Published Jan. 10, 2010, on one face at a time
Ever since the hundred-something brothels in Phnom Penh’s notorious Svay Pak district were closed about two years ago, prostitutes have established other stomping grounds around town to solicit their services.
Several brothels on Rue 63 near the outdoor Sorya Shopping Center boutiques are allowed to remain open, their distinct red lights a blatant call-out to any client desiring sex services. While tourists may not find a brothel section in their Lonely Planet guide books, any moto-dop (motorbike driver) or tuk-tuk (carriage taxi) driver can show them the way to a brothel, or one of the many karaoke bars, massage parlors or barber shops that serve as facades to back-door sex services.
Other girls who work independently of these establishments can find up to three or four clients a night by simply standing on the street, faces caked in white makeup and waiting for men on their motor bikes to pull over and ask how much. (The going rate for the girls of Independence Monument Park, it seems, is $15 for the locals and double for a foreigner.)
As I rode on the back of my translator Bunthen’s moto early one breezy Friday night, couples strolling through the park began to disperse. We slowed down to survey the park, passing cliques of girls in short skirts who loitered in fours and fives on every other bench. Some spotted our moto approaching and came forward to wave us down; upon seeing me, a female, they shot quizzical looks instead.
After parking the moto on the curb, we sat on a bench and waited. Having been to this park with his chums several times before (not to seek out the girls’ services, on his part) Bhunten was sure we would come across the mi kchal (literally mi, “master,” and kchal, “wind” in Khmer), the man who coordinates a network of girls and seeks out virgins from the rural provinces to deliver to rich or foreign clients.
The minutes ticked by as we watched men in their 30s, 40s, even 50s, pull over to talk to the girls. Some girls mounted the motos and rode off with their clients; others walked to a building across the street and returned several minutes later to continue the night.
The girls talked to Bhunten freely; but when finding I was a journalist, some demanded money for information, citing experiences with Australian documentary makers who paid them well. One girl wandered away from her pack to squat in the park alone and watch from afar. I walked off as well, watched my translator strike up conversation with three girls, and waited for him to summon me over a few minutes later.
This is Ani.
Sporting a low cut white dress, the most vivacious of the three sold her virginity at age 15 for $2500 to a Cambodian man who now lives abroad. A party girl from an early age, Ani had feared punishment from her parents when she stayed out late with her friends.
She flew the coop, moved in with some friends and began selling new, high quality motorbikes to support her lifestyle. She often stayed with her girlfriend, whose parents let them sleep together in their house. However, when she could not pay off the money she owed to friends, she found an opportunity in prostitution four or five months ago as a faster way to pay off her debts.
Though Ani, now 17, no longer sees her girlfriend on a regular basis, she says she enjoys making good money from prostituting. From time to time, the Cambodian man who bought her virginity calls her when he’s in town, and she sends that money to her parents. However, she keeps him in the dark about her current occupation, afraid of how he might react.
When I asked what she would be doing if she wasn’t working the streets, she shrugged and replied, “Stay at home.”
This is Asay.
With high heels and a purse that could hold little more than a cell phone and a night’s earnings, she donned a short, blue tube dress that exposed a shoulder burn she said she’d gotten from a moto accident. She was less talkative, a 17-year-old from a poor family in a quiet rural province.
A friend in Phnom Penh had invited Asay to visit her in the city, luring her in with ideas about the vibrant party scene and easy living. With no farm, no property and no job opportunities in her province, Asay left home to find a job here, and has been working the streets of Phnom Penh for about five months.
After our brief talks with Ani and Asay, they ran off to win over a man who had just pulled up on his moto. Before she left, Asay mentioned that a man wanted to sell the virginity of her friend’s 14-year-old niece, and if we knew any potential customers, we should contact her.
This is Srey Oun.
She slouched on the bench next to Bunthen as I sat a few yards behind them. With a couple more years of experience than the other girls, she wore a simple long-sleeved shirt and pants, her hair long and untrimmed.
She got her start on the streets two years ago when a friend told her she could find work in the park. Now at 29, though, it isn’t easy finding clients of her own night after night, so she earns a $1 commission helping other girls get work.
If she had the opportunity to learn a new skill like sewing or nail and hair care, she would take it; however, she said, no one is there to help her. With two sons and a daughter to feed and no vocational skills, she can’t afford to run her own business or stop to find another job.
It turned out that the girls’ mi kchal had been arrested a few weeks prior (pimping was finally made illegal in Cambodia in a February 2008 legislative reform) so the girls had to fend for themselves to find work. Bhunten and I left the girls to converse at a nearby cafe.
While none of the girls admitted to being forced into prostitution, personal financial constraints and a lack of vocational skills pinned them to their jobs as women of the night. However, all three seemed to somewhat enjoy their jobs–even Srey Oun, according to Bhunten.
When he asked the girls if they would stop prostituting if an organization offered to train them with a new skill, all three said yes.
Dozens of Cambodian and international NGOs exist in Phnom Penh to aid both voluntary and trafficked sex workers. Even so, upon leaving training and rehabilitation, many girls eventually find themselves back in their former lives–on the streets, in brothels, under glowing red lights, behind barber shops. “They’re young,” Bhunten reasoned, “so they don’t worry about it.”
We finished our beers at midnight. On our way home, we rode by the park for one last head count. Fourteen girls (and no one else) perched on the benches; Ani, Asay and Srey Oun were gone.
Thanks to Bhunten for his help translating.