For my latest guest post for Ethos Magazine, I explored the meaning of genocide with a focus on my trip to the Killing Fields, also known as Cheong Ek, just outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I had always felt a sort of detachment when learning about the horrors or war and conflict because it was so difficult to actually understand what widespread suffering and death meant. At the point in my life that I visited Cambodia’s Killing Fields, the only death I had known was that of my childhood cat. To comprehend the murder of millions of people by the Khmer Rouge was so inconceivable that I just left it as an abstract thought in the back of my head. But, when I found a lone tooth on the ground at Cheong Ek things quickly changed as I slowly became aware of the meaning of the life and death of one person. To read more about my experience trying to understand genocide in Cambodia and beyond check out my story titled “The Tooth.”
Several hours Southwest of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, sits a strange little beach town known as Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is home to
a curving coast line, host to a number of sandy, idyllic beaches that draw foreign tourists and vacationing Cambodian urbanites alike.
Sihanoukville could be described as a lazy town: there’s not many action packed adventures to partake in and that’s just the reason that visitors enjoy it. It’s relaxing, rejuvenating, and on the right beach, it can be quiet. During the day visitors enjoy the sandy beaches, swim in the not quite clear blue waters, imbibe a bottle or two of Angkor beer and munch on some freshly grilled jumbo prawns or squid. After a day of beer, beach and BBQ, the sun slowly fades and the day time activities morph into the strange and often zoo-like activities of the night.
Besides the sea food BBQ, Sihanoukville is perhaps equally as famous as the sex tourism capital of Cambodia (at least for Westerners). As the day becomes night, instead of centered around beach fun, the activities are centered around sex. Sex, sex and more sex. And a lot of drinking. Similar to most other sex tourism locations in Southeast Asia, those merry revelers who enjoy the young, nubile flesh on display are older Western men. There are Americans, Australians, Germans, English, Japanese and beyond.
At around ten o’clock the night’s activities begin. Prostitutes, many of them in the mid to late teens, pour into tourist bars. The prostitutes are also known as “taxi girls”: women who rent themselves out to foreigners for a night, a day, a week or an entire month. These taxi girls are excellent flirts and are very skilled at convincing foreign men that they’re in love, when in fact, this is just their job: a means to an end.
There are several main centers for the sex tourism activities in Sihanoukville. Occheuteal Beach and Serendipity Beach are host to a number of beach bars that are usually packed full until the wee (or not so wee) hours of the morning. The Occheuteal Beach bars are more popular with the younger backpacker crowd. Taxi girls are always present, but not as much as on Victory Hill, the epicenter of prostitution in Sihanoukville.
Victory Hill is teeming with bars, clubs and watering holes that especially attract foreign men (average age range is likely between 40 and 65). When visiting a bar on Victory Hill, you’re very unlikely to see many foreign women, and if you do, the ratio will be about 20 foreign men to 1 foreign woman. The foreign men attract the prostitutes, or the prostitutes attract the foreign men. Either way, Victory Hill bars are a spot for sex tourists to check out the available prostitutes, spend the night drinking and flirting and perhaps even take one back to their hotel for the night.
The taxi girls are masters at acting happy-go-lucky, like there is nowhere else in the world they’d rather be than flirting with foreign men 30 years their senior. It’s true that some may actually like doing their jobs, but it’s easy to wonder: “How do they look so happy?”
Prostitution aimed at foreign men is a double-edged sword in Sihanoukville. The wage taxi girls make from a day or two with a foreigner is usually exponentially higher than the wage they would make at any other job like selling food at the market or working at a hotel. The money earned from prostitution allows taxi girls to support their immediate family and often their extended families as well. The downside is, of course, that these girls are working as prostitutes. They are selling their bodies, a job that absolutely must be degrading and unpleasant.
Drugs are also a major part of the prostitution culture in Sihanoukville. The drug of choice by many is called “yabba,” a powerful methamphetamine-like drug that makes users have extremely high energy levels, therefore allowing them to stay up all night. It’s not uncommon to see a drug dealer sprinkling joints with yabba in the middle of a busy beach-side bar or club and then passing them out to his compatriots and nearby taxi girls. The drug is highly, highly addictive, but allows taxi girls to stay up working throughout the night and the morning.
At first glance, Sihanoukville looks like a lazy beach paradise. A bit dusty and worn around the edges, but it seems like a relaxing place to let life’s stresses melt away. Sihanoukville is a strange place because it truly is a Cambodian vacation haven, but it is also a mecca for the bizarre and unsettling sex tourism industry.
On any visit to Sihanoukville make sure you understand both sides of the beach culture: observe the beach bums on Occheuteal Beach and then head to Victory Hill at night to see what sex tourism looks like. Although observing the industry in action is often unsettling, disturbing and even sickening, it is important to know that behind the facade of a gorgeous beach town, there is a darker side or tourism at work.
What to learn more about sex tourism in Southeast Asia? Check out Louise Brown’s book “Sex Slaves” to gain a deeper understanding into sex tourism and the sex trade in the region.