Paradoxical Phnom Penh

There is a seedy side to Cambodia which thankfully, as a woman living provincially, I have not really been exposed to. Nearing the end of a weekend in Phnom Penh, this morning Bee and I found ourselves sitting at an al-fresco pub on the riverfront for a few hours. After a while we began to notice with some unease, a lot of western men of varying ages but at least half of them in their 50s to 70s, moving in pairs and groups. I’d been to this area before and was aware that the streets leading inland from the riverfront are some sort of Red Light district. But today it became apparent that the area attracts groups of western males looking very much like the stereotypical sex tourist. In various combinations of over-tanned, ageing, toned, obese, shirtless and tattooed, posing larger than life in tuk-tuks or strutting the streets like proud peacocks, we became increasingly aware that we were surrounded by sleaze.  We are mindful that many men, some of whom we know personally, happen to be here for innocent and decent reasons but fit the stereotype and find themselves judged unfairly. But even if our judgement was only 10% accurate then dozens of people in our vicinity were here to exploit vulnerable people. At this specific pub we suspected the older western owner could well be involved in attracting sex tourists to the area as mobs of men filled the undercover tables lining the footpaths, as if loyal customers to his establishment. Lavish amounts were spent on beer and western food at comfortable breezy tables as beggars roamed the edges of the roadside in the scorching sun before us, hoping for a little compassion from the affluent, overly-confident and indifferent all-male crowds.

Having said all of that, despite the imbalance of power in such situations, many Cambodian women consider the chance of a relationship with a western man offers more financial stability and less risk of intimate partner violence. Cambodian men are involved in prostitution and human trafficking on a much larger scale than westerners, who represent a small percentage of the overall sex trade and also perpetrate less rape and violence than the local male population.  It is also not unusual to hear of mothers pressuring their daughters to sell themselves for financial gain.  This is no more an indictment on all Cambodians than our observations at the riverside were an indictment on all westerners.

Perhaps the time we spent with another friend this weekend influenced our uncomfortable realisation of the probable ugliness surrounding us. Yesterday morning we attended a riverside slum community with a local Non-Governmental Organisation involved in trying to protect people exposed to risks that I had never considered before. The fisher families resident in this location are exploited by a local, corrupt police force who profiteer from their tenuous incomes.  Children are unable to attend school due to the small but unaffordable daily payments required by poorly-paid teachers. Child prostitution and human trafficking are constant and very real risks in which the United Nations suggest government officials are complicit.

Many children living in these impoverished places are not registered at birth, something I had never considered previously, but which places them at risk of abuse and disappearance, leaving little impetus for authorities to investigate because in legal terms, these victims do not exist. The NGO undertake family assessments to obtain census information on the population living on this shorefront slum which disappears underwater when the river rises during the Wet Season, scattering the landless fisher families to other areas until the land reappears once the river abates again, some months later. They are also involved with local schools, covering attendance payments, as well as offering activities outside of school hours to help the children build confidence and life skills despite living transiently in ramshackle huts on a muddy shore.

One of the children we had hoped to meet was described as a teenager with a disability of unknown cause, who cannot sit or stand independently and lies on the ground all day, unable to speak or communicate. However, when we got to the small hut where he lives with his grandmother, father and siblings, he was not there. His father had loaded him into the canoe-shaped wooden fishing boat and taken him on the water, as there was noone else able to care for him and Dad needed to fish in order to feed the family. We met his elderly grandmother and heard that he seemed to be doing okay this week, so they arranged to meet with him next week instead. Another teenager appeared and signed some papers which were needed to move him to private school as he is achieving well and the NGO had found some funds to send him and a small group of his peers to a private school where it is hoped he will receive a more intensive education. Standing beside the canvas-roofed wooden shelter under which I was sitting he looked at me with a proud but shy smile as the worker explained to me that he was a star student. I smiled back in wonder as I considered the destitute surroundings and tried to imagine where he would study at night with no power, no furniture, no shelter from the rain, no access to guaranteed meals from one day to the next, no protection from the potential risks I was hearing about?

During discussions over a very educational weekend with my friend who is connected to this NGO, we were introduced to the magnitude and complexity of the human trafficking problem in Cambodia. I don’t feel particularly informed yet, but my interest has been piqued and I plan to educate myself on the subject.  The most telling quote I’ve seen in my readings so far, which summarises many of my friend’s stories of vulnerability, risk factors and uninvestigated disappearances, is from here:
The history of any country affects its present, both through the individual and collective memories of its people and through the cultural artifacts that serve as reminders of earlier periods. The single most important historical period during the past century in shaping the Cambodia of today is that of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. As a result of the chaos during and following this period the current sex industry arose in an uncontrolled fashion in the 1980s and 1990s that allowed trafficking to flourish

We left this slum and returned by tuk-tuk to a local coffee shop to enjoy some air conditioned comfort and debrief about the slum residents doing it tough on such an unfathomable scale, a very brief distance away.  The rest of our weekend was spent experiencing the oriental pizzazz of a wealthy Phnom Penh – shopping centres, negotiating dollars with tuk-tuk drivers, sunset rooftop cocktails with 360° views over the city, a sushi restaurant for dinner and American ice cream overlooking the Mekong for lunch.

My friends in Phnom Penh are shameless humanitarians without being religious or even particularly altruistic, just empathetic souls who have found a balance between helping others on professional as well as personal levels, and living their own life.  Perhaps more than anything else, having inspirational friends and supportive family is the biggest privilege of all?

5 thoughts on “Paradoxical Phnom Penh

  1. Another thought provoking entry Helen. In spite of all the good work being done by your friends and so many others, it is hard to imagine how the problems of Cambodia will ever be addressed. There are so many really evil people who are using the situation to their own ends.


  2. Thank God for people like you and your friends. You always leave me a little disturbed and feeling helpless. It is good to be stirred as it makes me more aware of the need to do a little extra for others.What a mad world with such extremes of inequality.


    1. Thanks Rae. I don’t mean to make anyone disturbed or helpless, and despite all the shocking stuff there’s also a lot of laughter here. Human beings are surprisingly resilient!


  3. A good post. The whole subject is full of nuance, such as the fact that most of those who use Cambodian prostitutes are Cambodian men, not Westerners, and I think you covered that well. And you’re also quite right that poverty is the root cause: if people had some other way of making a living, prostitution would certainly start to come under control.


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