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Cambodia: The Sex Tourist

February 1st, 2008

NOTE: Be warned this post mentions graphic sexual acts and the reality of sex tourism.

I pulled out my notebook as soon as I’d made it into the cramped bathroom, the man’s quotes echoing fresh in my head. He said he’d come to Sihanoukville for “drinking, drugs, fucking.” He’d shrugged, lifted his glass from the table, and said it was mostly the drink. He was Scottish, but hadn’t been home for years. (at right: the sex tourist)

I’d been spending the evening with John and Charis, checking out the Sihanoukville “scene” and were on sex-pat hill–otherwise known as Victory Hill. It used to be a seedy dive strip, but now it simply reminded me of working-girl bars I’d seen in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Phnom Penh. $3 well drinks, nothing fancy, $1 beers, and quasi-western food; a good enough place to hang out for drinks if you don’t mind some of the conversations. Like the one I’d been having, nodding and smiling, joking, and listening to the pointers. All while wanting to throttle the man.

“Oh, you’re going to the Chicken Farm,” he said knowledgeably. We were. It is another dirt strip down near the deep water port, but more trash-covered and run down than the relatively upscale Victory Hill.

“Don’t pay more than $8 dollars, $10 max,” he advised. I nodded and smiled. “I got a girl, fucking gorgeous. $10 dollars. Had to give her a dollar for the moto home the next morning. I totally abused her. I woke up in the night and said ‘suck!’ just to see if I could.”

I’d seen him when we walked into the Corner Bar, sitting alone with his drink, back to the street watching the TV. We’d sat near him; he’d listened to our conversation, sometimes stealing a sideways glance. Charis bounce between conversations with our waitress, who may have been a working girl, and the man. I took pictures of this, with my large camera, steading it on top of beer bottles, but it wasn’t until Charis pulled out a point and shoot that he protested. Half-heartedly. (at left: john and charis at victory hill)

Sometimes there are people who care, and sometimes there are those so grossly engaged in their debauchery that it blinds them. Blinds them to human decency, to the respect or recognition of anything but their own self pleasure. I think this was a case in point. For before we left he bragged about how, in 2003, he and three friends were able to negotiate seven women at $2 dollars each. $14 for an eleven-person orgy.

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John, Charis and I ended up at the Chicken Farm, in the only upscale club, where the bar girls danced with expressionless faces. A few caucasian men sat in the shadows, arms draped around smaller Asian women. A few tables were occupied solely by Khmer.

The three of us ordered our Anchor beers and watched. At first intolerable, the Khmer dance music became more and more appealing. Then the hulking, pale figure of Steve Morrish, a counter-trafficking investigator emerged from the shadows. High-fives and shoulder slaps were exchanged; he was ‘undercover’ and I was playing my American tourist part. Poorly.

He was investigating the sale of two 14 year-olds that night. They were virgins, going for $1200 each.

Earlier in the day I’d talked with Steve about virgin sales. His NGO, sisha.org, does investigations with a well-trained, predominantly Khmer staff on a shoestring budget. Only weeks before in Siem Reap, for $1050, he’d rescued nine girls from a Vietnamese brothel, arrested the mama-san, and done buy-busts with two other mama-sans rescuing two more virgins. Tonight was the set up for another buy-bust, just like they do with drug deals on the cop shows in the States. Except for Steve and his NGO, all they can do is investigate. They must call in the Khmer Anti-Trafficking Police to do the actual arrest. (at right: our ‘tourist’ photo while the baton-wielding guards watch outside the club)

“We’re never going to stop it,” Steve said, “but at least it’s not open. It’s not a lollijob. They’re going to sweat a little!”

In the last three months, he said he’d helped rescue some 59 people. But it’s “bang one, two more come up. Bang another, another two come up.”

He pointed out the one of the 14 year-old girls to us. One was serving us ice in our beer.

As he returned to his table he called me over, to meet the other girl. Loudly, he asked if I could take a picture; the staff consented. I was shocked, I couldn’t believe I looked like a tourist or “john” but recovered and pulled out my brick of a camera, attached the strobe, and put the thing in Program mode. It would be a deer-in-the-headlights look; it was so dark I could hardly see. I felt I could only make one, maybe two frames or I’d give myself away.

Steve later used the images I made to help with the arrest of the mama-san. His success didn’t end there for a brothel raid followed, freeing another several girls. Now I’m sitting on pictures of two virgins who were on the sales block; ethically, I’m not willing to release them, for their privacy, and also in concern that it may incite others to come. And yet, in writing this I’ve provided a guide map for sex tourists and pedophiles. A google search will turn up my website. (at left: i didn’t feel comfortable enough to stop and photograph the chicken farm brothel fronts–so it’s a little blurry)

However, with the upcoming campaign by the Cambodian government, the next strategy with investigators like Steve might focus less on the supply and more on the demand side. I’ve ridden with APLE, following American pedophiles around Phnom Penh, just waiting for them to do something bad enough for a prison sentence. Investigations already net successful arrests and convictions; maybe in the not too distant future it will be nearly impossible, without a lot of money and the right connections, to exploit children. The Cambodian government is working hard to change its reputation.

But they say the US Navy intends to put a base in Sihanoukville sometime in the next few years; it is likely to bring a boom to the sex industry, creating more chaos and vulnerable women and children. A lot of the sexual exploitation by foreigners started after UNTEC came into Cambodia with Vietnam’s withdrawal. Peace keeping forces and NGO’s are what has fueled the sex trade in the Balkans. I can’t imagine if this American base goes in it will be any different.

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3 Responses to “Cambodia: The Sex Tourist”

  1. gretchenmariez says:

    tim. thanks for your post. this makes me sick, but people need to know what is going on in Cambodia. thanks for what you are doing there, and being one of the people who cares enough to get the word out and speak up.

  2. lori riedinger-va says:

    thanks for writing. it is an issue that makes me ill. in talking about it i have come to realize that many people are unaware, don’t believe it, or just simply don’t care. if more people tell their story as u have and get the truth out there, hopefully a greater awareness and drive to make a change will ensue. blessings to u always.

  3. Naima Thompson says:

    Great exposure to an underestimated global crisis. It has strengthened my commitment to get involved.

    Thank you
    Always in Love and Light

    Naima

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