There's such a thing as a hostess bar in Cambodia. It's an establishment that offers libations, snacks, and the most salient feature of spry, young Cambodian women, available for modest companionship and eye candy. With such a gag-evoking reality of child prostitution and sex tourism in this country already scarred with unfathomable [recent] history, I was very careful to approach the idea of nightlife in Phnom Penh. It had been a long time since I participated in after hour activities, especially with anyone resembling a travel buddy or friend, and with two weeks in this relative hub of excitement, I thought it was a necessary experience. I also had to see what this hostess situation was about. Evan understood and shared my outlook on Cambodian nightlife and offered to introduce me to this unique experience. The ride to the bar occurred after an incredible downpour that flooded the streets to levels beyond my comprehension. Our tuk-tuk driver had to get off his seat and push his vehicle (with us still in the back, lifting our legs from the incoming water, because he wouldn't allow us to get out and push with him) until he passed through a thigh-high water situation at the intersection of two roads.
I was stunned this amount of water could puddle together with buildings and storefronts lining the streets, as if the water level displayed the correct ground level and the driver walked in some sort of quicksand below. Evan kept his feet elevated, hoping any minor cuts wouldn't get infected as one had the previous week (which he had to keep soaked in bright purple iodine). The moment was surreal and simply hilarious. I'm disappointed the lighting didn't lend to some telling pictures.
I was already quite sauced before we entered the first watering hole, a hostess bar that was vouched for and legitimate by standards unbeknownst to me. I said "yay" to a Long Island Iced Tea and sat at a U-shaped couched where Evan and I were soon thronged by women of high school age or older.
With daily gigs of encouraging consumption and making witty conversation with travelers, these hostesses were skilled in language. They understood the complexities of humor, based in languages and cultures foreign to them (a laudable skill, as I learned in Italy). I guess in a sense they were the Cambodian equivalent of geishas.
The awkward feeling in my gut led me to act oblivious and just start ordering food while throwing out jokes and anecdotes to anyone listening. Eventually I loosened up and began chatting with the girl next to me (who was only nearby because she, along with the others, was enamored with Evan and his care for the Palm Tree kids).
She had a son who suffered from elephantitis of the testicles. He was roughly two or three years of age. She flashed a picture out from her pocket and showed me his face and worn frame. This woman had no reason to tell me this sad truth of her life, as she knew I wasn't there for special companionship or to buy her drinks. She wasn't even the one who brought the topic into conversation.
Looking around at the other tables in the bar, I realized we were monopolizing about 80% of the hostesses on duty. They flocked to our table in hopes of hearing Evan's attempt at speaking in Khmer and chatting as friends. The rest of the tables were occupied by twos, one traveler to one woman, and the game at play was flirting. It was like we made it to the backstage party and bypassed the controversial showing of "You Like Me. You Buy Drink."
Approaching this outing like a foreigner made it easy to judge, but I then took my own understanding of nightlife in College Town, USA and applied the same eye. Aside from the drink incentives and hourly wages paid by the bars, the social scene in both countries seemed eerily similar. Girls go to bars. Boys go to bars to find girls. Girls try to get guys to buy them drinks. Guys buy girls drinks to encourage further conversation and companionship. And at the end of the night, if two people like each other, they can choose to exchange numbers and stay in contact with one another. And some day, when feelings blossom, who knows?
The next morning I awoke in an empty hotel room, shivering from the billowing AC and listening to the MTV channel I had fallen asleep to. Since we weren't planning to be back from our night out before 9pm or after 5am (when the gate would be locked), we rented a $10 room each with all the essentials (TV, AC, personal bathrooms and soap). Lying in that bed, I listened to the newest works by Keane and Lil Jon and began to anticipate the boat loads of new music I would encounter once back stateside.
Evan and I waltzed back to the orphanage in time for a double fried egg lunch with the kids, and their looks of confusion as to why we were just returning from the evening were refreshing. Luckily, the Palm Tree kids are among the few in Phnom Penh (and Cambodia) who see the world with fairly innocent eyes. Most were never exposed to the professions of the night and had trouble understanding why we went out on the town the night before. Even though our evening activities weren't scandalous and were for the pursuit a unique cultural experience, it made me happy to know they were protected from the burdens of their demographic.
Except for one new girl.
Srey Nith arrived at Palm Tree only a few days before I had, and her patchy English and mysterious personality made it difficult to see where her mind would lead her actions. Word on the playground was she had been taken from the despicable child sex tourism game. Her brown eyes and toothy smile conjured mischief, and I wished terribly that we could speak a common language. But instead we spent many minutes and hours drawing pictures and saying simple English and Khmer phrases to enable some better communication.
She often mentioned her boyfriend or a boy she liked, pointing off to a group of older guys and saying a name I wasn't familiar with. I'd question what she meant and upon hearing her insinuate actions and thoughts above her maturity, I immediately shut them down with friendly disapproval. I wanted her to know, if she was saying those things for acceptance, it wouldn't work for me. Instead, I showed enthusiasm with each new statement she learned in English, and her constant quizzing of Khmer phrases helped my skills immensely. She sang for me with English lyrics she didn't understand, and I wrote them out on a whiteboard, during an impromptu tutoring lesson, so she could realize what she was indeed singing about.
She had a do-good heart hidden in a battered shell, and I found her to be one of my most intriguing friends at the orphanage. It pained me to hear when trouble went down by her doing. With the "physical education" and mature lectures she received in her short lifetime thus far, I can imagine her thoughts of entering a new place filled with men she had to seek approval from. And seek it she did, but in a way neither she nor the young boys she touched were aware and ready for.
The next week, five boys at the orphanage were a bit quieter; one of which was my self-proclaimed "little brother" who used to climb up my torso like a tree to hug and kiss me on the cheek but now shied from my taps on the shoulder. I spent the next days slowing building the boys' trust back in females and solidifying their beliefs that I was there to do no harm or embarrassment to them. It was a slow process, but thankfully, I got the smiles and the hugs once more.
For all the good we do or think we do in the United States, I hope citizens are aware of, thoroughly disgusted by, and prepared to flog any of the Americans that makes up the quarter of the child sex tourism industry around the world (and 40% of Cambodia's red-light market).