Sex Tourism & Career Pathways in Cambodia
Chavy sits at a table in Mickey’s, a relaxed bar just off the famous Pub Street in Siem Reap, waiting for the evening flow of customers to pick up. 'Tonight, I make $20, maybe $50 if I lucky’ she says, unexcitedly. The attraction of famous temples of Angkor have made this previously sleepy town the fastest growing city in Cambodia, drawing in a million tourists a year. But not all the tourists come just for their dose of spirituality…
Mean touk mean trey, mean luy mean srey’; ‘Where there is water, there are fish. Where there is money, there are women.’ So goes the old saying in Khmer and in Mickey’s, the greying Western men playing pool and drinking beer, whilst maybe not wealthy by European standards, have cash that the majority of Cambodians can only dream of. From one of the most powerful in the world in the 10th Century, (Angkor had a population of 1,000,000 when London was a mere 50,000), this country sank to one of the most desperate at the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 with one-quarter of its population killed by Pol Pot’s brutal regime over the previous four years.
After a decade of flirting with a more benign form of communism, Cambodia embraced free-markets in the early 1990s and has enjoyed some impressive growth since, helped in part by tourism, now representing nearly 20% of its national income, second only to its garment industry. Whilst the headline economic figures make for encouraging reading, the devil, as always, is in the detail.
Chavy has been in Siem Reap for nearly two years, having moved upcountry with her daughter from the capital after her European boyfriend bolted before the birth. ‘He from Norway, work for NGO’, she explains in broken English. With little formal education, she decided her best chance of making ends meet was to move up to the tourist hotspot. Her current suitor, an entertaining late-middle aged British ex-pat who grew up in Thailand and has worked throughout Asia tells me that he slept with ‘more than 300 hookers before finishing university’ and ‘countless’ since. ‘No pimps here, all the girls are self-employed and treated well’. Certainly, the bar has a civilised vibe and the girls we talked to seemed happy enough. ‘Prostitution in Asia is not looked down upon, as it is in the West. It’s built into the fabric and supplementing your income this way is not unusual’ he tells me over another Angkor (local beer) before escorting Chavy home. More disturbingly he told us of being offered a girl for $120 in the remote Ratanakiri province. ‘$120 is a huge amount, but then it was explained that this would BUY the girl…I quickly left’.
Two days later, 250kms down the road, we cycled down the main highway to Phnom Penh at dawn, overtaking girls cycling to school before being overtaken by truckloads of women en route to work. As we approach their turnoff and exchange waves, their forlorn faces speak of their (lack of) enthusiasm for another day making shoes for consumers in the West. The factory, it turns out after further investigation, is Taiwanese and a main supplier to Walmart, recently having been involved in several disputes over working conditions.
Whilst it may be overly simplistic to compare the industries, these are sadly the two main avenues that many poor uneducated women are driven down in South East Asia. There's a steady flow of workers between the two sectors: A 2009 U.N. Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking report found that in the aftermath of the steep global economic downturn, up to 20 percent of laid-off apparel workers found work in the "entertainment sector”. Whilst neither industry is an attractive place to work, women that have positively chosen the entertainment sector (according to the UN report, about 20% entered the industry for pay/relative working conditions), report better lifestyles. Meanwhile in the garment industry, a study by two International Labor Organization specialists said that apparel workers were rarely able to save any money, and few had "the opportunity to advance their career, either in the garment industry or outside.”1
So, whilst certainly not condoning sex tourism, before we blindly berate all the single men heading to this part of the world (nearly a million more men than women visit Thailand from ‘rich nations’ each year, for example), we should also think twice about where our t-shirt or latest trainers have come from. Moreover, various local observers we’ve chatted to reckon that the market for prostitution from local men is far more widespread and arguably more degrading for the women that the typical image we have of Western men coming for a holiday and ‘renting’ a women half their age.
We finished our cycle in Cambodia in the rural north eastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Stung Treng, visiting some of the remote UWS schools that Beyond the Bike are supporting as part of our ride (see Claire’s blog for more detail). Previously without access to any form of schooling, it was great to see classes in action and kids, especially girls, being given the chance to avoid the path towards the factory or karaoke bar.