The “air conditioned” bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap wasn’t so air-conditioned after all. Between the woman hacking up phlegm in the seat behind me, to the French couple with the ill-behaved child who was screaming most the time, it was a ride from hell. I was grouchy, hot, irritated and wanted a Valium.
We stopped at a restaurant to eat and I jetted to the street market to support the locals. Immediately, several stall vendors were yelling at me to buy their goods. I went with the woman who was the quietest as I just needed some peace. It’s rumored most Cambodians make less than one dollar a day – a total of $330 dollars per year. I try to support local women as much as I can.
After six hours on the road watching the Cambodian countryside go by, we finally arrived in Siem Reap. Damn was I ready to get off that bus! Immediately, I was swarmed by ten tuk tuk drivers all squawking in my face. I hadn’t had a good night’s rest and was irritated. I finally said, “I’ll give my business to the man who lets me have 10 minutes of peace.” I needed a minute to compose myself, stretch, survey my surroundings. We selected a friendly driver and arrived at the Golden Banana – a gay-friendly oasis in Siem Reap and one of the most charming BandBs I have ever stayed in. Thanks Lindsay! Complimentary breakfast, gay staff, a pool and room service. It was a much-welcomed break from the dumps we’d been staying in. We ate a Khmer dinner and hit the sack.
In the morning, Golden Banana arranged a tuk tuk driver for our first day of Angkor temple tours. Our driver, Sopheara, a 25 year-old Cambodian man was friendly, informative, fun and absolutely gorgeous. He is one of the most beautiful men I have ever met. We first visited Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. Giant faces carved in stone, Bayon is otherworldly and majestic. We then visited the Terraces of the Elephants and Leper King, and then Ta Prohm. I lost mums for a bit in one of the larger temples. She ended up at the wrong gate and I was worried she fell or something. After searching for her for an hour, she finally made her way back to the tuk tuk. After hours of walking, exploring, shooting photos and dripping in my own sweat, we headed to Pub Street for a Mexican meal. Yeah-a! We turned in early as we’d planned to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat the next morning, which meant getting up at 4:30 a.m. Angkor Wat is the most famous of Angkor Temples and while the sunrise was no doubt beautiful, it was not the most magnificent in my opinion. We headed out to see Preah Khan, Neak Pean and Ta Som.
Sopheara, who’d we’d become close with by now, took us back to Pub Street and we invited him to lunch. We ordered Italian (which he didn’t like), Khmer (which we all love) and Indian (tandoori chicken, which he really loved). He’d never had Indian before so it was an adventure for him. He told us about his life, his schooling, how he really needs a laptop so he can build a web site to promote his business. He told us about growing up in the countryside cultivating rice, his family, his fiancé and his future plans. He told us about Pol Pot, Cambodia post-Pol Pot and who can be trusted and who cannot. He asked if I will return to Cambodia and do NGO work here (I would love to!), and said I should keep in touch. Perhaps I could stay with his family upon my return. We then took a break at our hotel – had a dip in the pool and a nap and then headed out again at 7 p.m. to see the city of Siem Reap. Sopheara took us to the Old Market, the Night Market (mums enjoyed some fish foot massage and I bought some Cambodian goods). Then we went back to Pub Street for some Khmer street food. I meet a man from San Francisco who is living in Afghanistan – an IT engineer. He’s also a long time Burning Man attendant so we had a lot to discuss.
To close the night, I asked Sopheara to take us to a Cambodian “karaoke bar.” We winded through several small alleyways into a seedy part of Siem Reap. I gently approached the girls outside the karaoke bar and began talking with them. They would not admit to me that sex was for sale – only that karaoke and beer was for sell, but I could tell by the numbers on their dresses that they were prostitutes. They sit in the gallery, on display for customers, men survey their options, point to the number they want, and head to a room. The customers were Cambodian, not Western, and were abhorrent. Some were so drunk they were nearly puking. Some just walked up and aggressively grabbed a girl and headed off to a room somewhere in the building. The working girls looked much different than the women in Thailand. They were wearing long dresses and looked conservative and wholesome. This wasn’t Patpong but the same shit was happening. The madams of the brothel didn’t like me poking around. Neither did security. The madams refused to speak to me and simply said “no” when I approached them. They looked hardened. Cruel even. I slyly asked the working girls if they were using condoms because I would pass some out if they weren’t, but they refused to admit what was really going on. I told them I knew what was happening and that they didn’t have to tell me. Some girls were friendly and spoke good English. We chit-chatted about small things – my visit to Siem Reap, the shape of my nose, their villages and families back home. Other girls seemed completely deflated. Sitting in the gallery waiting for customers. Empty eyes. Faces of sadness. Some were uncomfortable and nervous around me. A white woman at a Cambodian brothel asking questions, playing dumb. All eyes were on me and I decided it was best that I leave. I left disgusted, defeated, and helpless because there was nothing I could really do.
A brothel in Siem Reap was raided yesterday. The newspapers are reporting that the girls are in custody of the government’s social department while an investigation is underway. Apparently this brothel was raided a few years back but seems to have rebounded completely. If you can pay off the cops why would the cops do anything at all? They are also profiting. Sopheara’s response: “If they raid only one, what good will it do? Why not shut them all down?” True that.