Net is a bar girl working in Phnom Penh. A peep into her life and her home. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 22/02/2010.
S is a sex worker in Phnom Penh. Her working soubriquet is Net. She lives in a 3 x 3 m cell on the highest floor of a shared enclave in a Phnom Penh slum. I use the word slum accurately, as her accommodation meets many of the internationally agreed markers defining a slum dwelling.
Access is through a gloomy passageway off a main street, vibrant with street vendors. Climbing the two cracked and slippery staircases to her room, I ascend passed her neighbours filthy living spaces, too small to sit in so they sit in the passageway playing cards and chatting. It’s impossible to avoid placing your feet in the pools of oily wastewater or stepping onto the discarded detritus.
Her room is a roughly nailed plank construction, a wooden coffin, the bamboo topped bed occupying one third of the space. No toilet. No shower. No washbasin. A small clothing rack to store her sexy work clothes, a blaring TV prominent on a shelf above the few treasured personal items she keeps - photo albums of her baby and mother, a clear HIV-STD certificate and a few bottles of perfume which are mostly empty. A rusty fan recirculates the hot mosquito infested air.
Net is 26 and originates from the poor rural provinces in northern Cambodia. Her only child is now three years old and lives with her mamma in her own home town, where her brother and his family also live. Her estranged husband lives with a “new girlfriend” in Thailand. Tall and snake thin, her cheekbones protrude deeply into her dark facial skin. She is no classic beauty queen just charmingly pretty with a pleasant smile. Chatting fluently in bar girl English, she does however, command the English language better than most of her co-workers, a real asset when advertising herself adjacent to her beautiful and highly competitive friends. She tells me “after leaving my husband I try to live for more [than] one year in the provinces with my baby”. She struggled to earn enough money to live and to support her offspring. Someone in the village tells her that she should go to Phnom Penh to “make lots of money”. The streets are paved with gold farang in Phnom Penh! Telling her family that she is going to the capital to work in a “tourist restaurant”, which she did for a while, she uprooted herself from her family and moved into a shoe box room in the capital city.
As a daughter her Asian culture demands that she earns money, not only for her baby but also as a social welfare system for her parents. In a region without state care for the elderly, adults have children with the expectation that they will care for them when they are ageing, although perhaps not when they are old as life expectancy in Cambodia is only 59.5 years, middle age in Western society.
Net was not sold by her family as a young virgin girl to a rich man in Phnom Penh or to a wealthy Chinese businessman. She was not beaten, raped and coerced - broken - as a novice brothel worker like so many young girls in Cambodia. She found herself, in her mid-20s, with few choices; she had no money to support her family and was totally estranged from her errant and promiscuous husband. He wanted to keep her as a second wife, a mia-noi, an offer she tearfully declined believing that to be unacceptable and morally repugnant. He gives her no money to support his child. Little education, lacking formal employment skills other than house work, she tried the one option she believed would make her “big luy [money]” -milking the farang as a bar girl in Phnom Penh.
Net does not find acclimatisation into the sex industry at all easy. Her first employment is in one of Phnom Penh's infamous walking street saloons. She struggles to “wet kiss” the “farang” [Western male tourists] as instructed by the Mamasan boss. Chat to her and it’s obvious that sex work is not her first career option but it is lucrative; the bar pays her around $60 a month, $15 of which goes to rent her shared room. Clients, if she can secure one, pay maybe $25 or more for a night with her, depending on the work. “Best work”, nights in Sinhouville or Siem Reap, acting as an Asian trophy girlfriend for an “old man”; this is the work she “enjoys” and it’s a bonus as she gets a holiday in a nice room, clean showers and free food. They “pay bar fine” for the time she is away from her work and she still gets paid by the bar.
Five weeks into her new role at this bar she is dismissed by the manager because she blatantly refuses to “wet kiss” the sex tourists in the bar, as demanded by the boss. She tells me "It's not good. No do wet kiss in bar".
At 26 Net is quite old to become a bargirl. This combined with her apparent inaptitude for sex work, her unwillingness to let go of her morality and her plain looks, means that she struggles to find a new job in a different ladybar. Restaurant work is physically very hard and she tells me that she “does not want to work hard” to earn money when she sees pretty young girls [cash] “rich” from the “easy work” with western sex tourists.
What are her options now I ask? Slightly confused she replies “she may move to Sinhouville to earn more money”. The streets are lined with gold farang in Sinhouville, the beach resort of Cambodia similar to Pataya in Thailand. To tap into this gold rush though net knows she must crush her innate morality, totally destroying her belief that some things are not for sale. Prostitute herself fully. It appears to be a seriously challenging option for Net, even though she cannot face the routine demands of traditional employment in a restaurant, in a clothing factory or as a rice worker in the provinces.
What does she do now? She tries to freelance. Disguised in working girls clothing she emerges from her shoebox home, ventures into the night, onto the pulsating streets and into the seedy bars and nightclubs of Phnom Penh to try to earn her living by entertaining a paying western man. Her sex tourist clients never venture into the hidden backstage of her life. She acts out her roles for them- lover, sex toy, girlfriend - on the sanitised stage of their hotel rooms. Rooms cheap at $20 a night or less, cleaned daily. They never see or understand the real side of her life. She leaves them after they pay her and returns on foot, or maybe side sitting on a moto, to the dark staircase which climbs up to her room. To her life watching TV, playing cards in the alleyway and cuddling her childhood teddy bears. Until the late evening when she dresses and the game starts again.
I have withheld Net's full name in this article in the hope that she finds less painful employment in the future.