “gold-diggers” over here. “The Ugly American and Western Sugar Daddies in Southeast Asia”, sounds like a good possible topic for a future anthropological dissertation thesis.

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Marty Bellah April 29, 2010 at 9:10 pm

In the case of the ugly American: I wonder if he will be that loud mouthed when he goes to the clinic to get his shot of please stop this burning when I peeee…..

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brian May 1, 2010 at 2:29 am

This jerk is the same type of guy who wouldn’t do that back home. But because he has cash, he feels like he can act like a pompous ass.

Where you have poverty, people will do anything to feed themselves and their loved ones.
.-= brian´s last blog ..Best Travel Deals and News – April 27, 2010 – Airport Transfers, Americans Giving Up Citizenship, Effect of Iceland Volcano, New Cirque du Soleil Show =-.

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Legal Nomads May 6, 2010 at 8:32 pm

A great read, and a very different perspective from mine as a solo female traveler. I think you handled both situations well – I might have beaten the Ugly American with my own tiny shoes!
.-= Legal Nomads´s last blog ..UPDATED: Crash Course Burma: Before You Go =-.

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wes May 7, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Thanks, Jodi — I’d have cheered you on as you beat him. Hell, I’d have even held him down…

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M.I. Brocos July 28, 2010 at 3:12 pm

They are very poor but that´s not an excuse. It´s better to be poor than to live in such a degrading way.
.-= M.I. Brocos´s last blog ..Google Goggles =-.

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Lord Koos July 6, 2012 at 5:42 am

That’s easy to say if you are not that poor, or have never been that poor.

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wes July 6, 2012 at 9:22 am

Agreed — I’m not judging the girls. They do what they have to do. But I don’t have to participate and I’m not going to stop disliking people like the Ugly American.

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Graham November 27, 2010 at 3:15 am

In our ivory towers, in our dollar fortresses, our markets and condominiums, in our secure world, the fat place in which we live and feed and the secure streets in which we stroll, none of us have room to judge those who have so little. Who can imagine selling your soul for 3 dollars a hit? It’s the most bitter shame. Empathy is free. What is the cost of dealing some out?

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Henry December 2, 2010 at 1:56 pm

I agree, the fat american was a total idiot. However, what you did, in my opinion, was neither right or wrong. Here’s why: By seeing her the next day and paying her for dinner and other services (that evidently would have stepped into the picture sooner or later), both of you would have gained something. She would have gotten the money and you would have gotten to spend the day with a girl to whom you clearly were attracted to… The girl would have been pleased to spend time with you, since she basically picked you in the first place. In my opinion the situation would have been a win-win for both parties.

The fact that you didn’t see her later was probably morally easier to digest, but on the other hand, she probably went out the same night and ended up with a similar fat and ugly american that you described in your post…

Why I’m saying this, is because I was in phnom penh just a while ago, and had a conversation with one of the inevident sex workers there. To me, it seemed, that it wasn’t about whether she would end up with a guy that night, because it seemed given that she would, but rather about with whom she would end up with. We ended up having a genuinly good time at a bar, and at one point she said to me: “I want to win tonight, not lose”, implying that I could make her a winner that night, the same way that you could have made the waitress a winner.

At the end, I also turned my back, and felt sorry afterwards…

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jack June 15, 2011 at 11:48 am

i see where you comming from the old dude is clearly a knobhead needs a slap in the face .
but sex work is work in these places dont forget.

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wes June 19, 2011 at 7:56 am

Sadly, that’s true. It’s not a black-and-white issue, for sure.

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richard walter August 25, 2012 at 5:12 am

have been in USA and live in Cambodia some years.
american hookers are cold slaves owned by the pimps.
Asian hookers mainly take care of the kids and family

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