Phnom Penh at night
by Meg Hamilton
As part of trying to understand how trafficking happens here and what circumstances are like for women we visited a number of bars in which girls work. This work takes many different forms, and we learned a lot. To clarify this piece is not about the girls at Transitions. It has taken some time to let these experiences settle, and it feels like the learning inherent in the experiences is central to our work here. Thank you for listening:
To begin this story I’ll begin at the end.
It’s almost 7 at night. I sit in a chair in the small balcony attached to our hotel room. Tuk tuks buzz by on the street below. A horn honks. Dog barks. The smell of rotting trash wafts up from the street three floors below. The smell of food cooking in street carts.
The city is alive and buzzing tonight. There is an election this weekend. In the distance there is the echoing sound of speakers and a distant rise of cheers.
This morning when I sat I only wanted to hug my knees to my chest and sob. Yet I could not pinpoint what it was that was breaking my heart.
Last night. The last bar we were in. Walking through the front door and past a group of men sitting on their motos. “Hey lady.” They each chimed. Into the bar and suddenly affronted by a subtle set of images. On the tv screen in the corner a tiger mauled an antelope. To my left a group of women stood behind the bar. In front of me was a large mural- women in silhouette in bras and panties. In front of me and scattered throughout the bar photographs of the bar owner and his three young daughters. They reached their hands up to his chest appearing shy and seeking protection.
This set of images- as bizarre as they were- slammed into my gut and mind. The disjointed links between them setting off a series of alarms that were already set to spring.
On the tv screen the predators continued their violent pursuit of prey.
We sit at this bar for a while and play Connect Four and a dice game I’ve never played before with a few of the girls working there. They are friendly and playful. They kick my ass at the dice game and I buy them shots for winning.
The bar before this one. Heather, a teacher from Transitions who is showing us around, opens the door and we are instantly greeted by cheers and loud Hello’s!! The bar is dark- it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust and take everything in. It’s small- a narrow space lit with a few lights. A long wooden bar covers the left side of the building and tables, booths, and chairs fill the remaining corners. There are probably 30 young Cambdian girls in this bar- each dressed in a tight sexy blue dress and wearing thick make up. It takes me a minute to take all of this in and to click these pieces into place.
We sit down at a bench in the back and instantly five girls are sitting with us, asking us questions and flirting. I am still uncomfortable. It takes me a minute to be able to answer.
When Heather says it’s appropriate, I begin to ask questions too. One woman says she has worked at the bar for two months. Before this she worked in a shoe factory for 10 years. She made almost no money, and told us the conditions at the bar are better than those of the factory.
Another has been at the bar for 6 months. She speaks little English, and uses her body to communicate. Puts her arm around Katie M., uses her other arm to push away another girl attempting to join the circle. Her long dark hair is curled in beautiful careful ringlets. She strokes Katie M.’s arm and tells her that her light skin is beautiful- more beautiful than hers.
Go back a few more days. The karaoke bar near our hotel in Siem Reap. We don’t know what this is or how karaoke bars work but we know we’ve seen girls sitting out front and we are curious. Investigative. We walk in and our overwhelmed by the bright colors and loud blaring music of the place. The people there seem panicked. Eager to get us out of the hallways. They seem stunned to see a group of white women here. A skinny man in a maroon suit anxiously leads us through the hallways until I, confused and not wanting to follow this man deeper into this building, stop and ask about karaoke. He turns the other way and opens a door to a large room with a projector. Blue and yellow striped plastic booths line the walls. It’s your own personal karaoke room. We tell the man we will be back later. On our way out we pass two women sitting in the entryway. They’re dressed in playful girly outfits. Wearing thick make up. They have buttons with numbers pinned to their chest. #111 looks up at us as we exit quickly.
We have no idea what it is we’ve just seen. Each of these bars contains its own unique culture, and it has been immensely difficult to sort out our understandings of trafficking, and to differentiate it from sex work by choice. Hostessing is different from being a bar girl. A karaoke girl is different from a prostitute. In 2008 the Cambodian government passed a law clearly defining trafficking and outlawing it. Since then trafficking has moved further underground; prior to this law it would not be unusual to have young children- 8 years old, 10 years old- approach you and solicit you. It would not have been unusual to see women soliciting customers on the streets. Now when you enter a bar in which girls are working it is impossible to tell who is here by choice and who is not.
Many of the women who work as bar girls value their work, and have found it to be empowering. Many come from the countryside to work in the city. They send money home to their families and care for sick relatives. They raise their social status through the accumulation of wealth. Should they remain at their homes in the country they would likely spend their lives as rice farmers, live in poverty, marry a man they don’t want to spend their lives with. Or continue work in a factory that treats them worse than the men in the bars.
My heartache, I think, comes from the weight of the overwhelm of the entire system. Empowerment is found in a more lucrative vocation, in the power so easy to feel in sexual mastery. Yet these vocations are inherently still dependent upon a man and have what seems to be primarily a materialistic gain. What about real options- real freedom- what would these women do if they felt they could do anything at all?
The burden deepens for me when I think about my role in these systems. The woman who worked in the factory, for instance. Whose shoes did she make? Did I ever buy a pair?
It feels like an impossible situation.