Can we just talk?

Published in the Norwegian International Labour Organisation magazine, 2005

The area just inside Tokyo Massage in Siem Reap, Cambodia’s biggest tourist town, is lit by a small, glass room – or large display cabinet with three rows full of women, each with a number pinned below their shoulders

“Choose,” says a man in a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Pimps, it seems, have different dress codes in different countries.

“$10 for massage, $40 for massage and boom-boom,” he says.

I look through the glass. Some girls watch TV, others open boxes upon boxes of condoms, others smile and wave. They’re all dressed in tight, pink singlets and short pink skirts. Heavy on the make-up.

“Number 38, 39, very good boom-boom,” says the pimp in thongs. Number 38 is waving at me.

On the opposite side of the room is a bench where five Khmer men sit and watch, their faces barely visible. The overwhelming majority – about 90 percent – of brothel visitors are local men.

One of the Khmer men then stands up and walks down a dark corridor, a girl in pink following close behind.

Why am I here again? Ah yes, to interview a prostitute under the guise of a seedy sex-tourist.

I ask if any of the girls speak English and choose one of the numbers he answers with. Just saying a number makes me uneasy.

I follow number 24 down the same corridor, which leads to eight rooms.

She opens a door to a small room – single bed, single light, a fan, some small thick blocks of distorted glass for a window. The walls are white except for a mirror panel above the bed that stretches the length of the room.

We sit on the bed facing each other. “Can we just talk?” I ask.

Lieu, 19, is from Vietnam, as are many brothel workers in Cambodia. She doesn’t know how many girls are at Tokyo Massage, but says only six are Cambodian.

But unlike many prostitutes, she was not trafficked across the border with the promise of a good job, only to be forced into prostitution. She chose her profession, and has been a prostitute since she was 17.

This presents a problem to those trying to quell the sex industry – some girls choose to sit in the glass cabinet, waving at prospective buyers.

It’s easy to see why these girls have the moral backbone equal to the slogan “show me the money” when per capita income in Cambodia struggles to pass more than US$1 a day.

Plus, the authorities are hardly authoritative. The country’s judicial and police systems are as water-tight as a sieve. When dissidents are arrested, a few bills in a few pockets can usually see the system turn the other cheek, and sometimes even about-face and reverse; when police freed dozens of brothel workers in Phnom Penh last year, the girls were returned and the liberators disciplined.

Lieu doesn’t even want to be rescued, yet. She just wants to erase memories of poverty and suffering. “I couldn’t watch my mother cry everyday.”

She says her family had no money to pay for her one-year-old sister’s medicine, so she went to Phnom Penh to “sleep with men for money”, sending what she earns back to her mother in Vietnam.

Does her mother know? “She thinks I am a beer girl,” she says, a girl who earns commission by selling a certain brand of beer in pubs and, if they find a willing punter, sleeps with men for extra.

Lieu arrived in Siem Reap four months ago because she could make more money – between US$100 and $200 per month. Here, she sleeps with four or five guys per night, twice as many as in Phnom Penh.

But she cannot leave the brothel; it puts her in danger of a beating, or “boxing”, in her words. So inside she stays, massage student by day, prostitute by night. “Only foreign men,” she says, because she is afraid local men will mistreat her.

If her sister were to get better, Lieu says she would return to Vietnam to become a dressmaker.

She smiles stupidly and laughs a little when asked if she likes sleeping with men. “But my boyfriend does not like it.” No kidding.

I’ve run out of things to ask that she can understand. To avoid suspicion, I let her massage me. But it’s hard to relax; it’s not everyday you’re in a sex-room with a prostitute.

Afterwards, I ask to take her photo, but she refuses. Boxing, she says.

We emerge from the corridor. Lieu pins her number back on and retakes her seat in the display cabinet. And as I leave, another girl is already waving at the next buyer.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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