My Trip to Tuol Kork and Svay Paak

(Editor’s note: this is a blog post written in 2008 by an 18-year-old person who for the first time in life travelled to the area to work with an Australian journalist who was writing a book about Cambodia. This piece does not necessarily show what the author thinks right now. Please bear in mind again its a blog post from 2008 written as a personal diary. If anyone has a problem digesting the content or having a hard time accepting or agreeing on this, it is within your call to leave this page immediately.] 
It is so important to look at the world positively because it makes you feel fresh afterward. Somehow, this doesn’t matter much to me just now. Right now I feel that I have to be suspicious, cautious, strong or even tough.
For me, there is nothing as sad as hearing sad and tragic stories from women. For two days, Sunday and Monday, I had been to the two heart-breaking places infamous for “cheap prostitutes” (red-light district) in Cambodia, which are Tuol Kork and Svay Paak. “3 dollars for 15 minutes” I saw on the wall at the brothels has been etched in my memory. Can anybody tell me what I should do and what I am supposed to feel now? Can anybody tell me what has happened to those women right over there? I remember being told when I was very young, about these two places. I was shocked and what I could do was to put my hands on my ears and close my eyes not to hear and see. Until now I just realized that neither prevention helped. That only increases more trouble that nobody knows what is happening. The minute I was enjoying my play with my friends, the minute I was sleeping peacefully in my dreams, many more people especially women suffered. I know that making myself suffer is no use and the only way is to think of possible ways to help them get out of this old habit. But what can I do?
Prostitution is an old profession that I believe any country is tackling. Somebody told me that this profession is a kind of self-expression job. What does this mean? I know that everybody just has right to do anything that they want. That is no problem for me to see a young boy sleeping with a young girl with a consent from both sides. But it does break my heart when I see a young poor girl who is trying to survive in this unjust world suffering in the hands of men or the same human being. You might say she is not suffering as she is the one who volunteers or offers to do it. However, in reality, we need to look at her eyes and her heart; no girl wants to do that crappy job. Nobody at all!
My trip to Tuol Kork (those red light districts) was the second time as the day before I just went through the whole area with an Australian journalist I was working for as a fixer/translator. We were very cuious and wanted to explore the whole area. We also went to Svay Paak to skim the view of the infamous-for-Vietnamese prostitutes villages. It was a day-long trip as I swapped my destination quickly.
I am now feeling too sad to say anything that my heart longs for. It was the day the Australian journalist and I decided to try asking one girl to talk to her. First, I was so reluctant to get off my bike and talk to the girls just because I was very embarrassed. Why embarrassed? I didn’t know the reason myself. Perhaps, it was very hard for me to stop there in front of the brothel and look at many other people having a ? mark look on their faces. But I screwed up enough courage to go back with the journalist to talk to one of the girls. As I was coming along with the journalist on my motorbike, we spotted a red-light house where there were a few very very pretty girls. No man could refuse them, I would say. They had some make-up on their faces, with very sexy clothes like a short skirt and tight T-shirts. My heart was cracking, nearly exploding; my tears were flowing inside of my eyes. I didn’t know when they would burst out to tell the girls that I was one of the people who wanted to help them. So then, I parked my motorbike near the motor-taxi drivers who were curiously staring at us. I knew they were wondering why they we stopped near the house and what we women were doing there. But of course, I didn’t care about all these thoughts that came to my mind as it was lost in concentration of how I could approach the girls at first. Then, I went to talk to the girls and tried to reassure them that I wanted to bring no trouble or problem for them at all, just as Cat (Australian journalist) instructed me to do. It was good as the girls just smiled at me; I knew I couldn’t bear being normal; I wanted to drag their hands and run out of the brothels, the hell I never dream to end up living in. But no, the reality is different.
Finally a girl agreed to talk to us right there inside the red-light house as we promised to pay her and just ask her about her life. Other pretty girls were sitting around us, smiling. I received a warm friendly feeling from these women. I felt just like we were friends as I was sure they all were my age. I do not discriminate against people, whether they are sex workers or what. They are just doing their job to survive on their own but I am not pleased with the way they earn their living. No matter what, it’s stupid of me to condemn them guilty. They are not! They are silently asking for help. So, then we questioned her why she ended up being there and the problems that happened to her. The girl whom we talked to was 20 years old this year and she has worked there for nearly 3 years already. God! She started to work there since she was only 17 years old.
Hmmm…She remembered the first day she sold her virginity for only $ 500. She was a countryside girl whose parents died when she was very small, so she had to come to live with her other 3 sisters who later bullied and beat her every day. The only sister who loved her could not afford to keep her as she was very poor too. So all the girl could do was to escape to Phnom Penh with her little sister who is now staying with her here in Phnom Penh. Every day, ‘the girl’ has to stay and look after her little sister from morning till afternoon and in the evening she has to come there and work as a prostitute. I know she does not want her little sister to know what she is doing and she does not even want her little sister to follow her foodstep. Can’t no man understand her problem? Many questions come to my mind. Can’t she find other jobs to do all these years?
Aren’t there organizations that can help a person like her? Why doesn’t she stop it and go on her normal life? There are many things I want to ask. Yes, but while we were talking to her about her life, we were interrupted. The journalist and I spotted a full box of condoms and what shocked me the most was to see a little girl of about 10 years of age tearing the big box and putting condoms into smaller boxes. We were sure what she was doing for. We knew she was not working there but she was just a servant for other prositutes. We are afraid she would end up being one of them in the near future. And, the mamasa (Madam) was there sitting on her chair and looking at the street. We were annoyingly disturbed by the girls’ guests who suddenly embarrassed the girls we were talking to.
She said that she was very embarrassed to see her guests looking at us so we had to stop talking to her. My eyes all of a sudden roamed the young guys sitting on their bikes still. They looked in their late teens or early 20s. This is a poor world with young boys and girls doing these things without realizing for what they do it and how this would effect them in the future. I noticed that those guests were embarrassed of me and the journalist as we were sitting on a bed with the girl and they stopped their bikes very near to us. It has broken my heart until now. They are very young people who are so naiive about life. They do not know how to do things right. They do not know how to proceed their lives. ARen’t their parents there to tell them how to live a better life? The poor girl is suffering already and can’t those people see these desperate eyes? Yes, people might say that without the boys, she would not survive. Their money helps her. Of course, she uses the money to survive but there is nothing left for the girls and the boys unconsciously carry the guilty feelings until they get old. Or none feel ashamed at all.
I want to pursue this story. I really want to discover it myself. Are girls who have very happy family eager to do this job? No! Are boys whose parents are caring and understanding and even loving willing to take the girl? These just make more questions in my head but I won’t let it make more headache. I’d just like to follow it more. I really want to change people’s mind about prostitutes. People should understand more why women end up being there and how to help them rather than feeling disgusted with them. They do deserve attention. Tell me, women who read this or men. Do you want to see your young/old sisters/relatives/mothers do this kind of job? The answer is no. So we must not be part of the problem, but be part of the solution.
[Footnote: A certain someone on Twitter (apparently a prominent sex work advocate asked me to remove the blog post because he/she said that it would make me look “illiterate and naive” and “too kindly” pointed out my poor writing skills, a lack of understanding/knowledge of complex gender & human rights issues. Last but not least, the person said she was only giving career advice to me, which I thought wasn’t asked for. Some insults were exchanged on Twitter and made me think that “some people” couldn’t differentiate between a blog-post and a research. Go back to your work, and leave this blog post of the 18-year-old person alone.]

6 thoughts on “My Trip to Tuol Kork and Svay Paak”

  1. Very impressive writing; it’s an important story to tell…you are a talented writer…the imagery is very strong, as I felt like I was there.


  2. Thank you, but this story isn’t as important as informing people/readers to know what I feel…then you will read another text or comment quoted from a sex worker.

    Thanks…I wished you had been there.

  3. Kounila,
    What a story! I thank you for writing it up. I’ve seen Video reports from Chris Hansen, Dateline NBC reporter, of a child sexual slavery in our country on American TV. You could also watch it too. Most of them in this Video are Vietnamese children in Svay Pak. You could see and hear the language in the Video. I feel very very sorry for them.

    I believe our Cambodian senators or congressmen should bring the subject to the floor and debate it openly and aggressively.

  4. Hi Ms/Mr. Anonymous,

    Is that bong Vannak?

    Yes, Svay Pak is so notorious for selling out young Vietnamese girls or children. And Tuol Kork for Cambodian girls/women.

    It seems like this slavery has expanded…People have kept telling me about the fact that many night clubs have so many girls to serve the customers…what a shame and pity for the girls? They should be helped. Once they worked with that job, they started to feel bad or worse for the rest of their lives just because there are not people who come and tell them or enlighten them.

    Yes, they really should. The amoung of prostitution is quite depressing..

  5. Dear Kounila,
    This is a very moving account of your experience in these two places. My heart goes out to these girls and I also wonder what I could do to help them. I have thought about going to visit these places but don’t know if my heart can stand to see the suffering, but as you say, then I become part of the problem by turning a blind eye. What can we do to help? Any suggestions? What are the solutions?
    By you writing about this in an honest way, is a great first step in helping to create the awareness that these girls are human beings with thoughts, feelings, emotions. They have families, hopes and dreams, like any of us and deserve a live a life with dignity and freedom from slavery. It is also good to bring up the issue of how we raise our boys to learn to respect women and not see them as just objects which add to the problem.
    Thank you for writing this. It must not have been easy, but at least in some way, hopefully it was cathartic.

    1. Dear Bong Mitty,
      Thanks very much for your comment. This is a very complicated problem that we’re facing. Please do not think yourself as a problem. You talk about it with friends and explain the problems. You’re already part of the solutions.

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