Foreign Policy Blogs

In a Brothel in Cambodia

Photo: Agence-France Presse

I arrived in Phnom Penh late last Saturday. This is the second time I’ve come to Cambodia and the country, more specifically its capital city, is just as seedy as I recall from last time I was here in 2008.

There is no delicate way of tip toeing around the issue of sex workers and prostitution so let’s be clear: it is a reality everywhere in the world, but especially the Third World, and it is not going away. The best one can hope for is that it is regulated as best it can be in such a way that reduces instances of sex slavery and promotes proper sexual health.

Phnom Penh is notorious for its hostess bars which proliferate along Street 136 in the downtown Riverside area of the city. If you are not familiar with the term hostess bar, it is essentially a place where patrons can go and procure the services of the workers in the bar for the evening. Basically, you walk in and buy a drink. Once this transaction takes place, approximately 25 women make their way to where you are sitting. The patron selects one or more women with which he desires to spend time with for the evening. After buying her or them drinks, the patron has the option to pay a bar fine (usually $10) which releases the woman or women from the duties and responsibilities to the bar for the night. The patron is then free to negotiate a price for services outside the bar for the evening.

You may, however, just choose to utilize the bar for its more innocent purpose of inducing inebriation for the night. Indeed, I personally choose not to pay for sex, but that did not stop me from entering a hostess bar this past week in an attempt to bring my readers a true on-the-ground experience.

A common misconception is that these women (they are not girls) are forced into this lifestyle. False. These women have freely chosen to do what they do. It is the preferable choice to working the rice patties until they’re old and crippled. Some of the women were even attending classes at universities in the daytime. Another misnomer is that these women can never leave their jobs at the bar. False. Each woman I spoke to and who agreed to talk about the subject with me indicated that they could leave whenever they want. Most had no idea who even owned the bar. One might also have been led to believe that if they are chosen by a patron to leave with them that they cannot refuse. False. None of the women are forced to do anything with anyone. Safe sex is also highly prioritized which is reflected in Cambodia’s relatively low rate of HIV/AIDS when compared to other Global South countries.

Despite its reputation, Cambodia is not exactly the modern version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sex workers do have some protection, if not rights. Does sex slavery and human trafficking still persist in parts of the country? Of course it does, and I do not mean to suggest that it does not or is not a problem. The topic of sex workers is always going to be a rough issue to digest for most people with a heart, but at least the increasing regulation represents a fairly progressive turn in Cambodia’s sex industry which neighboring states can hope to emulate.

  • SB

    What exactly makes attention from a transsexual individual “particularly unlucky”? Check yourself.

  • Shwe Wa

    I agree with the above. I think this article dips a little too deeply into western expat mentalities. It’s easy for foreigners living in SE Asia, especially men, to start to draw on this vast body of barroom philosophizing. I’d say you’re right to challenge the idea that sex workers are forced into this line of work, but mouthing the old platitude that they prefer this sort of work to backbreaking labor in the paddies oversimplifies the dynamics. Next time find a girl who speaks English and talk to her for a while. I’ve had some interesting conversations.

  • Dmitri Serov

    Interesting article..

  • Daniel Reeders

    Indeed, why does encountering a transgender person make one ‘truly unlucky’?

  • Dave

    I think you are off by calling my city seedy. Your purpose for being here should be in question, and especially if you keep your experience limited to those establishments that are questionable. Someone who sums up a city based on a view of one street should rather keep that limited seedy view to himself instead of making it look like journalism. A very weak article, form a vey limited stereotypical viewpoint.

  • Current Affairs

    Its not good to show remark on transgender person………

  • Ben

    The ladyboy reference is obviously a joke ppl, relax. the author’s point is more related to Cambodias regulation of sex workers, a good thing imo

  • Yana

    You made generalizations about the sex industry based on your experience in a well to do bar where the girls you encounter speak english, a sign that they do not come from dire poverty, and do well to be able to maintain themselves and their outfits to be at an expat bar. Try heading to brothels in the slums meant for locals where 10 dollars is enough not to pay off the bar, but to supply your entire night. Albeit, you’ll need a translator and a guide, but you may encounter a wildly different picture from which to generalize.

  • Sarah

    I don’t think the author was making a blanket judgement of the sex industry in Cambodia, merely an account of his own experience, which I find quite refreshing. Focussing on the transgender issue is missing the point, why can’t we allow someone to write of their own experience without attacking their ‘journalistic’ skills? I found the article interesting, and appreciate the points made, but would be remiss to take this one experience as being indicative of the country’s sex trade.

  • Mon

    I think you wrote this article without any empathy to your subject.

    PS: White men are easily fooled by lady boys around Southeast Asia. I’ve seen a lot of them walking in the malls with two to three throngs of ladyboys following them and they feel so proud that people are looking. They don’t know that the locals are snickering silently because the white guys clearly have no idea what they are getting themselves into. hahahaha Sometimes it was so obvious and these men just don’t see the difference between real women and not because ladyboys are as tiny as the local women.

  • Barrack Hussein Carter

    More American big-brotherism where we travel to foreign nations and tell them what they have been doing for 1000’s of years is wrong and impose our will upon them with no sensitivity to local culture or bothering to understand why they do it way.


Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.