Adventures in the skin trade

Our correspondent's brothel tour of Phnom Penh takes some unexpected twists.


Rolf Potts
June 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I first met Adam in the tiny, nameless cafe around the corner from the
Capitol Guesthouse. The spaghetti there had a word-of-mouth cult following,
and I invariably ended up sharing a table with strangers. Adam and I broke
the ice by talking about Phnom Penh.

"This place is so different from any other city in the world," Adam had
told me as we waited for our spaghetti to arrive. "It doesn't necessarily
change you, but it does give you the space to change yourself -- to
experiment. You can choose who you want to be here -- you can be as normal
or as crazy as you want. You can try out a lifestyle you've always wondered
about, and nobody back home ever needs to know the difference."

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"Sure," I replied, somewhat sarcastically. "You can buy 10-pound bags of
dope in the public market and sleep with a different hooker every day of the
week for less than it costs to rotate your tires back home." After two
charming weeks in rural Cambodia and Angkor Wat, I was beginning to tire of
travelers who came into the country expecting little more than a depraved
amusement park of guns and dope and whores.

Adam shrugged. "Phnom Penh has a shocking reputation because people enjoy
convincing themselves that they are being shocked. But if you lived here
for a while, you'd see that it isn't shocking at all. You just have
different facilities for amusement here than in most places. In Europe, you
rent a video or go to the pub when you're bored. Here, you buy some hash or
visit a brothel."

"Do you live here?" I asked, still skeptical. Adam, a handsome young
German, didn't seem to fit the hollow-eyed, middle-aged Phnom Penh expat
demographic.

"I used to live here; now I live in Vietnam."

"Did you shoot smack and run with hookers when you lived here?"

Adam laughed. "I was never into drugs all that much, but I did come to
enjoy the brothels. I didn't go every day like some of the guys here, but I
went a lot."

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"How much is a lot?"

"Well, if you count the times I've come back to Phnom Penh on holiday, I'd
say I've slept with about 120 prostitutes in Phnom Penh."

"120?" I said incredulously. I thought for sure he was misquoting his own
numbers.

Adam grinned. "Like I said, it's different here. After a while, it becomes
a matter of simple mathematics. Say you have $5 in your pocket
some afternoon -- what are you going to spend it on? A book? A new pair of
pants? Maybe, but when $5 can also get you sex with a beautiful
young girl, it doesn't take long to realize that you can just wash your old
pants or get a book from the library."

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"And it doesn't seem strange, sleeping with so many girls?"

"Well, it's not like I slept with them all at the same time. Granted, I
once had four girls in five hours, but that was an exception. It's more
interesting -- more romantic -- when you treat each girl as a unique
experience."

"Romantic?" I said, still somewhat incredulous.

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"Maybe it'd make more sense if you saw it yourself. I'm going to Svay Pa
with some guys tomorrow afternoon, and you're welcome to join us if you'd
like."

"Svay Pa?"

"It's a little brothel village just outside of the city. A whole street
full of prostitutes. Your first time there is like going to another planet. If you want to come, just meet us here at about 2."

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Always a sucker for interplanetary travel, I shrugged my consent. "Sure," I
told him. "I'll be there."

"We'll be sure to wait for you, then," said Adam.

I can't remember anything significant about our conversation after that.
All I could think about was that I'd just made brothel plans as casually as
I might make an appointment to play tennis.

In the seven or so years since the country began to open up to international
travel, there have been two steady tourist attractions in Cambodia: Angkor
Wat
and lawlessness. For convenient tourist access to the temples of
Angkor Wat, travelers base themselves in Siem Reap. For convenient tourist
access to lawlessness, travelers base themselves in Phnom Penh.

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In many ways, the Cambodian capital has completely earned its reputation.
Few other places in the world can rival Phnom Penh's traffic in illegal
weapons, heroin, child prostitution and money-laundering. Local
English-language newspapers regularly advertise consulting companies that,
for a fee, help expatriates and visiting businessmen negotiate with
kidnappers. While neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam are making ventures
into information technology and manufacturing, the hottest new Cambodian
business at the moment is a swift black-market trade in human organs for
medical transplant.

Backpackers collect such facts like souvenirs to support their own sordid
experiences. In Laos, I met three Australians who proudly wore Cambodian
army uniforms that they'd purchased off the backs of border guards. In Siem
Reap, I met an English girl who spoke glowingly of a week spent tagging
along with a U.N. mine defusing team. In Bangkok, I met an American who'd paid
$100 to shoot a B-40 rocket at a water buffalo. No Cambodian tourist
experience is complete, it seems, without such hints of the bizarre or the
dangerous.

Although Phnom Penh's prostitution scene doesn't garner much serious mention
among backpackers (who tend to maintain an unspoken code of sexual
correctness -- if only in the verbal sense), it is certainly one of the more
thriving Cambodian industries of the 1990s. Interestingly, the modern
brothels of Phnom Penh got their biggest boost in 1992, when 20,000 U.N.
troops from more than 30 countries arrived to maintain peace in preparation for
Cambodia's 1993 presidential elections. Prostitutes had to be imported from
Vietnam to meet the overwhelming demands of peacekeeper libidos. By the end
of their two-year tenure in Cambodia, four times as many U.N. soldiers had
contracted HIV as were killed by combat hostilities or accidents.

The departure of the U.N. peacekeepers in 1994 resulted in a prostitution
buyer's market that lasts to this day. A basic coital session for a
discerning Phnom Penh brothel customer rarely costs more than $5.

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When I first arrived in the capital city after two weeks in the Cambodian
northwest -- before I met Adam -- I was not yet aware of the nuances of the
Phnom Penh prostitution scene. The moto driver who took me from the Tonle
Sap river pier into downtown quickly set to work on dispelling my ignorance.

"Hey mister, you want cheap, beautiful girl for boom-boom?" he'd asked me
less than a minute into our ride.

Boom-boom. For some reason I thought "boom-boom" was a word like "shazbat"
or "boo-ya" or "Purity of Essence" -- a phrase that existed only in movies or
rap songs. As soon as I heard the word, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. My moto driver took this as a good sign.

"I show you a place," he said. "Very beautiful women, only $10."

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Ten dollars, I remember thinking to myself. That's the best deal yet.

In Korea, sex with a low-end prostitute starts at around $40. In the
tourist areas of Bangkok, a night of sex averages about $30, not including
the "bar fine" required to take the hooker out of her go-go bar. In Macau,
a "special" massage can cost as much as $100. On Boracay Island in the
Philippines, the line between prostitution and romance isn't so clear-cut;
sex is often quietly exchanged for a week or so of food, lodging and gifts.

I know these facts not because I have a particular interest in prostitution,
but because I have been living and traveling in Asia for the past three
years. Because I am a male and I do most of my traveling alone, I am
constantly a target for pimps and hustlers. Sometimes -- especially at
tourist beaches and nightclubs -- prostitutes approach me directly. I'm
never sure what to think or do when this happens. Of all the social
situations in life I have been prepared for, prostitute protocol is not
among them.

This is where I'd hoped Adam would come in handy.

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By the time I arrived at the no-name cafe for our Saturday brothel
excursion, the streets of Phnom Penh were flooded with an hour's worth of
downpour. The rain still hadn't let up, and Adam's friends had already gone
home.

"Is the brothel trip canceled?" I asked Adam as I jogged in from the rain.

"Well, we won't be able to get to Svay Pa in weather like this. It's 11
kilometers outside of town, and that'd be hell on the back of a moto. But I
know a place within walking distance."

Donning our raincoats, Adam and I headed for Street 63, home to a number of
brothels masquerading as massage parlors. As we walked, Adam told me about
his experiences as an English teacher in Vietnam, his short stint in the
French Foreign Legion (he was kicked out for bad eyesight) and his mild
local notoriety from having appeared as a character in "Off the Rails in
Phnom Penh," Amit Gilboa's hopelessly sensationalistic (but largely
fact-based) 1998 book about sex, drugs and expats in Cambodia's capital.

Adam seemed somewhat proud of his depiction in the book. "I'm cast as a
sensitive type who genuinely cares about the girls I sleep with," he told me
as we walked.

"Is that true?"

"Sure. It may just be casual sex, but for me it's always emotional. Even
with a hooker in a brothel, there is still a chemistry going on. Sex is
only good for me when I can exchange emotion. People say, 'Don't fall in
love with a prostitute,' but I need to fall in love for those 15 minutes, or
I won't have a good time."

"So you do this for emotional reasons?"

"Well, emotion is part of it. Most of the girls who work here are
Vietnamese, and I love the exoticness of the Vietnamese body. Flat little
stomachs and such great skin. But as much as anything I like the power over
another person that the experience provides. I don't mistreat the girls,
but part of the thrill is that I pay money, and I can do what I want with
them for 15 minutes."

We walked through the rain-swollen side streets of Phnom Penh until we came
to an innocuous corner storefront on Street 63, called the Lay-Lay.
"There's a girl here I'm looking for," Adam told me as we approached the
front door. "She's really incredible."

"What's special about her?"

"Well, after a while, these experiences can all seem the same. You know, 10
to 15 minutes in one of three standard positions; not much interaction
at all. About 50 percent of the time, it's like the girls aren't even there."

"But the rest of the time it's good?"

"Well, maybe 20 percent of the girls are good. And 20 percent of that 20 percent are great.
This girl at the Lay-Lay is great. Top 10 all time, for sure."

"What's her name?"

"No. 51."

Adam and I stepped through the front door into a large, high-ceilinged room
that looked like a Roman palace as depicted in some low-budget 1983 MTV
video: fake Corinthian pillars and pink fluorescent lights; thick-cushioned
lounge chairs and clean faux marble floor tiles. A woman greeted us from
behind a reception counter -- but my attention was immediately drawn to the
far corner, where a dozen petite teenage girls lounged, catlike, behind a
tall glass partition. Dressed in skimpy silk dresses or white bath towels,
the girls chatted, dozed and played cards with one another in the pink
glow.

Adam and I took a seat and perused the prospects. "They don't look Khmer,"
I observed.

"They're Vietnamese. Cambodians prefer them because they have lighter
skin." Adam frowned, then got up to talk to the mama-san. He returned
after a few moments.

"No. 51 is 'busy,'" he said. "I've been assured that she'll be done in
five more minutes, but somehow that just doesn't sound appealing to me, if
you know what I mean. Let's go check out another place."

I followed Adam out of the Lay-Lay and into a new massage parlor two doors
down. The layout inside was almost exactly the same as in the Lay-Lay
(right down to the pink lights and the fluted pillars), but on a smaller scale.
The working girls slouched seductively in their (comparatively chaste)
shorts and T-shirts, making the glass-partitioned corner look like a
soft-porn vision of a high school girls' locker room. As in the Lay-Lay, each girl had a plastic number pinned to her shirt.

Adam wasted little time in bringing our task to order. He called out to the
mama-san, and two Vietnamese girls -- No. 8 and No. 17 -- padded out
from behind the glass. No. 17, a doe-eyed, perky-breasted, splay-toed
waif, sauntered up and planted herself on my lap; No. 8 went up to Adam,
who cooed at her in Vietnamese.

Hookers have always made me nervous; I didn't look No. 17 in the eye.
"What am I supposed to do now?" I whispered nervously to Adam.

"It depends on what you want," he said.

"What am I supposed to want?"

Adam gave me an odd look. "Well, I'm going to ask for a blow job."

I sat, awkward and silent, for a couple beats. The lovely Miss 17 squirmed
flirtatiously in my lap. Despite my nonchalant interest, I was not there
for "boom-boom." I was merely passing an afternoon by playing Dante (to
Adam's Virgil) in the not-so-divine comedy of Phnom Penh's netherworld. I
had followed Adam there simply to observe -- with greasy, stoical objectivity
-- something I couldn't see in Albuquerque.

I decided to call my bluff with Adam. "I don't think I'm up for this," I
told him.

Adam shrugged. "Sure, no problem," he said. "If you
want to just wait here, I shouldn't be more than 15 minutes." Adam
spoke a few words of Vietnamese to No. 17, who jerked herself up from my
lap and sneered at me.

Embarrassed, I tried to salvage the situation. "How about a massage, then?" I said to Adam. "This is technically a massage parlor, right?"

Adam grinned. "Yeah, it's a massage parlor, but most girls don't like to
give them. Massages are hard work, plus they take a full hour and cost the
same as sex. A gorgeous girl like her could probably make $20 in the time
it takes to give you a $5 massage. But maybe one of the uglier ones is
willing to do it."

"Never mind," I said, not wanting to further complicate things. "I'll just
wait here."

"Suit yourself," Adam said. He got up and led No. 8 into the hallway
behind the glass partition.

Suddenly alone, I sat in my chair and glanced nervously around the pink-lit
waiting room. Except for No. 17 -- who glowered at me from her new perch
behind the glass -- nobody paid me any mind. A group of Cambodian men sat
next to me and giggled as they sized up the merchandise. The mama-san
happily played with a brown-skinned baby near the front door. The lobby TV
featured a Khmer-dubbed video copy of "Space Jam," starring Michael Jordan
and Bugs Bunny. I tried to convince myself that this situation was no
different than waiting for Adam to return from a piano lesson or a midnight
pizza-run -- but this simply didn't work.

Suddenly aware that I had arms hanging from my shoulders, I frantically
debated what to do with them. Was I supposed to fold them across my chest? Was it better to hang them at my sides? Should I have clutched them to the armrests of my chair? The possibilities seemed infinite, maddening.

In less than a minute, I had dashed off past the glass partition in an
attempt to locate Adam. The dingy hallway revealed a dozen or so identical
gray doors, lots of suspicious noises and no sign of my German Virgil.

"Adam!" I called out, as embarrassed as ever.

A couple moments later, Adam stuck his head out of the door nearest me. He
looked ruffled, but not angry. "Did you change your mind?" he said. "I
don't blame you if you did."

"No," I said. "But I think I might leave. You want to meet later at the
cafe?"

Adam frowned. "If you came all the way out here, you may as well stay and
enjoy yourself. I'll send my girl out to find someone who'll give you a
massage." Adam pulled his head into his room, and a few moments later
No. 8 came out, shot me a dirty look and left for the lobby.
"Sorry," I said to Adam.

"No problem. My girl says she thinks one of the old ones might do a massage
for you."

"What old ones?"

"Well, old by their standards; maybe 25 or 26."

"If 26 is old, then what age is your girl?"

"She says she's 16, but you never know. Cambodians like them really young,
so she could just be in the habit of shaving a few years off."

No. 8 came back with No. 21, a tiny woman with a lithe body and bad
teeth.

"She look OK to you?" Adam asked.

"Yeah," I said, barely looking at her. "She knows this is just for a
massage, right?"

"We'll make sure," Adam said.

Apparently, going to a massage parlor in Phnom Penh and asking for a massage
is like going to Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky and asking for an
enchilada. Adam chattered in Vietnamese with No. 21 for at least a full
minute. Two different Cambodian customers checked out of the other gray
door rooms while the clarification dragged on.

"Blah blah blah blah boom-boom" is all I could make out. I was still
amazed to hear "boom-boom" being used as a legitimate noun. "Blah blah
boom-boom blah blah." I vaguely felt like I was being mocked.

Finally convinced of her special assignment, No. 21 took me behind one of
the gray doors. The bed inside nearly filled the entire cubicle; there was
just enough room to walk around it on two sides. A small fluorescent light
bathed the room in a dim pink hue. The walls were made of flimsy plywood,
and the bedsheets bore a tiny flower print. I took off my shirt and shoes
and stretched out onto the bed.

No. 21 smacked her palm on my bare back and squawked Vietnamese at me.
It became quickly apparent that this was not part of the massage therapy. I
looked back at her, and she indicated that she wanted me to take off my
pants. I took off my pants. She crawled onto the bed and went to work,
kneading the muscles on my upper back and systematically working her way
down to my ankles. She rolled me over, cracked my back, twisted my toes
and rubbed my chest and shoulders.

The massage was not particularly good, nor was it unpleasant. Not sure how
to give positive reinforcement (aside from making ambiguous groaning noises,
which seemed like a monumentally bad idea), I said nothing.

No. 21 quit the massage after about 15 minutes. Since we still had
45 minutes to go, I looked over at her uncertainly. She let out a sigh,
slipped off her shorts, and -- looking me in the eye -- hiked up her panties
to show off a deliciously round bottom.

This, I suppose, was an intermission of sorts -- a calculated suggestion of
seduction. She gave her buttocks a wiggle and grinned impishly. Perhaps
to show that this little ritual was merely a reminder -- not a full
invitation (necessarily) -- she left her shirt and panties on.

At a very basic level, I suppose this should have garnered some sort of
resolute response in me -- lust or pity, solidarity or scorn -- but I didn't feel any way in particular.

Yes, I found No. 21 attractive, and part of me wanted to reach out and
pull her into bed with me. But that's mostly because I am a male mammal. I
also happen to be a middle-class American who was born after the sexual
revolution and reached puberty after the advent of AIDS. Mammalian
instincts aside, paid sex is nothing more to me than a curious anachronism,
and it certainly doesn't jibe with any of my preconditioned notions of
social or personal esteem. My presence in a Cambodian brothel was a farce --
as contrived and inconsequential as the preadolescent compulsion to make it
to some mysterious new level of a video game.

Thus -- not unlike Dante in the final canto of his Inferno -- my journey to
the brothels of Phnom Penh ended without a trace of dramatic or emotional
resonance: Ignoring the tentative seduction ritual, I handed No. 21 her
shorts, put on my clothes and left the little cubicle.

I met Adam in the lobby and we walked back through the rain to the no-name
cafe, where -- in what had now turned into a habit, of sorts -- we both
ordered spaghetti. By the time it had arrived, we had moved on to
discussing the pros and cons of NATO.


Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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