February 9th, 2007
I’ve been to municipal airports in the states larger than the Phnom Penh International Airport. When our aircraft pulled back from the ramp I saw we were one of three jets on the tarmac, the same number of planes as gates at this single runway airport.
As the pilot turned the aircraft and I looked out across flat earth to low shacks in the near distance thinking it would suck to be on the business end of the turbines on the A320. Increasing thrust, the pilot pushed us down the runway and, at lift off, I looked across the tin roofs, dry paddies, and then out into the haze of the Cambodian sky. At less than 10,000 feet, before the pilot reduced his rate of ascent, all signs of urban Phnom Penh vanished. In the brown flatness below I saw only a few red-dirt tracks, the glint from a cluster of tin roofs, and the irregular squares of dormant rice fields. Again, I was struck by how deep poverty could be, so close to a country’s capitol, in a nation newly emerged from decades of conflict and trauma.
There is much left for me to experience here but I don’t know if I will be back, though I want to and I know I did not want to leave. Not only do I feel my reportage here on sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, and sex tourism is far from complete, there is something romantic and raw about the people which has me enthralled and, in my one week here, I feel I have made the beginnings of a home, one which is less tied to an expat’s world.
There is Leahn, Mindy and Mike’s moto driver who works in Phnom Penh to earn money for his wife and child. Once a month he makes the five hour drive on his 125cc motorcycle to see his family in his father-in-law’s house. 30 years old, the delightfully playful, open and humorous Leahn hopes that in 15-20 years he will have enough money to buy his own home.
There are Todah and Nat, two prepubescent girls claiming to be 14 who sell books at the riverside. Quick witted and street smart these girls run with a gang which can be intimidating at first but, with some time and attention, will warm to you. Mike, Mindy and I would see them on every foray to this tourist spot. We began looking for them, to say hello, and all the other young book sellers knew where to send us; they even toned down their aggressive sales techniques. (at right: Nat and her books)
Eventually the facade of book selling to pay for their education fell away; most worked for their parents and while they are cleaner and better dressed than the barefoot, matted-haired kids begging for money and yum-yum, I have to wonder what opportunities will unveil themselves to these uneducated street kids. Maybe with their English skills, smarts, and savvy they will someday have their own small business.
There is Srey Ka, a prostitute I met while documenting AFESIP, the NGO founded by Somaly Mam, whose mission is to help women in distressing situations; namely trafficking, prostitution, and domestic violence.
The first time I met her was in a slum reeking of trash and sewage where she and other prostitutes live. With her friends she was all smiles and excitement and we learned we were both traveling with AFESIP to Siem Reap to see the Queen of Spain. Unfortunately, that trip didn’t materialize because tragedy befell the Queen. (at left: Srey Ka)
Srey Ka’s eye was still slightly swollen from the beating she received from her last Khmer client. She’s been gang raped, had her teeth knocked out, she was trafficked, raped at 16, she’s been discriminated against because of her profession, and once was in love with a German who helped her and held her until, after two years, he returned to Germany.
She returned to prostitution because of the money. Srey Ka could take a job in a garment factory but wouldn’t earn enough to support herself, her mother, and put her 13 year-old sister through school. To take another, lower-paying job “would only be for me” she said, touching her heart. For Srey Ka that is not good enough so, as soon as her eye is healed, she will go back to working as a bar girl. Her sister must go to school; Srey Ka doesn’t want her to suffer the same lack of opportunity as herself. (at right: life in the slums)
Another prostitute I met was “N.” Mike, Mindy and I went to a bar for happy hour and very quickly realized it was a working girls’ bar. While Mike and I were inquisitively conversational–in a non-client like fashion–it was Mindy who made the connection. I looked up to hear “N” say, with a shrug, “I don’t know how many. I don’t think,” as she looked up and away, referring to how many clients she sees per day.
“N” works for the money and chooses her clients with care. She enjoys staying home on her one day off per week; every few months she’ll have several days off in a row to go home by bus to visit her mother.
For “N” it’s a job of necessity though she says she’d like to get out. Mindy, after a walk down the street to quell her tears, returned to do some outreach. Numbers were exchanged, contacts given, support offered. Maybe later we’ll find out what opportunities “N” finds, for Mindy was offered a job in Phnom Penh, one which would employ her skills as a counselor in sexual and domestic violence–though she won’t work directly with Khmer clients. (at left: life in the slums)
“N” offered to show us around, to the local markets, the food she likes to cook, to get an insider’s look at Khmer life. I would have loved to but it was Mindy’s last night and without her company Mike and I would have felt awkward, our masculinity making us potential clients.
The bar itself is nice, run by a jovial pair of expats who are obviously proud of their place. They’ve been coming to Phnom Penh for several years and decided to commit. In the main tourist area, with a good menu and guest house above, they stand to succeed. Plus, with their overtly sexualized drinks and the added income of having bar girls around, the business should grow.
There was the evening I did my laundry on the roof of the guest house where the male staff live. The timing wasn’t right for me to have the guest house do the laundry so I found myself with scrub brush and soapy water as the guys laughed with me and offered their dinner of rice and chicken. Together we watched the sun set deep and red in the haze over Phnom Penh. (at right: dawn from the guest house roof top)
I’ve got a favorite noodle cart run by women who love to help me with my Khmer, a breakfast place that knows I want the #1 with “coffee sweet milk,” often to go in a plastic cup, bag, and straw. Like the guest house, it’s family owned and the male staff sleep out front on folding wooden beds they set aside for the daytime patio furniture. (at left: roasted banana)
Last night as I left the internet cafe dehydrated, somewhat drunk, and finally able to relax on the back of a rickety moto, I scanned the benches of the park running down the center of Sihanouke Boulevard near the Independence Monument. I spent some time in a slum where AFESIP does outreach and the park is where most of the prostitutes from the slum work. And I saw them, sitting in pairs on benches, waiting for their “johns.”
In the darkness I couldn’t see anyone familiar but one woman recognized me. She waved her arm, jumping up to shout her recognition. Immediately wanting to stop, I waved back with my own shout. But I hesitated and we moto’d off, my driver chuckling that a prostitute would know me.
I regret not stopping. Professionally it was an opportunity to document, but that was not my first thought. I’m not sure who she was or what we would have said to each other, seeing as I don’t speak Khmer and most of the prostitutes I met had rudimentary English skills. But I would have liked to thank her, again, for allowing me into her world and to wish her safety and good fortune. But I think, most of all, I wanted to return to acknowledge that while we come from disparate lives we can still share a smile and appreciate each other for what we are: people of this world.
Phnom Penh is flat, hot, smelly, loud and chaotic but there’s something here that has penetrated me. The red-dust landscape has its own mystique but it’s these people; their horrific past, their poverty and minimal opportunity, their smiles rich in warmth, emotion, and care that worked in deeper than the dust. Who they are drew out a part of me I would like to know better.
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