They slouched in plastic chairs, picked at their nails, crossed and uncrossed their toothpick legs. Neon shadows slashed their skin, deepened the dark places, made their bones look sharper than they really were.
Men filtered through the open-air patio, Western guys in flip-flops and shorts. They wore the efficient expressions of informed consumers and moved like men at a hardware store, browsing for goods. They nodded at the proprietor, glanced at the projection of a football match against the whitewashed cement wall; they eyed the girls up and down with about as much enthusiasm as you would a lawn mower and then took seats in plastic chairs at plastic tables and ordered pints of beer.
Which wasn’t at all what I’d been expecting. You know, you hear “girly bar in Cambodia” and you picture… well, not a leafy patio adorned with decorative lanterns and twinged with the smell of cooking French fries, a hot-breathed breeze tracing itself across the blackened contour of the tables, the chairs, the bodies sitting in the chairs and staring off bored, crossing and uncrossing their legs.
And maybe that was the strangest thing about it — it was all so out in the open, so unsensational, so fucking normal.
I said so. I took a sip of my soda water and leaned in towards Neil. “It’s way less creepy than I thought it’d be.”
“Yeah,” he nodded, glancing around. “Just a bunch of broken old men and skinny-ass girls.”
And us, I thought.
Of course, it shouldn’t have surprised me. After a few months in Phnom Penh, the most shocking thing was how quickly shocking things had ceased to shock to me.
At first it was the visual assault: little old ladies hacking off chicken heads at the market; ten year olds huffing out of plastic bags; acid-burn victims begging outside of the Genocide Museum; police officers unabashedly stopping drivers for bribes; people discharged from the hospital, carrying their own IVs on bamboo poles as they rode on the back of motorbikes. In Cambodia these images surrounded you, flashed past you, made you blink and flinch but never really seemed to touch you. They repeated and repeated until slowly they became normal.
But the images were just the start. If you paid any kind of attention, even just glanced at the newspapers, you’d start to hear things: fake orphanages, illegal land evictions, drug rings run by the Prime Minister’s son, millionaire pedophiles receiving royal pardons and dodging extradition. Dig around a little and you’d start hearing things even the English language newspaper wouldn’t report — how a prominent anti-human trafficking NGO held its “rescued” girls hostage, for instance, and how its internationally famous spokeswoman had lied about being orphaned and trafficked herself, how she embezzled millions from her charity and was in tight with all the government men who kept the sex trade churning.
Things like this were rarely discussed openly. Instead they were hinted at, referred to, the gravitas center everything else circled around. Next to this deeper, murkier corruption, the out-in-the-open insanity started to seem even more normal, more benign and tolerable.
The same went for the sexpat scene. It wasn’t something I’d sought out; as a 20-something Western woman with a headful of feminist notions, it was about the last thing I’d hoped to encounter. But I couldn’t avoid it; sex was everywhere in Cambodia. I’d jog along the Riverside at dusk, see sun-crisped men sitting with thin dark girls. I’d go out with friends, see girls in booty shorts shooting pool with cues that as big as they were. I’d walk past a bar in the middle of the day, see the skeletal silhouettes sitting inside, slumped on stools, trails of smoke rising from cigarettes.
But like everything else that existed without a buffer, these sights became normal. Normal enough, even, that I thought I knew what was going on. I’d see a Western male tourist by himself and think, “Hmmph, I know what you’re up to.” I’d finish my evening run and walk past a row of bars called Horny Bar and Heart Break — or walk past the infamous and unironically named nightclub Heart of Darkness — and I’d think they were the harems of Western-fueled iniquity. They were what was wrong. Without having ever gone inside one, I thought I knew what was up.
But I ended up inside them, without really meaning to. Not the worst of them, the die-hard spots, but there was a gradation I discovered. The nightlife existed on a spectrum and very few were the bars that had either no girls for sale or only girls for sale. In reality the sex industry was more ambiguous, less contained. It tentacled into every part of life, it seemed, and eventually you tolerated it. You tuned it out, in a way you would have once been ashamed of, became complicit.
I’d been in town a month when the spokeswoman of that shady NGO had a New York Times journalist accompany her on a live-tweeted brothel raid. The long-time expats had just rolled their eyes. “Looks like someone forgot to pay their bribes,” they’d said, referring to the brothel owner. That’s the only way, they told me, a brothel would be allowed to get “raided.”
It was these things, the ones just beneath the surface, that were harder to get used to.
A languid breeze dragged itself across the terrace. The can of soda water sweated on the table in front of me. My ankles burned with mosquito bites.
I watched a group of guys walk in — English, mid-30s, relaxed clothing and easy expressions. They strolled past the line of girls without so much as a glance and sat down at the table beside Neil and me. They ordered beers and lit cigarettes; one of them had a wedding ring on.
Eventually one of the girls got up and walked over. I watched as she moved awkwardly in her three-inch heels, lurching a little like a teenager at prom. She wore a miniskirt and a lacy skin-tight top. She had a frilly pink bow in her hair, attached to a polka-dotted headband. It reminded me of something my seven-year-old niece would wear.
As she came closer though, I saw her face. She wasn’t a girl at all – her skin was pocked, had the dull discoloration of a lifetime of poor diet. It was a jarring contradiction, the pink bow and the battered skin existing on the same person, unworldly and weathered in the same breath. I looked away.
“Hello, how you?” I heard her ask the English men.
They glanced at her briefly, a quick eye up and down, then waved her away.
I watched her teeter back to her plastic chair.
“What I recommend,” Michelle told me, “is to just assume that every guy you meet – Western and Khmer – sleeps with prostitutes. Then, instead of being disappointed when you find out they do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you find out they don’t.”
She paused and grinned at me. “But don’t expect that to happen very often.”
A few weeks prior to my outing with Neil, Michelle and I had gone out for a drink. There weren’t so many options – foofy wine bars or grubby dives – so we’d ended up at one of the city’s oldest bars: run-down, wooden floor, pool tables and old Stooges records playing. It wasn’t a bad vibe, really, save for the fact that we were the only two Western women there.
We sat at a table and I watched the girls move around the room, languidly circling or else leaning on the bar. Men laughed, joked, seemed relaxed and easy. The scene reminded me of a gym I’d briefly gone to in San Francisco’s Castro district — all this flirting and hooking up going on, and I wasn’t a part of it. I’d actually liked the gym, having the female locker room to myself and being able to exercise in peace, not having to worry about how I looked or being hit on.
I’d traveled a fair amount before moving to Cambodia. Any country I’d gone to that had any kind of sexual power dynamics at play, I’d experienced a taste of it. Latin American machismo, Middle Eastern street harassment, Mediterranean hyper-aggressive flirting: I’d made my acquaintance with all of it. Traveling sola – or hell, just walking through my own hometown – I’d always been on alert, always had my defenses keenly raised, pricked like a dog’s ears.
But now here I was in Cambodia — a place loaded with sex, thick with sex, where you couldn’t escape the buying and selling and indulging of sex — and I wasn’t a part of it. It’s like I was invisible, in a place where so much is right out in front of you.
But secretly I didn’t mind it. I relished in the silence, in walking down the street and having no one make any comments. I was insulated from it all — everything swirled around me but I was an observer, inoculated from what had always been unwantingly thrust upon me. In Cambodia, I was safe from something that had never felt safe: men’s sexuality.
I fingered a cigarette, ashing into an empty can. “You have a light?” a voice asked.
He was a slump-shouldered young guy with sharp bones and bags under his eyes. I smiled pleasantly as I handed him my lighter.
I watched his scabby fingers flick the flame. He set the lighter down in front of him, inhaled deeply. “Where are you from then?” he asked, giving me a hopeful smile.
“The US,” I said, taking back my lighter and turning towards Michelle.
I felt him sitting back there, behind me. He sat there for a few minutes before getting up to leave. He gave me a nod on his way out.
Michelle watched him walk out, then turned back to me. “You realize that was the last time a white guy’s gonna hit on you for a long time.”
I glanced back as his hunched figure moved out of the door.
“And he had all of this teeth.”
Michelle took a sip of her beer and laughed.
It was getting late. The patio was filling and the crowd was getting louder, drunker. But the vibe stayed casual, still surprisingly unsleazy. The breeze continued to trace along the sides of everything.
“So,” I spoke lowly to Neil, “what’s the deal with this place?”
“This is a freelancer bar.”
“As opposed to…?”
“A girly bar.”
I looked over at the group of 20-odd skinny girls at the plastic table. “This isn’t a girly bar?”
Neil shook his head. “Those girls–” his eyes pointed –“are freelancers. So they work for themselves. The girly bars, the ones by the Riverside, where all the tourists and backpackers go, they all employ the girls. So everyone takes a cut: the bar, the door guy, whatever hotel you go to.”
“So it’s safer? For the girls, I mean,” I added, though I wasn’t sure why I needed to clarify.
He nodded. “Sure. But also more expensive. I mean, like maybe fifteen or twenty bucks more,” he shrugged, “but the girls are cuter, younger there.” He looked down and sipped his soda. “And then there’s the karaokes and brothels. Those are the ones the locals go to and, I don’t know,” he shook his head, “I wouldn’t fuck with those.”
“And here?” I glanced around the patio. “What’s this?”
“Well, it’s a bar. But there happens to be nothing but girls for sale here. These women don’t work for the bar; they’re here on their own and the bar just lets them be here. Which is why you call them freelancers. They just come here, hang out, some of them only a day or two a week. Maybe they’ve got another job somewhere, or maybe this is all they do. But they’re older – you can tell right? – more broken down.”
He was talking about the girls, but he may as well have been talking about the men too. You could tell by their accustomed expressions that these men were the diehards — long-term sexpats or frequent visitors, the kind of guys that used all their vacation time flying back and forth to Cambodia for week-long sex binges.
We knew one of them, a guy who was a dental assistant in California. Every couple months he’d pop up, the same sandals with the same socks pulled up, the same cheery grin, seeming like any other dorky Western tourist. “Hmmph,” I’d think. He was ostensibly how Neil knew any of this. “He took me out one night,” Neil told me. “I thought, you know, we were just going to hang out, have a drink, shoot the shit. So we walked in and the girls came over, but instead of shooing them away, you could tell he was really into it.”
Neil didn’t tell me what had happened after that and I didn’t ask. I’d learned it was better not to.
Neil had chipmunk cheeks and a Tin Tin flip in his hair that made him look a helluva lot younger than 29. He’s someone I’d have never met in the States, let alone hung out with. He’d gone to an Ivy League school and had worked on Wall Street before a bad case of the fuck-its struck and he’d enlisted to volunteer for a grassroots NGO.
Back in the States, I’d been a waitress and a writer, all dirty hair and tattoos. I’d come to Phnom Penh with plans to write a book, but the city twisted around all the things I thought I knew about the world, all the nice easy compartments I’d made for everything. Such as: NGOs good, prostitution bad. Nothing made sense and I didn’t know what to do in the face of any of it. Was there even anything to do? It was a lost, lonely feeling, and I guess that’s what Neil and I had in common.
We sat sipping soda water and said nothing.
Suddenly Neil sucked in sharply. “Holy shit,” he muttered.
I followed his eyes towards a figure that had just walked in. He was thin and old, wore a cap over his white hair and tattered khaki shorts over his sun-spotted legs.
He was using a walker.
From the way his hands shook, I guessed he’d had a stroke. A young Cambodian man was with him, his driver maybe, and helped him settle into a plastic chair. Eventually the girls started to come over to him.
Neil shook his head. “Man, that’s dedication.”
We sat and watched the scene, soda water after soda water. Other than the cocktail server, no one talked to us. No one even looked our way.
Neil and I did lots of things we probably shouldn’t have together. We didn’t know what the hell else to do with ourselves. So we’d drive around the city, me on the back of his bike, just driving with nowhere to go.
But we could go anywhere was the thing; no one would stop us. We rode up to the old lakeside, which had been bought by a Chinese company for development. The lake had been drained and was now a vast expanse of sand. It made the monsoon flooding worse — the lake had provided a natural buffer for the rains and now with it gone, the overflow had nowhere to go but the streets, to swell and fester and stagnate.
The residents had held massive land rights protests, but the Chinese company had won, and the remaining buildings were bombed-out shells. We walked up to the roof of one of those $3 a night guesthouses, one of the last still standing – walked past the huddled, muttering figures in the lobby and up the stairs, like guests though we weren’t. And we stood there, squinting and sweating, staring out across an artificial desert.
We drove out to Diamond Island, past the Roman columns of a casino that was being built. We drove into Elite Town, a Western-style housing development that was under construction. It was Sunday and the workers were camped out, drying their laundry and lounging. No one paid us any attention as we tromped into one of the half-built houses. We walked up stairs with no handrails and I remembered suddenly how much I’d wanted to live in suburbia as a kid, somewhere where everything was nice and neat and safe – to be insulated from it all.
We stood before a picture window with no glass, stared out at the empty street.
And we rode out to Neil’s apartment on the outskirts of town, down a road lined with squalid markets and garment factories and truckbeds piled with black-eyed workers. The workers that didn’t fit in the truckbed sat on the roofs, silhouetted against the dust that swirled in the fiery pink sunset.
We were chasing that glowing pink, trying to find a good spot for a photo, when a guy pulled out in front of us. Neil braked too quickly and we skidded. I flew off the bike and scrapped against the gravel. I stood up and watched the blood bloom down my leg, pin-prick palms with little red dots. I laughed. On the side of the road, people stared. I gave a little wave as I staggered forward and shot a photo of the sunset.
It sounds strange to say it now, like we were voyeurs in a tragic place. And maybe we were. But it felt like something else: a lostness, an uncertainty as to what any of it meant or where we fit in it. This scrappy city, with its beggars and its high rises, its Range Rovers and glue-huffers, its broken-down sexpats and its broken-down hookers and the people out of sight, getting rich off it all.
One night, a few months later, when Neil was about to leave Cambodia to go back to New York, I tried to put the moves on him. I’m not really sure why, since I wasn’t attracted to him and we didn’t have much in common, save for our alienation. It was a dismal failure. He hemmed and hawed and told me he wasn’t interested. Then he put a pillow between us on the bed and fell into a thrashing sleep.
I curled up and tried to cry as quietly as I could, the shame burning deep in my heaving lungs. Outside the mosquito net the night was thick, filled with insects’ whines and geckos’ moans.
None of it was nice and neat; none of it made sense.
After an hour at the bar I was done, covered in mosquito bites and burping from too many soda waters. I’d seen enough to know that sitting there longer wouldn’t help. I could probably sit there my whole damn life and the only thing I’d come away with would be a vague, restless sadness, for the women and the men. They weren’t predators nor victims, but something less simple and more broken than that.
Neil and I paid our tab and got up to leave. We moved past the table of English guys; I heard their conversation stop, felt their eyes on us.
“Did you see those English guys checking us out?” I asked Neil once we were outside, strapping on our helmets.
“What do you think they thought of us?”
Neil shrugged. “They probably thought we were a couple. You know, looking for a third.”
I let out a wry laugh and shook my head.
We straddled the motorbike and Neil kicked the start.
The wheels crunched over the gravel, taking us deeper into the night.