Two Faces of Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Charming and Seedy

The Yin and Yang of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I had long wanted to return to Cambodia to see more than just Angkor Wat. Finally, five long years later I had my opportunity. With three weeks of leisure time between my annual visit to Nepal and a flight back to the United States, I teamed up with Larry Bosco, a friend who also had Cambodia on his radar, and we boarded a plane to Phnom Penh.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. From my earlier visit to Siem Reap I knew that Cambodians were eager to adopt Western dress and capitalism, yet I’d also heard that Phnom Penh was the juvenile prostitution capital of the world. Early the next morning we met in the hotel lobby, eager to begin exploring the city. I barely noticed the underage girls in short, tight dresses and high heels, slouching around a big wooden table in a dark corner of the lobby, but Larry did. “I think there’s more going on here than just a hotel business,” he remarked casually as we stepped out the front door and into a blast furnace.

Busy streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Busy streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Waving away persistent moto-rickshaws, we strolled past stores stocked with silks and upscale handicrafts, chatted with temple workers peeling vegetables on the stoop of a Wat, checked out the Royal Palace for a later visit, and ended up in the heart of downtown. A never-ending stream of motorcycles, rickshaws and bicycles flowed through the streets. Women in pajamas, the only clothing considered cool enough in the oppressive summer heat, bargained for the day’s food at stalls lining the street. Monks girdled in fluorescent robes, carrying matching orange umbrellas to shelter from the blistering sun, resembled giant orange mushrooms as they made the rounds of shops to collect alms and bestow blessings. Mouth-watering smells wafted down to the street from second-story balconies of the French colonial buildings, where families, oblivious to the cacophony at street level, prepared breakfast between rows of laundry hung out to dry.

Can’t view the YouTube video of Phnom Penh? Click here.

Even standing motionless, sweat ran in rivulets from my scalp, stinging my eyes and clouding my glasses. My t-shirt was soaked and twin circles of perspiration had bloomed on the back of my shorts. The merciless sun finally drove us to a nearby park thick with broad-leafed trees. We fled into the blessed shade, where men were batting around a shuttlecock in a quintessential Cambodian game. Badminton it certainly was not. These shuttlecocks, perhaps three times larger than those used in Badminton, were composed of a series of round plastic rings, topped with a long feather. They were batted back and forth with the feet rather than racquets – the bottom of the feet, to be precise. With practiced ease, the men swept a leg backwards, turning their soles up to kick the shuttlecock back to the opposing side. Plonk, plonk, plonk, back and forth it flew in a serene flight that was yin to the yang of Phnom Penh’s busy streets and markets.

That afternoon, relaxing in a coffee shop with free wifi, we paged through a local expat newspaper and learned that the city has a strong art tradition, with many galleries supporting local artists, as well as a thriving music and literary scene. I was convinced. Phnom Penh was an unexpectedly cosmopolitan city. The next morning, Larry and I once again met up in the lobby. Conceding to the heat, we hailed a rickshaw and as we climbed in, Larry enlightened me about our hotel. “I went down to the lobby to use the wifi last night and as I was reading my email a man came in. The hotel manager snapped his fingers and all the girls lined up for inspection. A moment later, the man had made his choice and they headed upstairs.

Can’t view the above slide show of Phnom Penh, Cambodia? Click here.

We later learned that his suspicions were correct. One of the lethargic young girls had been forced into prostitution to pay off debts incurred when her family borrowed money from a neighbor for medical treatment. Others fall into the business more easily. They start out waiting tables at a restaurant, earning on average $60 per month. They send $20 back to their family, spend $20 per month on rent for a house shared my many people, and have $20 to live on the rest of the month. One day, a western tourist offers them $60 to spend the night. The decision isn’t hard. At first it happens only occasionally, but gradually the lure of fast, easy money is too hard to resist and they are drawn into a life of prostitution full time. Many are barely into their teens.

Peaceful park is home to Wat Phnom, seen in background behind giant wicker seven-headed Naga (snake)

Peaceful park is home to Wat Phnom, seen in background behind giant wicker seven-headed Naga (snake)

Each night when we returned to the hotel I wondered about the girls. None would look me in the eye, perhaps fearing I would judge them. They clustered together in the far corner, staying as far away from the reception desk as possible. The manager was as pleasant as could be, but I squirmed every time I interacted with him; I couldn’t reconcile his outward appearance as an upstanding businessman in a tailored suit with the reality that he was a pimp who took advantage of young, innocent girls. In the end, I was just grateful that the deed seemed to be done on a different floor where Larry and I had rooms; thankfully I never heard any bumping and grinding. I left the city with mixed feelings. Cosmopolitan though it may be, Phnom Penh has a very seedy side.

18 Comments on “The Yin and Yang of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

  1. nice honest break down, it definitely does have a seedy feel to it but also has a lot to offer even if you arent looking for that

    • Absolutely! Glad I went, a lot to see other than the “seedy side,” as you say Guy.

    • It was the Sakura Hotel on 242 Street, south side of city center. Just say NO!

  2. I didn’t spend too much time in Phnom Penh, but the Killing Fields and the museum were enough heartbreak for me. Heavy stuff.

  3. I am sad to say that I suspect this story is told again and agin in quite a few Asian (and other) cities.

  4. Awesome story. The ubiquitous and wide spread juvenile prostitution is one of the traits of SE Asia that makes me very uncomfortable with this area of the world (I just came back and wrote about it). Sure, it happens also in other continents but as far as I know not in such a large scale.
    I might be biased, but I felt as if too often in SE Asia money is the main value and in name of easy money life counts for very little. Poverty is a possible explanation, but I don’t think it’s THE explanation. There are other poor countries in the world (especially Africa) where this kind of trade of lives is far less common.

    • Hi Simon: Like you, I am a bit mystified by it, for the same reason you stated. I guess we shouldn’t judge, though it does make me uncomfortable

  5. Haha I just wrote a story about my time in Phnom Penh… yeah… I think we both feel the same way?

    • Hi Hogga: Between the prostitution and the killing fields, it was a bit of a strange place

  6. I’ve never been to Phnom Penh before and it’s interesting to read about your experiences just a week before I get there. I’m not sure quite what to expect, but I’ve been amazed by Siem Reap. I am just in the process of writing about it for atravellersjourney. Did you go to anywhere else while you were in Cambodia? The beaches are supposed to be amazing.

    • Hi Nico: I didn’t get to the beaches but I went to Battambang and Siem Reap. Battambang was particularly interesting because of the cottage industries there (fish sauce, dried fish production, etc.) and because of the ability to ride on the Bamboo Railroad, which will soon disappear when the new railway comes through.

  7. Never saw a shuttlecock game when I was there. Wow, they are are way better at this than I am in table tennis – and I SEE the ball! Fascinating. I was there in the mid nineties and streets were empty after sundown. I never felt the fear of a people so strongly. The receptionist even wouldn’t let me take the early morning bus to the border. He insisted of calling a communal taxi that would bring me there in day time. Luckily, the heat wasn’t as torturous, but later in the Mekong Delta I got my share of it. Although prostitution existed (since time being), it wasn’t as open as you experienced it now. It’s agonizing that under-age girls are forced into it.

    • Hi Fida: The mid-nineties, as I understand it, were still pretty dangerous days in Cambodia, especially if you were traveling toward the border with Thailand, as that’s where Pol Pot and his remaining Khmer Rough forces were holed up. I would have loved to experience it back then! Now, all of Cambodia is safe and the streets are full of people at night (markets, restaurants, etc.). I try not to judge about the prostitution thing, as Asian women look at it differently than we do. It’s a business for most of them and they have it worked out to the penny how long they have to work and how many Johns they have to turn before they can buy a house and retire. But in the instance of underage girls who have been forced into the business, well, that’s another matter. Hard to know what to do.

  8. I would also feel quite uncomfortable about staying in a hotel where under-age girls were being used in prostitution – difficult to know quite what the best thing would be to do to help them out of this situation

    • Hi Heather: Prostitution with adolescents is a fact of life in Cambodia, however I don’t know if any of the girls in the hotel were underage – most of them looked to be at least 18. I think I would have had a much stronger reaction if I saw it happening with young girls.

  9. Pingback: Two Faces of Phnom Penh, Cambodia | Hole In The Donut Cultural … | Tour Cambodia

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