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One night at the Heart of Phnom Penh

Today I spent the whole night scrounging the heart of Phnom Penh for hours only to find myself completely drained afterwards. It was Thursday’s night when my university-mates and I went to celebrate the farewell party for our friends Geoff and Dahye. At first, we all gathered at KT called Korean Town, located in Tuol Kork district, a kilometer away from our university. What I found surprising about KT was that it was a newly-built apartment in a quiet neighborhood, which offers 6 dollars per kilometer square. Not a simple thing one could find in such a place, it has elevators and a rather big parking lot, very koreanized, and especially designed for Korean-style businesses. Inside the room we came close to sing Karaoke while everything from the room decoration to the posters glued on the wall was in the Korean language.

It was until nearly 12 that everybody decided to leave the karaoke and it cost around 88 dollars, which some of us joked was a good number! It was clearly very expensive here, but we footed the bill. My girlfriend and I talked and agreed we would go straight to our teacher’s house as it’s already very late. Yet, the guys who were coming with Geoff and Dahye insisted we all went straight to Pontoon.

“H-O-M-E,” I said to Geoff.

“P-O-N-T-O-O-N,” one of the guys protested against me, while the others laughed.

Since my 26-year-old film-making teacher was going there too, my girlfriend and I had to go because we had nowhere else to stay except his house. And he had the power in making the decision. Yes, we went with the flow. It seemed to me that every foreigner knows about Pontoon, which I believe is a very energetic disco dancing club. Pontoon once sank into the river. It was built above the riverbank. And when people started to stomp and dance wildly and excitingly, it didn’t take a minute to think it was the cause.

To me, Pontoon is just another night club where only foreigners come and dance, have fun and well, nothing else. I am not a dancing type, and the kind of dancing I like is standing looking others dance. That’s it. My friends, Geoff and Dahye, motioned each other to make me dance. But sorry. The music went on and on, and people danced restlessly. Part of me wanted to snatch my bag and leave for home. “I’m very exhausted…why aren’t they exhausted yet?” I thought to myself. And, the other part of me understood that if I left, it would not look good in front of the two people who were desperate to keep us accompany them for “their last day” in Cambodia.

I kept wondering why foreigners like coming to this place. What’s special about Pontoon? I could only answer a little bit. It is still a place to throw themselves on the floor without being judged. You can be crazy, sexy or bitchy right over there, and nobody cares. And, I’ve been told many night clubs in western countries are always like this. Nothing much different. But for me, I didn’t need to throw myself into the floor; I didn’t need attention from people. All I needed was a sleeping bag, a book to read and a lamp. During the pause, my friends sat down and I glanced through the darkness for people with familiar faces. Yes, I found many familiar ones. They were from the Phnom Penh Post, the daily English newspaper in Cambodia. Then, I concluded that it’s a place where they like but not me. I am open to be called a ‘yokel’ or ‘a faddy-daddy’ girl because this is how I always am. But, no hard feelings, really. I only found out that I don’t like something they like; and I don’t say it’s bad or good. It always depends.

After Pontoon, I thought everybody gave up going for more. But they went on to dance at another club. It was the Heart of Darkness, which is located near Independence Monument. Very surprised at its size which could host many dancing people, I got in and felt lost. Strangely enough, I often rode past “the Heart of Darkness” when I went to school after doing my part-time job. If you are outside the club, you might guess it only has a small space inside. But its spaciousness wowed me. It was huge, dim-lighted and quite deceiving. At the entrance, the security was tight. I had to have my bag kept with the guard, and frisked down by a female guard. The entrance door was on the left while the exit one on the right. Inside, people were dancing senseless, and of course didn’t know you’re looking at them. There were girls, drinks, pools, guys, gays and lesbians. It was common to see people dance kissing. At least to them, but not to me. Nobody was bothered as it’s expected in such an entertainment place. Ladies who showed too much of their cleavage were at hand. They were dancing, and eying on lonely customers. I don’t know if it’s the best job. From time to time, I asked myself what I’d do in their position. 80 percent of the women in prostitution say they don’t want to do it if they have a better choice. But choices remain the matter! Who offers them choices?

I was standing on the stone platform with dancing friends. All I wanted to do tonight was to observe what was happening. I saw sexy dances those ladies performed to attract customers. I thought to myself, “All hunters have to be that attractive…and these women are too tempting to be refused by guys.” Next to the platform, I noticed two middle-aged Cambodian men. One was sitting and every time people walked past him, he reached out his both hands, close-eyed. I really thought he was high on drugs. The other guy nearby was dancing while closing his eyes. He didn’t look rich of course, just like a normal motordop driver. I couldn’t find out about him. I suddenly wondered what the other people were thinking about this. Is it a common thing to use drugs here or at any night club? Was it too common to pay attention to? Dancing was going on for another 10 minutes. Suddenly two girls came next to the platform and suddenly touched Geoff’s legs. I asked my friend if he knew the girls. He said no. I thought immediately that they were interested in Geoff. I was told by a friend before that women working in this place have more choices that women in brothels. They could choose to dance, play or sleep with whoever they like. I don’t know if it’s still a better choice to them.

On my left hand-side were tables. Two guys and several girls were sitting there. It appeared carefully guarded. Nobody was allowed to sit or stand near there. My blood boiled with curiosity. One of the guys dressed simply when the other was hatted and in a formal business grey suit. The second guy was talking to a girl, who I believed was not one of the girls here. She looked more like a rich girl who came here only to have fun with her boy. I tried to peer through darkness for the resemblance of the faces.

I knew already they were rich guys who needed a tight security everywhere they go. Finally, the girl was leaning on the sofa, her hair covered her face. All of a sudden, she grabbed her bag and left. The guy sat there for nearly 10 seconds and then left after her. Before I decided to come here, one of Geoff’s friends assured that I would learn something. Yes, I did, and that “something” was very similar to a movie scene I watched when I was younger [I rarely watch TV now.] Was it surprising to me at all? Not.
Something else I noticed was the presence of gays and transgenders in the bar. They seemed so open and were dancing wildly. My film-making teacher enjoyed it; he’s from France. So I think he finds everything quite normal except one, he told me. Gays here are a bit too open. In France, people will just go about being normal men while they are completely gay. Here in Cambodia, gays behave very differently; they are very much girl-like (transgendered). That reminds me of a group of teenagers who I saw perform a dance during a New Year celebration. They were too young to come about being ‘gay or transgender’. But disclosure of sexual orientation here is becoming much much widespread over the years.

Thus, I learnt nothing new but girls, gays, guys, ganja (I believe someone smoked it there). That reminds me of a book written about Cambodia in the early 1990s by an Israeli guy “Off the Road to Phnom Penh”. It was a very heart-breaking book. Well, I am bothered by it, but it’s no use crying over something that has to happen. It happens for reasons. And, I am not the one to judge them and those reasons as well as choices they have chosen. I am the one who will contribute to the change; while all the next generations will get this torch and relay. I want to see the human conditions improve—I don’t want to see that pathetic sight of women dressed to kill (the customers) just to make sure enough food’s put on the table, but see them have a roof over their head and moral capacity to feed themselves.

And, my journey was finished till the new day (around 2 am), walking on foot to the teacher’s house nearby. I said ‘goodbye’ to the ‘Hell’ of Darkness. I don’t hate the place but the darkness it gives to my perspective about life.

4 thoughts on “One night at the Heart of Phnom Penh

  1. I’m heading to Phnom Penh next month to work for a year… your article was helpful as I look forward to sharing life with the diverse peoples of Cambodia… thank you for your honest writing!

  2. I don't need to see all those scenes in such place now, bcoz only in my friend's small party there were as many crazy scenes as in the post you've written here. Except that I got used to it better… I read about ur film-making teacher in Education&Career newspaper, he might a change, through you!

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