Back in Cambodia
Feb 23, 2004
The kids yell "Hello, mister" as you walk by. Dogs wander down the dirt roads. The smell of dust and burning trash in the air. I feel like I'm home again.
Saving a girl from a brothel
My first night back in Cambodia, I decide to go out to a bar. There are a number of Karaoke places in town, but that's not my scene. There is the "chicken village" of brothels outside of town. There is also one pub owned by a guy from New Zealand. I choose the pub and catch a 12 cent motorbike ride there.
I sit down at the bar next to an American, 29 year old, ex-stockbroker from New York who now lives in Asia half-time. We start swapping stories. He just bought a condo in Pattaya. His mother did a google search on 'Pattaya' and wasn't impressed when she found out that it was "the sex capitol of the world". He tried, rather unsuccessfully, to explain to her that he actually lives out in the suburbs.
On his first trip to Asia he went to see Angkor Wat. After a day of seeing temples, his driver offered to take him to a good massage parlor. He agreed, but only for a massage. He ends up with a 15 year old girl. Has a massage and perhaps a bit more. During this, the girl tells him her life story. He leaves the massage parlor with the decision "I'm going to save this girl."
The next day he returns to the brothel and tells the mamasan "I'm going to buy this girl's contract. I don't want you _ever_ talking to her again." The mamasan doesn't have a problem with this. She pulls out a big accounting book that lists every client that the girl has ever had, along with every piece of clothing and jewelry that the mamasan has every bought for her. The girl had reduced her debt from $500 (the price paid to the girl's mother) down to $380 in 7 months of whoring.
Our hero pays the $380, thinking that it's a small price to save one girl from a life of prostitution.
He then takes her back to her village and returns her to her mother. He is shocked by the mother's lack of gratitude. "How much are you going to pay us every month to support her? We got rid of her in the first place because we couldn't afford to keep her." He gives up on that and takes her back to Siem Reap.
His next stop is a home for wayward girls. The girls are kept as prisoners and are not allowed to leave the compound. They are given "job training" which consists of being forced to make handicrafts for tourists. The handicrafts are then affixed with stickers indicating that they are the work of "rescued" prostitutes. This organization lies in a gray area between doing noble work and being a sweatshop that uses ex-prostitutes for labor. The girl refuses to stay there.
Finally, he finds another organization that is willing to employ her. But they still want him to pay $10 per month for her apartment. With little choice between this and returning her to the brothel, he agrees and heads home. A month later he calls back to check up on her, and finds out that she only stayed two days before quitting the job and leaving her apartment. They don't know where she's gone.
One year later, he returned to Cambodia. He finds that she's still in Siem Reap, now working at one of the discos. She's a waitress during the evenings and then after her shift goes home with one of her customers.
For $400, and a lot of effort, all he managed to do was help one girl get a promotion from a prostitute at a brothel to a prostitute at a disco. It's a real challenge to "save" a girl from prostitution when in Cambodia prostitution is not seen as a disreputable profession.
Election / Hunting Season
The same American also told me about his experience of being in Phnom Penh during election season. Two years ago, I was told that "Cambodia is very safe - just don't be here during the elections". It is still true.
Four months ago this guy was drinking at Sharky's bar in Phnom Penh. Because of the heightened tensions surrounding the election Sharky's hired two guards with AK47s and posted them at the door.
My new American friend is in the disco when suddenly there is a big "Bang! Crash!" This is followed by automatic gunfire and everyone dives for cover. There are ten seconds of fully automatic AK47 fire before things quiet down.
Five minutes pass before anyone is willing to peek outside to see what happened. A Land Rover crashed into a car just outside the bar. The guards, overly on edge, over-reacted to the accident. They thought it was a terrorist attack and both opened fire blowing the Land Rover to pieces.
Amazingly, no one was hurt.
Adventures in Koh Kong
Koh Kong is not a tourist destination. Lonely Planet apologizes for that fact that you have to spend a night here before catching the boat out. I usually try to avoid tourists so this seemed like a good place to hang out for a few days.
In Cambodia adventure usually comes to find you. I walk into town to get my morning coffee. The coffee here is good, cheap, and strong. I'm called over by a white guy sitting in one of the cafes.
Two years ago, I read a book about the exploits of the expats living in Phnom Penh in the late '90s: " Off the Rails in Phnom Penh - Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls and Ganja." Jim introduces himself and I learn that I'm having coffee with one of the stars of the book. He's not a nice person. He's been doing drugs and sleeping with young girls in Asia for the past 30 years. He's racist and sexist to an extreme. But at least he's not boring. Every morning I found myself having coffee with him and his friends.
Should you ever find yourself in Koh Kong, Cambodia with a few days to spare there are actually some sights to see. I suppose that almost every village in Cambodia has a killing field (mass grave). Koh Kong is no exception. It seems almost unreal. It's only a few blocks from the center of town and surrounded by houses. Could you imagine living in a house that overlooks mass graves? The site consists of a memorial shrine and rows of sand which cover the bodies.
Few tourists stop in Koh Kong and far fewer ever tour the surrounding countryside. Wherever you are, it's usually far more fun and interesting to hang out with the local people than to see the standard tourist sites. In Cambodia this is especially true because the people are so friendly.
You should also check out the Buddhist temple across the river from Koh Kong. Beside the temple are a bunch of statues representing Buddhist Hell. I hadn't realized that Buddhism had a hell, so I had to check it out. The statues I found out were unbelievably gruesome, even by Cambodian standards. I think the taxi drivers should take tourists here before taking them on to Ko Kong. It would be good fun to see what percentage of them, after being scared by the statues, turned around and went back right back to Thailand.
By the 4th morning, I realized that if I kept having morning coffees with Jim his racism and sexism might start rubbing off on me. I left on a boat, and made my way towards Phnom Penh.
it's good to read your commentary.
I've been about a few miles in China and Viet Nam and may possibly be
in Cambodia this April.
No particular reason, though photography is my main preoccupation...I paint sometimes.
The world is fascinating isn't it?
Wish you good fortune.
barce - Aug 01, 2005
You can't save anyone who doesn't want to be saved. I hope the ex-stockbroker learned that.
That is something that is often hard to accept.
jason webb - Dec 27, 2005
Adam i have travelled the world extensively and now live in koh kong and was very disapointed in your views of koh kong for someone who claims he has travelled,koh kong has alot to offer in way of tourism hence the extensive development of it and so has the kingdom but while negative things are being written by people who just want to make there own adventures sound more intresting it will suffer and put people of coming,if you want somewhere to justify stories try the congo in Africa as it is mad there and Cambodia needs positive web sites.If you need any info on koh kong let me know and i will tell you about a few places that are equal to beauty of any other places i have visited,good luck in the new year.
This topic is interesting enough, that I would probably re-write it a bit and post it as an article on the homepage.
First of all, I don't really have much of a need to make my adventures more exciting. Usually the problem is quite the opposite, I'm pretty jaded and think I tend to generally understate things.
Asia is changing unbelievably fast. Two years ago, Koh Kong was a crazy place with no development, almost no tourists, and some truly fucked-up expats living there. You complained about my article, but it was largely positive. I told people to stay for a few days back at a time when Lonely Planet said to get out as fast as possible.
Now, as you say there is extensive development of it, and presumably the number of tourists is growing every day.
It's good and bad man. Ten years ago Ko Pha Ngan was a remote retreat where you could sleep in between the palm trees on the beach. Now, there are shopping malls beside the beach. When I was in Chang Rai in 1996, it was a bit intimidating, there were no foreginers, no signs in English and no one who spoke English. I went back 4 years later, and found a big city with thousands of tourists, air-conditioned pizza places, and Swenson's ice cream. I'm writing this from Dahab, Egypt where a few years ago they committed the sacrilige of paving over the beach to put in a pedestrian walkway. Cambodia is two steps behind Thailand and Egypt, but it's catching up.
It's good and bad for the people too. Thailands motto; the one printed on all of its tourist brochures is "The Land of Smiles". Ten years ago, this was true. But as Thailand has prospered the smiles have faded away. It's one of the great paradoxes - wealth, above the amount needed to feed and house yourself, does not bring happiness - it seems to do the exactly the opposite.
I have traveled back and forth between Cambodia and Thailand many times. The first few times you enter Cambodia and you are shocked by the filth and poverty. But then after you've stayed for a while what you notice is that when you leave Cambodia and enter Thailand the smiles disappear.
Cambodia may someday be a huge tourist success, but I'm going to miss the old Cambodia: The adventure, the excitement, and the warm friendly people.
There is development in Ko Kong and that area may be prospering, but most of Cambodia, all of the areas off the tourist route, are still very poor, and very sad. If you want an eye-opening educational experience, I encourage you to visit villages outside of Malai - it's about 200k due North of Ko Kong (though I don't know how you'd get there). While I was there, I walked into a mine-field with a guy who been blown up 6 times by landmines. A lot of Cambodia is still like that.
In some ways it is good to promote tourism of Cambodia, but I'm not going to lie to my readers, and I'm not going to lie to you. Cambodia still has some real problems, and the development of it has its up-side and it's down-side too. Cambodia will be developed, there is little question of that. But as it is developed, it is going to lose its uniqueness, becoming just like everywhere else. I won't celebrate that.
kristina - Jan 20, 2006
The issue goes beyond the individual girl's and her family/community's attitudes about prostitution and "wanting to be saved". It's about the many societal conditions that cause women to become prostitutes/be forced into prostitution, the barriers to re-entry into a "respectable" life (she might have faced more social barriers than meets the eye - I doubt there is no stigma attached to prostitution in Cambodia), and the economic realities of living in one of the poorest countries in the world. "Wanting to be saved" comments should be reserved for wayward middle-class American teens who appear on Oprah and other far more priviledged populations. It is very hard to save an individual without first fixing everything else that is wrong with the economic, political and social systems.
I am enjoying your webiste. I just returned from a 3 week trip to SE Asia and am having trouble re-entering my own priviledged life in NYC.
DC - Sept 10, 2006
Hey Adam!!! Im one of the guys who showed you around Ko Kong by bycycle! And was also drinking coffee every morning with that crazy taxi driver from Boston! Im returning to Asia in Nov., and will be in Ko Kong (my favorite Cambodian Vill) for a week! I have gotten into the habit of buying a bike, and exploring the area, then giving it to a kid out in the countryside! I punched up KO Kong on the net just to see what would pop up, and thats how I found your site! That photo of the kids carrying their school furniture sure brings back memorys! Keep safe and keep exploring the OUT-OF-THE-WAY places!!! later DC
Good to hear from you. That was indeed a very nice day.
It looks like you're going to be back in Ko Kong very soon. Check back on this site, read Jason Webb's comments above and my response.
Let us all know if Ko Kong _today_, is the same place that it was just a couple of years ago. Is it still an OUT-OF-THE-WAY destination?