Parallel U
pt. II

Number 31–Stop Thief!!

Half-a-dozen of us were sitting around the table at the no-name bar few nights ago having our usual good old time when I spotted, at the edge of my consciousness, a young Khmer guy hovering nearby. The place is near the center of a busy entertainment strip so I didn’t pay him a lot of mind until he lunged for the table, grabbed something off of it and started running for a motorbike on the other side of the street where an accomplice was keeping it running and ready for takeoff.

Two things instantly, nonosecondly, flashed through my mind; one, ‘this can’t be Kosher’ and, ‘don’t I remember a story of a cell phone getting nicked from this very table in just such a manner?’ Without further ado I yelled, “HE’S GOT YOUR PHONE!”, and simultaneously bounded out of my seat and ran around the back of the table hard on his tail. Meanwhile Don, whose phone it was, who’s almost my age, sprang out of his seat, and, since he had a direct route to the guy, reached him a split second before me and just before he attempted to mount the bike.

Don, who’s strong and stocky, ran him hard up against a nearby concrete wall, just to slow him down, couple of times actually, while I blocked any possible escape. Once we’d gotten the wiggle out of him, that is, he was sufficiently subdued, I grabbed the phone out of his hand. By that time dozens of people, including security guards from all the strip’s bars, had congregated.

Boy, did part of me want to fulfill long-time, short-man fantasies of retribution and wallop the guy a couple of times, just a bloody nose would have been fine. He was captive and it would have been so easy, but... I haven’t actually landed a punch since I was a teenager and... I was hesitant to start a chain reaction that might result in the guy getting beat to death on the spot. In the event, several locals got some good licks in as they were hauling him over to the central police station, (actually a four acre complex which includes the jail, etc.) which as it happens, is right across the street from the entertainment strip.

But how embarrassing for the young buck to get run down by two old farts, which was partly his mistake in stationing the getaway bike across the street, giving us just the extra space needed to run him down. After being ripped off enough times in the past, how sweet it was to catch a goniff in the act.

As long as we’re already here on the entertainment strip, might as well hang around a bit. At last count, (January 2006) there are thirteen clubs in three blocks. In addition to the bars there are three thinly-disguised downscale brothels, several local common-people’s restaurants, quite a few daytime businesses and private residences. Up until a year ago there was a garment factory with a workforce of about 200, mostly young women. The factory has morphed into yet another English language school.

Before I go any further, based on feedback received from past ramblings, I have to provide a political correctness warning. Depending on your reaction to the following anecdote, you’ll know whether or not you should continue.

Matt Dillon starred in a recently released, very obscure movie called City of Ghosts set here in Cambodia. It received some pretty decent reviews, but it’s definitely a dreamy flick for the artsy, off-kilter crowd. In one scene he gets taken – not knowing exactly what he’s in for – to a massage parlor/brothel where he promptly gets swarmed by a bevy of young girls pulling and tugging at him. It’s not his thing, he doesn’t stay long.

A couple of local NGO’s, involved in helping young women, threw a lot of flack at him for that scene, which in turn, got him pretty hot. Though I can’t say it was essential to the movie, it was certainly true to life and the way it was shot added to the film’s surreal quality. I can understand the complaints of the NGO’s, many young girls are exploited, even enslaved in the sex trade; it can get pretty sordid.

On the other hand, that’s only part of the sex scene and undeniably part of the Cambodian scene and moreover needs to be seen in context. When you have little kids, even sometimes younger than five years, spending their days combing garbage piles for scraps of recyclables you cannot apply the same expectations or standards as you would in America.

I spotted a girl working a garbage pile who couldn’t have been more than four on one of my walks and couldn’t resist stopping and giving here the equivalent of 5 cents. She didn’t look at me, but she did glance around fearfully and furtively, I guess worried that someone might take it from her. There’s a four-year-old boy who works the strip until the wee hours selling confections from his tiny shoulder pole. It’s very light stuff – dried banana, etc., and I figure if he sells his whole stock he might net a dollar. He told us once that if he doesn’t sell very much his mother will beat him.

At any rate I’ll neither get personal or into details but merely try to be accurate, and of course entertaining. You’ve been warned.

The clubs run the gamut from the no name where local women only come escorted, to places where most (though by no means all) local female patrons are free-lance prostitutes, here referred to as ‘taxi-girls’, to bars where some of the bargirl staff are eager to go home with you while others are virgins or otherwise not available, to the Heart of Darkness, one of Phnom Penh’s oldest and most popular nightclubs and the ultimate crossover venue, that is, it includes all sectors of Cambodian night society – male and female expats and travelers, straight Khmers of both sexes and taxi girls all mixed together.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the scene is that, with few exceptions, Khmer women dress very conservatively – cleavage is unusual, short skirts are rare – so, in most cases, there’s no visual differentiation between the virgins and the easy girls. (That has begun to change since this was originally written. Most taxi-girls are still quite conservatively dressed, as well as the majority of women of all persuasions, but many across the spectrum of society are beginning to strut their stuff.)

While I normally shy away from using the term ‘girl’, in this case some bar staff are 17, even rarely as young as 16, and I find it hard to call them ‘women’ especially without modifying that with ‘young’.

A majority of expats and travelers are men; when you get to geezer expats, probably 100% are men; besides men tend to go out more at night. Therefore the entertainment scene here is largely male oriented; though other areas of town are more gender balanced than the strip being described. The half-mile riverfront strip has at least 30 restaurants that range from $2 meals to nearly American prices with a lot of international cuisines offered. While it may be more balanced than the strip described, anywhere you go you’re likely to find Khmer women with Western men, including young chickadees with old buzzards. But, even so, you don’t know if they’re married, have a relationship or merely are one-night-standers with money changing hands.

Tolerance is the keyword of Cambodian society; everybody does their thing and absent real problems, it’s live and let live. The virgins work alongside the easy girls, they all get along and accept each other, even if there are reservations. It’s the same for the people who live or work next to the brothels; there is seemingly no conflict, no obvious expression of great moral outrage. They undoubtedly look down on the prostitutes, but never interfere, or do the holier-than-thou thing.

There is a natural attraction between white men and Asian women. This is aided somewhat by the fact that all but a very small percentage of young Khmer women are within a couple of pounds of perfect weight. They are also a small people – stemming partly from the widespread malnutrition of the country’s difficult times – which often appeals even to large men.

Age is not such a determining factor as it is in the US. There, for an old man to hang out with a young woman, even to express interest is considered perverted, whereas here, for instance, one of my teenage students, who definitely had no designs on me or my wallet, called me handsome (it always surprises me when they do that) and then went on to say that men got more handsome as they aged, while the opposite was true for women.

The following two paragraphs deserve to be made into a book, and I may do just that someday, but for now a couple of paragraphs will have to suffice.

All men, including we near-geriatrics, are attracted to young women. This comes from time immemorial. There’s nothing strange or unusual or surprising about it. In the biblical account, Abraham met Sarah when he was 99 and she was 18. Does a man in his sixties no longer get turned on to Picasso’s art? Does his appreciation of Mozart’s music ebb with age? Why then should his eye for a beautiful woman atrophy when the rest of his personality is still healthy and functional?

While I’m still turned on to women my age (64) and older it makes no sense whatever to try to compare, in terms of the basics, a woman of 64 with one of 24. Women’s physical beauty has a short shelf life, that’s all there is to it. That said, conversing with an uneducated young woman who has a 100 word English vocabulary does not do much for stimulating the intellectual taste buds. However, intellect isn’t everything. For many people in our crazy world, love and companionship are rare, sometime things. It follows then that at anytime a person can find someone to love them and cherish them, that should be enough. Forget societal prejudices and pressures; if it’s legal and it feels good and you can be honest with yourself and your partner, then you owe it to yourself to go for it.

Back on topic: We expats are also wealthy; my modest retirement, which would not cover much more than rent for a dive in Portland, is a fortune compared to what these bargirls earn – as little as $30 per month and rarely more than $80. Even with tips it’s a pretty skimpy living. However, the work itself isn’t that hard; along with serving drinks, they’re paid to talk, joke and play pool and besides they’re always overstaffed.

The common people’s restaurants serve the standard plate of rice, a few ounces of barbequed meat – either pork or chicken – small bowl of beef broth and tiny finger plate of pickled vegetables; all for 50 to 75 cents, so it doesn’t take much to buy a round of dinner and make everybody happy.

The Heart has been around for 12 years and mostly was just a bar but in the last few years was turned into a disco. Picture thick red velvet drapes, reproductions of Angkor busts and friezes, and walls either painted black or made of blocks of volcanic rock which emulate the temples. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t really get rolling till close to midnight and then just keeps chugging away practically till dawn. For my taste, it’s got the best mix of music in town and there’s always enough action on the dance floor to create that critical mass of energy necessary to lose oneself in the sound and movement.

However it’s had some rocky times recently caused by Khmer elite who, seemingly, are raised up as arrogant thugs absent any inkling of right or wrong. For instance, in an unrelated incident, a couple of months ago a convoy of four vehicles driven by drunken rich kids was speeding down a main street when one hit and instantly killed a coconut seller and maimed another person. This damaged his car so the next one stopped to pick him up and to remove the license plates. Meanwhile a crowd had gathered and one of the guys, a nephew of Hun Sen, pulled out an ak-47 and not only threatened the crowd but started firing randomly into it killing two people and injuring others.

It’s a wonder they apprehended the killer and put him in jail, though the victims’ lawyer alleges that, though he turns up in court in police custody, he secretly has not been behind bars; moreover it might be impossible to get a witness to testify, it could be equivalent to a death sentence – contract killings here are mighty cheap.

In the case of the Heart, three times in a few months, rich Khmers instigated altercations with Westerners and then took out guns to either pistol whip, make a hapless tourist plead for his life or shoot through the front glass door spreading glass shards everywhere. The many security guards pat all men down and don’t allow any guns in, but in all three cases, the miscreants went out, got a gun and returned to act with impunity. What is an unarmed guard going to do against a drunken rich kid, who’s got his own bodyguards to back him up, who ultimately isn’t afraid to murder?

All of that, those awful vibes, kept me out of the Heart for a long time, but it’s just the best place for me to dance so I had to return. Today, they have bruiser guards in police uniform inside, but still...

Next door to the no name is one of those brothels. As it happens, prostitution is legal, brothels are not; while that does make sense on some level, it is nonetheless a very convenient supplementary income producer for the police, who as mentioned previously earn only $30 month. These are, for foreigners, five-dollars-a-pop houses, locals pay less. Considering some of the girls in the bar next door make only $30 month with no days off, that’s not so little.

Two months ago it got shut down; it was three weeks before it reopened. It was kinda curious since everybody knows the rules and it didn’t seem like the owner would jeopardize his business by not coughing up his bribe. During the year I’ve been going to the no name I’ve noticed a nearly complete turnover, so I doubt if any of the girls were there under duress, and only a couple of times did any look underage – 15 is legal age (but not for foreigners, who have to be wary of any girl under 18).

It was quite unseemly that one of the girls had a five year old daughter who lived with her at the brothel, but I didn’t get the vibe that she was being prostituted – grotesque and disgusting as it sounds that does happen here; but not usually openly and especially not in the middle of town. Since I spotted an even younger kid hanging out there after they reopened it doesn’t seem like that was the problem. Generally, it’s those pesky NGO’s who snoop around and get the bad guys busted. Once reported to the police they have to take action, otherwise they’re not going to harass the source of the bread on their table. Some expat pedos get sent back to their home countries where they can’t bribe their way out of prison.

The garment factory workers parade by this whole scene during lunch and shift breaks. Everybody makes their choices. Not everybody could get hired – it’s quite a desirable job, $50/month – or would want to labor in the factory. Prostitution is something some women would never do under any but forced circumstances, while others prefer that to working a straight job. Some have kids and need more money than a straight job pays. It’s no different than in the US where young women who dance naked could as well work (for a lot less) for Mall*Wart.

I also can’t help recalling the sexual revolution of the late 60’s and 70’s when many women got it on most casually. Today’s conservatism might just be a passing trend and we may in the future get back to a time when everybody can have more fun.

Finally, the presence of the central police station across the street has no bearing on our ability to toke up outside or in most of the clubs. Some places prefer not, but it’s never a big deal.