Sex Trafficking: An Inside View – Episode III

Hostess Bars in Cambodia

Sex Trafficking: An Inside View – Episode III

An Unspoken Voices Exclusive by Jay Morse

For the next four weeks of Sex Trafficking Awareness Month, Unspoken Voices will share stories from one of our own volunteers who chose to fight against trafficking and tyranny in an incredible way. He traveled to some of the biggest hot-spots for trafficking—from places like Hong Kong to Cambodia.

The stories can be heartbreaking but they are realistic. There is humor and grace, fear and pain.

I invite you along on this journey of extraction into the tragic & dark world of trafficking.

A Phnom Penh (PP) traffic report: Not For the Timid

Solid double yellow lines don't mean much in Cambodia. In the middle of a congested commute, drivers think nothing of commandeering the inside lane of oncoming traffic. The other day I was in a taxi stopped dead in commute traffic when the driver casually crossed the double yellow line into the fast lane of  oncoming traffic. As I picked up my jaw off the carpet, the cars we were about smack into calmly vacated the inside lane like it was something that happens every day. Which it apparently does. Then I looked back; lots of the cars that had been behind us in stopped traffic were following us across the double yellow line and falling in right behind us. Just another day at the office.

Most of the time, I took motorbike taxis and tuk tuks instead of car taxis.  Tuk tuks are covered carts pulled by motorcycles that can seat six adults or four Americans. There is, however, one more choice. Below, some samlor (bicycle rickshaw) drivers are waiting for customers. A samlor ride is very relaxing, possibly because the drivers are so relaxed! There are not many of these left; tuk tuks crowd the streets now. If you want something quick and less boring, motorbike taxi drivers excel at dodging cars, tuk tuks and each other. To them, cars and trucks are just a fun obstacle course.  

Samlor Drivers Waiting for Customers

Samlor Drivers Waiting for Customers


I learned the hard way how important it is to beware of tuk tuk and motobike scams.  If you don't get agreement on the price before you get on you can expect to be extorted when you get off.  I also learned that some tuk tuk drivers are plugged into specific hotels or brothels.  Put those two things together and the potential for scam is high.  There's your connection between traffic and trafficking.

Restaurant Reconnaissance

I have a friend who is executive director of an NGO that fights trafficking by promoting economic development. He wanted to show me the economic development needs of a smaller city, Kompong Thom, which is several hours from Phnom Penh. I, however, was more interested in the human trafficking situation there. My friend said that as in Phnom Penh,  not much is visible anymore. Brothels operating out in the open have been replaced by restaurants, karaoke clubs and the occasional massage shop which all look legitimate on the outside.  Even locals cannot tell which joints are dodgy, he said, but he offered to help me do a bit of reconnoitering. I took him up on it.

That night we drove to a restaurant that was built around a large courtyard. In addition to waitresses, the restaurant had hostesses who would pour your beer and chat with you if you could speak Khmer, which I could not. The hostesses and waitresses wore matching dresses as uniforms, black for hostesses and red for waitresses, I believe. After my friend ordered food and beer we were joined by a hostess and, I was later told, her boss. My friend ordered two meat dishes, one of which a dish of fried shredded beef tongue. It was quite tasty. Mixed in with the meat were what looked like white jelly beans. I wanted to know what I was about to partake of so I asked him:

"What are those?"

"Insect larvae," he replied.

"What kinds of insects?" I asked.

"The kind that fly around."

"Well," I thought, "that's helpful."  Not wanting to be gotten the better of, I popped a few in my mouth. They had a tough but supple skin and goo inside.  The sensation of them popping in my mouth is one I will, um . . . never forget. My complements to the chef: the goo had picked up taste of the fried beef.

I'm just glad it wasn't fried scorpions. I draw the line at scorpions.

Since I was curious, and since my friend had agreed to translate, I started asking our hostess about her job and about the restaurant. I asked where she was from and how long she'd worked there. But when I asked whether she sometimes dated customers after work she looked confused. My friend jokingly shut down that line of questioning.

"You can't ask that; they might think you are some kind of foreign investigator or something!" Oops.

"Here's how to find out," he volunteered. "You pretend to be a customer interested in more than food and beer. You chat with her and ask if she will give you her mobile number. Later, you can call her." And that's exactly what he did. Except for the part about calling her. The next morning he gave me a verbal poke in the ribs, asking, "Did you call the girl?"

"Hey!" I shot back. "You're the one who got her phone number!" He laughed. 

He then offered to show me KTV (karaoke) clubs in Tuol Kork, Phnom Penh, when we got back. A decade ago I'd read that Tuol Kork was a seedy slum that was dangerous at night.  I mean, more dangerous than other parts of Phnom Penh were then. Now Tuol Kork had become a high rent district of corporate offices and apartments for expats. Pitted, dusty streets had been paved. KTV clubs had replaced brothels. My friend said that many of the hostesses in the clubs are underage (or would be in the US; fifteen is the age of consent in Cambodia). I declined his kind offer, saying that KTV clubs would probably be too loud for me and not have much to sing in English anyway. Good call. A Cambodian innkeeper later warned me off going to such places, saying that they are "extremely expensive" because they excel at separating a fool from his money, and because Cambodian hosts (other than my friend) will expect the foreigner to pick up everyone's tab. 

The Nightly Gauntlet

Back in Phnom Penh I settled into a routine. I would run errands in the morning, nap through the mid day swelter, get up late for a business meeting and/or dinner and beer with friends, shop for groceries and come back to my guest house by 11pm to join the innkeeper and his friends for yet another beer.  Beer was everywhere.  It was cheap, delicious and safer to drink than the local brands of bottled water. A friend happily pointed out cafes that offer 50c beers in the late afternoon and early evening. There, I learned a useful Australian phrase:  "liquid lunch."

There was a huge Lucky supermarket some distance from my guesthouse but the nearest minimart was on the other side of Sorya Mall, a hooker hangout vaguely reminiscent of the extraterrestrial bar in the very first Star Wars movie. This meant I had to carry my grocery bag past a gauntlet of guys asking "Tuk tuk?" "Motorbike?"  "Want smoke?"  "Want lady?" Then finally, "What  you want?" And that was just the mall side of the street. The other side was a row of hostess bars staffed with women sitting outside and beckoning "Hello, honey. Where you go?"  Though the scene got old after awhile, I enjoyed being out and about at night because the hot & humid daylight hours felt like a suffocating steam bath to a guy who functions best when it's cool and dry.  When I'd get back to the guest house with my groceries, the guy behind the counter often greeted me: "You always come back smiling face. Had lady?" Then he'd wink. Funny guy. That joke got so old after awhile that I'm not sure he was kidding.

Trashy Literature

Phnom Penh has made huge strides in infrastructure over the years but some squalor still persists. For example, I saw almost no garbage cans or dumpsters. People just heap their rubbish on the wide sidewalks or in the street until an old school garbage truck comes by some night. Then, young men in t-shirts and tennis shoes hop off the back of the truck and chuck the pile into its maw. A few crews have hay forks but most men use their bare hands.  None is provided gloves, masks, work boots or even coveralls.


I shuddered to think about their health and how ripe they smell when they get home. I also wondered how they manage to evict the rats that call the rubbish home. Those critters are fearless. They scare the cats. But one man's trash is another man's treasure. One night I saw a man sitting in a heap of great smelling trash. I wondered what he was doing. Since I was going that way anyway I walked by to take a good look.

He was eating something.

Another night, I saw a girl poking thru a pile of rubbish on a dark street, also with her bare hands. If in America she might have been about ten but in Cambodia she might be older; I couldn't tell. After seeing "eating man," I dreaded the thought that she too might be foraging for food so I didn't cross the street to look. But as I turned the corner down a busy street to look for a mini mart I thought, how can I pass by and not do something?

When I found a mini-mart I bought her a couple of big bottles of water, a pen and a little pocket notebook. I hoped she would still be there. She was. It turned out she wasn't looking for food, but for something to read! She was sorting through children's books, tearing off the grubby bits and tossing them back in the heap. The good bits she put in a separate pile. My heart absolutely sank but I had to hand it to her; she was desperately poor but desperate to learn. She seemed very determined. I offered her the bottled water. She didn't understand a word I said but grasped my intent and accepted the water. I wrote my name and email address in the little notebook I was going to give her and told her that if she needed anything to email me. This, of course, was no good. She couldn't understand and probably didn't have web access anyway. (I later reckoned that no Cambodian under 30 knows how use email and probably no one under 20 has ever heard of it. A relic from a different age.)

Just then, a man crossed the street, stood not far from the girl and looked me right in the eyes. "Good for him" I thought, watching out for a child and a fellow countryman. Was she his daughter? A friend's daughter? A stranger to him? There was no way to know but he was right to be concerned about a male tourist trying to chat with a child. I gave the girl the pen and notebook and said goodbye.

Giving her the clean water, a pen and paper gave me the best feeling of the entire trip.  It was a high, a really warm feeling. What a great reason to travel!

Reconnaissance of Hostess Bars

In Phnom Penh, I found block after block of hostess bars near the riverside where tourists and expats congregate. The area was like an adult theme park where the bars had names like Candy Bar, Honeypot and Heartbreak. I made a game of trying to find the cleverest bar name. The runner up was "Same Same, But Different," a local Pidgin English expression that still tickles my funny bone. But the winner, hands down was "The Office." I got it when I saw an Australian call his girlfriend as he was about to duck into another pub. He pleaded "No, no, honey, really, I'm not lying!  I'm still at the office!" It was hard to not bust up. I suppose he'd have been telling "the truth" if he'd been about to patronize "The Office" when he came up that whopper. 

Eventually I got up the nerve to try "Heartbreak" bar.  Women lounging outside followed me in, asked where I was from and would I buy them a drink.  When I asked them where they were from and how they came to work in a bar the manager ("mamasan") came over and suggested moving from the bar to the lounge where it would be easy to talk. I was quite surprised. She was friendly, helpful and very informative. Her English was also quite good. She even offered to translate so I could talk to hostesses who didn't speak English. I learned a lot from her. She said that "whether customers buy them drinks determines whether they eat the next day."  If that was a sales pitch it was a damned good one; I bought a round.  Right away I had ten new friends. Since the drinks were $3.50 apiece you can't do that every night. 

The manager said the hostesses make the most money "when they go with customers."  I asked her whether they can choose not to go if they don't trust the customer. She said yes, but they usually go. "It's not so easy," she added. "Sometimes customers beat them." She said that take out customers pay her a "bar fine" of ten US dollars for the lady to leave with them and then negotiate a separate fee with her that she will keep.

On chatting some more, most hostesses told me they were in their twenties, had no education, no children and no boyfriend. But some said they had been dumped by a boyfriend and did not want another. They just wanted to work. Others said they would like to have a foreign boyfriend who would take care of them. Much batting of eyelashes. They would flirt with patrons and pretend to want to be their girlfriend to get patrons to buy them drinks and "bar fine" them. "That's our job" one said. The manager added that most hostesses send money to their families so they don't save very much. 

I made a couple more visits to "Heartbreak" and drank my share of beer. I also indulged in a few too many late afternoon 50c restaurant beers. (OK, some were 75c.) One day on the street I bumped into two hostesses from Heartbreak who asked "Why you no come back? We miss you!"  I told them "I have to cut back on beer. I already look six months pregnant!"

They laughed. "Yes!" one shouted, pointing at my belly. "You are going to have twins! One, two!" Obviously I needed a better excuse. (Not to mention a gym.)