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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.