All the dumb things

A cautionary tale in development

When is a hotel a brothel and vice versa? Phnom Penh, Cambodia 1974

Posted by razzbuffnik on May 9, 2007

In my experience, travelling and prostitution seem to go hand in hand.  Cheap hotels appear to be the catalyst. When I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in the early seventies, every hotel (always cheap) I stayed at doubled as a brothel.  As a matter of fact, at the time I was beginning to think that there were no cheap hotels in Cambodia, only brothels that let out rooms to travellers as a side line.

I was travelling at the time with my girlfriend who was an Australian born Chinese woman with a university education. We were both very young, I was eighteen going onto nineteen and she was about twenty-two. Many other travellers automatically assumed that I was another one of those guys knocking around with a local prostitute.  There were certainly quite a few guys who were doing that, so their assumptions could be understood.

One of the hazards of staying in brothels is that there were always women waiting, outside to pounce on one as soon as one opened the door to their room at any time of the day or night. It’s not a good look to be fending off two or three women waiting at your doorway trying to grope you in front of your girlfriend. I can understand how such experiences can lead some guys into thinking they were “special” because of all the attention. The thing was, though, the “prostitutes” were just extremely desperate young women in a poor country being torn apart by a civil war brought about by external global politics they knew nothing about, trying to make their way through life as best they could. It was saddening and totally non-erotic. After a while the door watchers left me alone, respecting the relationship I already had, although (as I was told by one of them later) they thought I was a bit odd in that I didn’t want more women like the rest of the men they had encountered.

I knew three guys that were travelling together (two Englishmen and an American) who were staying at the same hotel (for the want of a better word) as myself.  We’d become friends and I used to hang out with them. One morning I came in to their room to see them, and there were three of the local “girls” with them. One of the English guys was getting a pedicure from a childlike emaciated waif while a world-wearier veteran of the battle of the sexes looked on. As I walked into the room the waif gave me a sheepish embarrassed grimace and went back to her new job. She was probably hoping that she’d be able to make a career of it.

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The guys explained to me that they had gone out drinking the night before and had achieved escape velocity from the bounds of sobriety. When they went back to their room and were fumbling with the key to get in, the waiting women made their move. One of the English guys (not in the picture) said he was so drunk that he ran into the shower and threw up all over himself while a woman was pulling at his clothes, trying to undress him.  Being so drunk, the Englishman not only wasn’t interested in sex but he also couldn’t defend himself. He told me that he turned on the shower and sat on the floor as the cold water ran over him, trying to stay conscious.  His assailant wasn’t put off and kept pulling his clothes off while he continued to vomit, thinking he was going to turn inside out.  He told me that he passed out in the shower and couldn’t remember the rest of the night. The other two guys just rolled with the punches or should I say the women. In hindsight, I’d say they were very lucky not to get robbed. In fact I’m sure that the girls were more interested in being “taken away from it all” and saw the guys as their lucky break, so therefore they didn’t want to cruel their chances.

I ended up staying in Cambodia for about six months until two weeks before the US backed government of Lon Nol fell to the Khmer Rouge.  In that time I got to know quite a few of the “girls” and heard some of their sad stories. My decision not to sleep with them for money wasn’t much use to them.  I’ve come to think that ethics tend to be a product of “fat” societies and ethics are one of the first things to go when the going gets tough. So as a way of helping out (I didn’t have much money myself at the time) I used to get one of the prostitutes I knew to wash my clothes. She didn’t actually wash them, she’d pass the work on and take a cut, I knew but didn’t care, anyhow she had kids.

The very first time I went to pick up my cleaned clothes from my new washerwoman, she invited me up to her room, to get them. Once I was in the room she began to take her gear off.  The assumption being that I was using the washing of the clothes as a ruse to see her behind my girlfriend’s back. After a quick explanation of why I was actually there, I was given the washing and I left. We still stayed “friends” and I’m pretty sure my washerwoman “worked” her way through most of the guys I was aquainted with in  Phnom Penh. Good luck to her, as I’m certain that things got much worse for her when the Khmer Rouge took over.

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