Opportunism in Cambodia
Having recently suffered an unexpected bereavement, and utilising my country's week-long National Day holidays, I decided to visit Cambodia for the fifth time, and Phnom Penh (PP) for the fourth time. By comparison, I have visited Thailand and Bangkok only twice. For those who are unacquainted with PP, it is one of few cities where you can inexpensively chill out, just watching the world go by. You can literally spend all day in a riverfront bar drinking beer at USD 1 a go. And that, in the main, was what I planned to do, though, neither was I going to be a saint; PP has some of the best nightlife in the world.
My first night was rather simple – late flight in, cash from ATM, taxi to my hotel on Street 136, food in a local bar, in bed around 0200, though still within earshot of the action. However, if you are really tired, you'll nod off despite the noise, and this is exactly what I did.
The late morning of Day 2 was exploring areas of the city that had developed since my last visit in 2010; Streets 278, just SE of the Independence Monument, and Street 172, which has become the new backpacker area due to the closure of Boeung Kak, the former lake NW of the railway station. Reason: PP is an excellent city to explore on foot, and one can make a sounder judgment on an establishment in the absence of neon lights and smiley girls…
By afternoon on Day 2, I was in one of the riverside bars, drinking Happy Hour beer at USD 0.75, listening to Joy Division during the daily downpour. Life is good. By dark, I am off to Street 104 as it includes my favourite bar in PP, Rose Bar. However, also, on 104 is a recommended Thai place, which I try, then I want to check out Oscar Bar as it gets a reputation for good live music; though unlikely to be Joy Division, I imagine…
It's about 7 PM when I enter Oscar Bar, and wow! Half a dozen girls swoop to make their presence felt. I did find it rather intimidating and out of the character for the city, however maybe things have changed. I explain I am interested in the music and, 10pm is the time I am given for the band to start their set. After one beer, I make my excuses and state I am off to play Pool over are Rose Bar, and, I will likely return for the music.
Well, Rose Bar hasn't changed. Still a friendly (though not intimidating) hostess bar, still a great pool table, friendly customers, though not so many, as it looks like low season. Ended up playing pool for about an hour and a half with western men and local girls. And the girl with the tattoo…the only tattooed girl I saw on my trip (taking note, Stick?), is certainly a mean pool player. I ask one of the pool players about what has changed since my last visit, where is good to visit, where not, etc. When I mention I am staying on 136, he says "Try them all on 136, they are all worth a visit".
So, after a shower and a change, I enter Cavalry Bar on 136. It attracted my attention most from the write-up in the 'After Dark' guide to PP. Immediately I am attended to, and I soon reciprocate with a lady drink. Now everyone has their own idea of beauty and this girl isn't a drop-dead 9 or 10 out of 10. However, she would stop traffic in every European city I know, such is the quality both in Cambodia, and the region as a whole. So, after two beers, and two lady drinks, girl is barfined.
At the hotel, we start to learn about each other. Her name is Sxxxxxx and is from Kampot province, 29 years old, mother of two sons, eleven and six. Husband is with eldest son, she has younger son, also sister staying with her. Husband is Cambodian, bad guy, etc. What is interesting is that she has worked in Malaysia for two years. Well, I too, have worked in Malaysia, just a week, though. S mentions she used to be a masseuse, so that seems a good way for me to remove some of my clothing. You can guess what happens next, and I have to admit that S had adequate skills in massage and fantastic skills in other areas. I think only the Vientiane girl matched her…
After the 'act', S mentions that it is also Cambodia national holiday, and would I like to escort her down to Kampot over the next two days? Not known for my indecisiveness, and seeing no reason, not to do this, I quickly agree. So, she agrees to leave at 5am the following morning and to return to my hotel at 11am. When S leaves, I give her a fee which is 5 times the amount I paid for my first PP girl in 2006; five-fold inflation not in other parts of the city, and to be fair, S looks happy enough.
So, Day 3 starts, not too early, at 10am, and in fact, S arrives at the hotel a little bit before 11am. Off to her apartment, on nearby street 130 to pick up her bag. Surprise number 1: not just her bag. Her bag, her sister, and her son. Well, I cannot lose face, so…
After lunch, taken on 130, the four of us take a tuktuk to the bus station. On arrival, we've been offered USD 30 to Kampot for us all. Well, that doesn't seem too bad. The four of us are quite comfortable in the back as the boy is quite small. Surprise number 2: There are three in the front; two in the passenger seat. Surprise number 3: The three becomes four in the front, about 10kms out of town…
Some readers will know the road situation in Cambodia, and improving infrastructure has merely worsened the travelling experience through faster speeds, so I take some whisky to calm my nerves.
Sister and son get dropped off somewhere north of Kampot, later I learn exactly where, and I can guarantee I could find easily on Google Earth. Though a word on the sister now. Readers who have visited Angkor Wat and other nearby temples will have probably noticed the carvings of women in a very particular style: robust shape with prominent chests…well, the sister fits this ancient Khmer depiction 100%. Suffice to say that she would make an excellent hostess, in my view, however, S, rightly so, wants to protect her from the industry.
Day 3 ends with a meal and drinks along the riverside, then back to bed for surprise number 4: "My pussy's on holiday; I am on my period". So, this is where the opportunism comment in the title comes in, please let me explain.
I am all for opportunism, and in fact, it is one factor that I choose to live in Asia, where I see it everyday, e.g. women trawling the housing compounds collecting the glass and plastic from the bins. Where there is muck, there is brass and all that.
So, here's a sex worker, who knows she will have difficulty working, not being penalised by this, but has blagged an all-expenses paid out of town trip, not just for herself, but her family! That's opportunism for you. Now, she could have laid a 'no sex' condition on the travel, and to be fair, I would have probably still come along for the ride. However, she didn't take that risk, nor was she explicit about the family travel plans until they were physically waiting for us.
So, Day 3 ends in bed with hugs and cuddles, nothing more…
Day 4 starts early, around 7am, where we pick up a moto and head out to see her folks. I have to say that S is a competent moto driver, using her mirrors well and warning others when she is overtaking them.
It's about 25km from Kampot to her folks' place, so about 40 minutes or so. The family's place is a wooden building on stilts, water urns out front, rubbish mound out back, though it does have electricity. There are a couple of dogs, maybe four or five adult chickens, twenty chicks or so.
As for the family members and their friends, I really don't have a clue. There was a 'real' aunt and uncle and a 'pseudo' aunt and uncle; one a cousin, maybe. Another sister and her family, then another girl who had worked in Malaysia. She and S the only two who spoke English.
Mid-morning we take the short moto ride down to the temple to pay respects to the monks and the dead. I won't go into much detail, except to say I am honoured that I was given the opportunity to see real rural Cambodian people and life, and even though there was little English spoken, it is clear these simple folks are exceptionally kind.
On return to the home, the ladies are completing the preparation of the food, which is to be a traditional Buddhist feast. Again, I am very honoured to have witnessed and participated in this. Day 4 of this trip is one I will never forget: for this, S, I am very grateful.
About an hour before the feast commences, the beers come out, and every few minutes or so, us men would chink our cans and take a slug of Cambodia beer, which to be honest, is a rather agreeable brand.
Shortly after our own feast, we went to a neighbour's feast. For this I was paired with a rather mental guy who spoke little English other than "Kampuchea!" As he was hard-core drinker, and the girl worked in Malaysia knew Chinese, I just resorted to Chinese drinking culture- "ganbei!". And I left China on holiday, to escape all of this…
Although she hadn't been matching myself, S hadn't exactly abstained from the beer, so it was with some trepidation that I took to the moto for the return to Kampot, shortly before dusk. To be fair, S was absolutely fine; there are so many qualities about her I admire.
Evening 4 was spent in Blue Bar, on the riverfront chatting with some Aussies and a Brit, people who didn't sneer at our company, unlike the backpackers in the town whose body language most certainly didn't approve of 40-something farang with 20-something local. (I keep my thoughts on backpackers to myself, though…!) After two glasses of wine, S got a little tipsy, so we called it a night, returned to our room.
I will also remember Day 5 of this tour, though not quite as fondly as Day 4. We rose about 9, grabbed some breakfast, then we were headed off to Kep on the moto. Now, look at a map, and you will see Kampot and Kep connected by a road. Well, the map won't show it being an un-metalled road with mounds of stones to the sides, and red ash six inches deep in places. As it is rainy season, the ash quickly turns to mud, when this dries off, this quickly becomes an airborne dust. Suffice to say that Kampot to Kep to Kampot now top my world's most journeys. And none of this was S's fault.
Not too much to say about Kep, except it was busy with locals as it was still a National Holiday. We bought some crab that S later ate when Blue Bar kindly steamed it for her. Back in Kampot we went to a rather middle-class place full of NGO-types and general do-gooders. Not my thing, so after finishing my beef kebab, which was fine, we went to Blue Bar as we knew they would steam S's crab unlike this gaff.
In the Blue Bar, S opened up about her life and outlook. Over the last few days, she had been dropping a few hints about money, and doing a few strange things. One morning, she claimed she had missed a call, shows me the phone, asks me what the language is of the caller. I say it is in Arabic, she asks what country, I respond with UAE or possibly Saudi Arabia. I just couldn't see how she could have lived overseas, got to this stage of her life, and not known these things. Also, the next two names on her phone are northern European- typical German, Dutch or Scandinavian names. Now, we never discussed how many clients she sees, things like that. Certainly I doubt she learnt her bed skills from her Cambodian husband…
Another story about a compatriot who once spent USD 1000 a night in PP. How the hell can you spend USD 1000 a night in PP? She mentioned he earned USD 30,000 a month and wanted to marry her. Well, "Why didn't they", I ask. She said another lady answered when she last called, maybe wife has returned, or something.
So, in the Blue Bar, I say to S that I need my own free time and free space when back in PP. That I came here to relax, that's most certainly what has not happened last few days. S seems to accept this, she seems to have played the percentages well so far, she won't lose face, nor will I. So, we grab another shared car, to return to PP, another scary ride, with four in the front, no whisky to calm my nerves this time.
S has kindly reserved a hotel on Street 118, though her offer for me to stay with herself still stands. I opt for the hotel and a night, Saturday, after all, watching the English football on the TV. This, I do, later, and I admit, again, this is what I had planned to do all along this week. Drink cheap beer, watch the world go by, watch the footy, take maybe a girl every second night, maybe.
But before the footy, I take S to her hotel for our goodbyes. I had been needing to use UnionPay ATMs, of which it appears, Candia Bank is the only one in Cambodia. And my daily withdrawal limit was just USD 150. So, at this stage, I don't have a lot of cash. I do, however, give all of this to S, with my wishes and thanks that I saw another Cambodia I wouldn't have otherwise seen. Whilst she seems a little disappointed, I point out a few things to her: She has lived, eaten well the past few days, and received many times her bar fines in cash. I expect sex workers to be available for sex and she wasn't. He body language shows me she fully understands.
So, I have no money, and need to find a Candia Bank. All the ones on the riverfront are Visa or MasterCard. But I have my UK Visa debit card back at the hotel. Except that it is new and I have yet to register it for overseas use. Bollocks! So, I recall where I was on Day 2, think I have passed a Candia bank. On foot is 20 minutes, I do not even have money for tuktuk or moto. Already seen one ATM out of order, cannot take the risk. In the end, I was mistaken, red coloured logo; different bank. However, I did find a Candia Bank about 1km further west. One machine out of order: is the network down? No, second machine is working, so, cash at last. Relief!
Day 6 is a 10am rise, and as it looked a decent place (though busy), last night, I go to Paddy Rice on the riverfront. Have a coffee, an excellent home-made sausage sandwich, then some beers. The previous night, from my river view room, I had noticed the river flowing backwards. Well, I had read about this, though, still cool to see. Surprise number 5: After a ferocious downpour, the river flow changes direction, north to south, then, an hour later, it reverts to south to north. Just shows how finely balanced this part of the river is, in rainy season.
I eat at Chiang Mai, on the riverfront, which is very good, and has Beer Lao. So, I take a big bottle away to drink in my room whilst catching up on the internet and my mails. However, when I return to the hotel, who is there, drinking a beer? Yes, S! She seems pleased to see me whereas I try not to look too surprised. I quickly explain that I have to work, so head up to my room for my laptop. I come down, log-on, and to be honest, I do have some mails to answer. And to confirm that my football team lost the previous night. S finishes her beer and we share the Beer Lao. We then order some more. I am still doing laptop things, she is on a long call, when some food arrives. I immediately am very angry, I feel the opportunism is headed towards exploitation. I quickly finish my beer, explain that I need some rest as I have an overnight flight which I have taken before and never slept on. I then pay, what I think is all, and say my second goodbye.
This is now 4pm local time with my flight just after midnight. I set the alarm for two hours later, thinking that S may hang around a little, up to an hour at most. Just after 6pm, I leave the hotel for one last look at PP. No sign of S, good. First to 51st Street, a place I hadn't visited before, then, I have a decision to make- somewhere like the FCC for one last look at the river? Or back to Rose Bar on 104. Rose Bar wins. I walk there and catch most of the lunchtime Sunday EPL match. I don't play pool this time, just keep one eye on the footy, and one eye on some of the most beautiful girls in the world…
On checking out of the hotel, I was asked to pay USD 0.75 extra. Now, the rate was a clear USD 35 a night, where's this 75 cents come from? Hey, that's exactly the cost of a draught beer. So whereas S had said she had been waiting only 20 minutes, she was on her second beer when I arrived…
Conclusions/Summary: Whereas there is a difference between incompetence and negligence, there is also a difference between opportunism and exploitation. In many of Stickman's readers submissions, the Isaan girls have appeared to exploit western men. With my girl, I didn't quite get this. Perhaps, if I had a different personality, been a bit less streetwise, I could have easily been exploited, who knows?
I have spent a little bit more money than I had planned, though have been invited into Cambodian homes and seen much of the reason why the girls end up in the bars in the first place.
My girl got to see her family at an important time of the year, ate well, wasn't pressurised for sex when on the road. Met her bar fines many times over; maybe not her short time income if she had a few lucky nights. As it is low season in PP, I guess she gambled on inviting her to her hometown; good for her.
So, a win-win for everybody, in the end, whilst not exactly the holiday I had planned.