India| Vietnam | Cambodia | Laos | Thailand | Malaysia | Indonesia | NZ | Fiji | Cook Islands | USA

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Sex, drugs and karaoke

Throughout my travels in India I was offered drugs - excluding marijuana - only once. Ironically the magic mushrooms sales pitch came in Hampi, a site considered so sacred to the Hindu faith that alcohol and even that well known trouble-maker meat was, in the entire city, contraband.
The heroin-hills of Indochina, I have learned, have not followed in these conservative footsteps. Here in Cambodia drugs share the streets with hookers and wanna-be pop starlets in intimate proximity.

Sitting in a pub in Phnom Penh a young boy, maybe 12 years old, approaches our table. He's selling books. All the backpacker essentials; Lonely Planet Guide Books, war biographies and recent best-sellers. All the books in shiny polythene wrappers are photocopies of good quality, they're sold at a fraction of the retail price by hordes of children that roam the streets, day and night.
"Guide book?", he nears the table; his basket slung around his thin neck with fabric hangs at waist height in front of him.
We shake our heads, "No thank you"
"You want" he begins, pulling a book half-way above the rest and lowering his tone " book?" His eyebrows are raised and his glistening young eyes dart from the table to the small white wrap tucked into the plastic wrapper. I must have looked shocked enough to deserve an explanation.
"Opium" he whispers "I give you good price." I'm amazed. I falter. His quick fingers have already selected another book, he plays the next card in his illicit hand. "Cocaine? you want cocaine, lady?"

Geographically, this makes no sense; opium? yes, but cocaine - from Latin America? - definitely not. In truth, most drugs, whatever they are sold as here in Cambodia, are heroin of some description. Every year a small number of thrill-seeking travellers will overdose in Cambodia's capital when they snort a sensible line of coke that turns out to be a deadly line of smack.
Does the child know this? Should a child know this? It doesn't matter - he's onto the next table. He looks like a bright kid, maybe he'll get enough money to go to school and eventually go far, or maybe he'll end up, bookless, hanging around hostels.

Many hostel employees, or at least the young local men that frequent accommodation options, will happily double-up as your dealer. "We have happy hour" I was recently told "and we have happy time - happy time, all the time."
All wanna-be dealers need know is that innocently insert the word "happy" in front of their offerings and they have satisfactorily signified the inclusion of marijuana. Happy shake, anyone? So lax is the law in this area that a chain of restaurants called Happy Herbs Pizza can operate, and with wide-spread success.

But let's not suggest that the police aren't playing their part in this troubling charade. I've heard; and call it vicious rumours if you will for I have not seen it in action myself, that in some towns rickshaw drivers will sell heroin (calling it what they will) to travellers and then drive to a preordained spot for a "random" stop-and-search. The traveller will pay a hefty fine (upward of US$500) directly to the policeman's pocket or give the officer the honour of bumping up the drug-related arrest statistics (great for tourism, don't you know?) and spend 3 months (minimum) in jail.
The driver's pocket, meanwhile, still hot from the travellers' notes will be reunited with the untouched wrap of smack ready for the next round.

There is nothing in Cambodia if not the desire to support one-anothers' enterprises.

Which is why, when a friend in search of a beer one evening in Battambang heard music and saw a dimly-lit venue with doors to booths lining the left side and girls lining the right side of the space; he was sure it was a bar-come-brothel.
"No, sir" a bartender in a well-lit, prostituteless bar assured him later that evening "it's karaoke."
And herein lies the one Cambodian vice I can happily say I wish I had purchased. This is a nation that loves to sing - the men, especially, will show no restrain in public renditions of khmer hits.
There even seems to be an entire TV channel dedicated to this national obsession. As with drugs, though the presentation varies; the substance is the same.

There are only two types of karaoke videos. The first is in the studio; in the background a stage is full of beautiful women and aging men will "dance" - I have used inverted commas here because the "moves" only require rhythmic shifting of the feet and slow twirling of the wrists from one side to the other, at hip height. In the foreground a man (old) and a woman (exquisite) will take it in turns to mime at eachother.
The second type is outdoors; a beautiful woman in a long dress will be dragged into woodland by men with swords and sashes while another man (in a different coloured shirt from the kidnappers') will hide behind trees and look longingly over logs at his lost lover. Miming, in this scenario, is optional.
All the while the khmer text is appearing at the bottom of the screen and filling from left to right in either blue or red in time with the song so that everyone at home can sing-along. And, boy, do they sing along.

It seems that it is young girls from relatively well-off families that can frequent proper karaoke bars, like the one in Battambang. It is a very different past-time to those who are born into less affluence.

Giggling and scantily-clad, Cambodia's alarmingly young-looking prostitutes can be found adorning the lap of any male westerner in bars across the country regardless of his intention to sleep with them or not.
"They're persistent" a friend (and solo-male traveller) told us, "they want to sleep with you, they need the money but what they really want is a rich European boyfriend who'll treat them well, support their children and pay the way out of this mess."
The money, in this case, is anything between US$20 and US$40. Though this may sound like a pittance, to put this into perspective, a waitress can hope to earn US$40 per month - at best. Often, much less.

Sex in Cambodia, as with any commodity, is controlled by supply and demand. And it is the high level of the former and the (seemingly) lower level of the latter that is keeping prices down. Still, when faced with toiling long and back-breaking hours in rice paddies or restaurants for the same reward as one night's work, one can begin to understand those who opt for the latter.

This is a generation of Cambodians that have grown up without parents or intellectual guidance since the Khmer Rouge, beginning with the 'soft-handed' population, wiped out almost every adult just 30 years ago. The average age in Cambodia today is 22; the young population are enjoying freedom and living - for the first time in a long time - in relative peace.

Still wounded from the war Pol Pot waged on Cambodia, she has turned to tourism to regain her strength. But at what cost in the long run? For two of these vices, I fear, the long-term price may be much higher than the short-term. Both for individuals and for society as a whole.
For my part, I won't be spending a single cent on sex or drugs while I'm in this recovering and beautiful country. What I must do before I leave is find a karaoke bar with some Journey on the playlist. How hard can it be?


  1. Trish says:

    The first story to leave me somewhat depressed and queasy!! Fabulous insight, Kat. Stay safe both of you. xxxx

  2. well written, insightful and sobering. Left me a bit, yeah, down. Feeling sorry for the people there and yet... Hope you are enjoying it despite all that... take good care of each other, stay safe! love els

  3. yeah - it was a very strange experience, luckily haven't seen any more child-drug-selling since...
    thanks for your comments!