Selling Sex in Siem Reap

Update – As one reader pointed out, Siem Reap is a rapidly changing place. I wrote and published this piece while spending several weeks in there back in 2011. While I stand by my experiences from several years ago, I unfortunately have not been back since and can’t speak to how much has changed.

It’s three o’clock in the morning, and a large man with a French accent is telling me the prices for his girls.  We’re drinking at the X-Bar, a popular after-hours nightclub in the Cambodian tourist town of Siem Reap.  With its prominent location overlooking the local Pub Street and it’s leering, neon signs, the X-Bar is hard to miss.  So are the girls.

Working through the night, the prostitutes here gravitate toward anyone who looks like he might have money to spend and the liquor in his head to spend it.  On this particular night there are more girls here than customers and the competition is fierce.  Two lean into me and make whispered promises if choose them over the others.  The smell of bad tequila along with heavy makeup and dark curls helps them look older than they probably are.  I can barely hear them speak over the pounding UB40 track playing in the background, while down the bar a group of Australian backpackers picks up a round of shots.  It’s just another night in Siem Reap.

Human trafficking has gotten a growing amount of attention in 21st Century bringing on an international focus that’s long past due.  In a single year more than 33,000 people will be trafficked across borders worldwide according to a State Department estimate, most into the sex trade.  Despite the size of the crisis, however, most people associate it with shadowy marketplaces and dark villages.  It is a problem, in other words, that you have to look for.  Stay on the beaten path and it will never find you.

Until your travel agent books you a visit to Siem Reap.

First let me tell you that Siem Reap is a bucket list must for everyone who’s ever bought a plane ticket.  The northern Cambodian city is home to Angkor Wat, a breathtaking temple complex that covers a section of jungle larger than the island of Manhattan.  Built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th Century, the monument draws in well over a million people per year and fuels a booming tourist economy in this otherwise impoverished country.  Glittering resorts line the streets shoulder to shoulder with backpacker guesthouses, five star restaurants and one dollar noodle stands.  The lights never turn off, and just about everything is for sale to the right buyer.  In this marketplace sex trafficking has boomed.

At the tourist clubs and karaoke bars girls cluster around tables chatting together while they wait for their dates to arrive.  Early in the night a sex worker in Siem Reap will let the client entertain her first, having drinks, dancing and playing games of pool before the business starts.  As the night wears on and the prospect of going home empty handed looms, however, the sales pitch gets more aggressive.  It’s no surprise either.  With the punishments handed out by angry pimps for an unsuccessful night, the girls here are very motivated sellers.  Nobody wants to be the one coming home empty handed when the sun comes up.

You won’t see this discussed in many guidebooks or Travel Channel shows; it barely even rates a mention in the popular Lonely Planet guide’s “Dangers and Annoyances” section.  However the flush of prostitution in this boomtown is well known to the locals.  Any expat drinking at Madam Beergarden can rattle off a list of clubs where you’ll find the city’s working girls, and another if you want to avoid them.  Complain about a night spent fending off unwanted offers and you’ll usually get a knowing shrug and weary comment.  What did you expect?  You’re in Siem Reap.

The local drivers, young men who pull motorbike carriages called tuk-tuks, are experts at helping tourists find a good time.  You don’t even have to ask.  Take a walk after sunset and it won’t be long before someone rolls by with a quiet offer to take you to the girls.

Enough people say yes.

The runaway sex trade in Cambodia isn’t the result of a bad people or poisonous culture.  In fact the local Khmer culture is a very conservative one that emphasizes modesty in both private and public life.  The sex and drug trades here are banned by laws stronger than anything in the United States.  However those laws often end up worth little more than the paper they’re printed on when they run into the immense wealth of this shadow industry and the relative powerlessness of national and local government to do anything about it.

With corruption endemic at all levels of Cambodian society and a customer base that is incomparably wealthy by local standards, the industry’s explosion was all but inevitable.  Western money exerts an outsized influence here, as it does in many developing nations.  At time of writing, one United States dollar could buy approximately 4,000 Cambodian riel, and most local merchants here simply prefer to have the dollars.  It doesn’t take much Western money to be very rich here, and that often presents officials with an offer that they won’t refuse.

The governments in both Siem Reap and Cambodia at large struggle to maintain authority in their own country.  Arguably the greatest difficulties start at the grass roots with law enforcement.  Local police officers in this city can earn as little as $2 U.S. per day for their work, a technically living wage that still leaves most of them mired in poverty.  A group of girls can bring in a hundred times that in a good night, asking tourists for the negligible sums of $40 or $50 for just one hour.  When criminals can pay the police more than the state, corruption becomes a virtual certainty.

Money, after all, is power.​

I finish my drink at the X-Bar and prepare to leave, watching two girls getting ready to do the same.  Before they can go, however, they have to ask permission from the Frenchman.  “Daddy.”  He allows the anger to pass across his face only for a moment as he chastises them for “not [bringing] anyone home for me tonight.”  They apologize and promise to try harder tomorrow before running off and down the stairs, towards a knot of girls who waiting for stragglers at the bottom.

There are 6 comments

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  1. Robert Nolst

    I think you are completely wrong here. I have been coming to Siem Reap for twenty years now. The sex trade has almost disappeared over the years. Currently there are no “massage” places anymore nor any “girly bars”. Sure when you go to places like X bar there are always some hookers and in walking street later at night too. But it is absolutely minimal. It doesn’t bother me at all. If these girls do this out of their own free will and accord let them. I think Siem Reap would have double the amount of tourists if there would be a more vivid nightlife.
    In fact because of the clamp down the sex trade, especially for the locals which is practically not accessible for foreigners, has gone underground with all the negative and dangerous consequences for the girls.

    • Eric

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment Robert. Like you I absolutely love Siem Reap and Cambodia in general. I lived there once and return as often as I can. I wrote and posted this piece about three years ago. Given how quickly Siem Reap is changing things well may have changed since. (All of the publication dates on my site got updated when I overhauled recently.)

      However your point about driving prostitution underground is a pretty heavily debated in human trafficking circles. How can we distinguish free will from just the appearance of it? In particular, does cracking down get results or does it just drive things further underground with, as you point out, negative and dangerous consequences? Unfortunately, the experience of people working in the field is that “free will” is often pretty illusory in these cases. It’s a nice idea that legalizing prostitution could allow young women to make more of their own choices, but in practice coercion tends to remain a huge part of the industry.

      Personally I like Nick Kristof’s work on the subject. His blind spot to Somaly Mam notwithstanding, Kristof’s work on SE Asian prostitution is very worth reading.

  2. Illmatical

    Eric, I enjoyed this post. Siem Reap’s sex trade doesn’t jump right at you initially. When the sun goes down, the cities red light district emerges, although it doesn’t necessarily have a specific position.

    • Eric

      Thanks! I’m hoping to go back soon and do a follow up piece on the sex trade these days. This post is several years old so I’d like to get a more recent perspective. (I didn’t, for example, mention the Sok San Palace in this piece.)

      Plus, any excuse to go back to Cambodia.

  3. WillfromLA

    Interesting opinion. I’m in my guesthouse in Siem Reap right now planning to go down to Pub Street later to look for a “holiday girlfriend.” I see the problem as coming from the pimps. Legalization means independent sex workers, at least to me (perhaps I’m willfully ignorant). If I thought the sex worker was getting the whole $40 or $50, instead of $5-$10, I would feel better about things. Incidentally, that amount is out of my budget, so I will have to stick with free internet porn, which is all sanctimonious, self-righteous moralists like you will allow the rest of us.

    • Eric

      Hi Will,

      Full disclosure, I was on the fence about publishing your comment. You’re a little all over the map here man… Still, you raise a complicated topic re: legalized prostitution. Not the one I wrote about, but a worthy one for discussion.

      As an individual issue, I’ve known prostitutes who like their jobs a hell of a lot more than most lawyers. Talk to them for a few minutes and you get the sense that theirs is just a job. It has good days, bad days and quite a lot of routine (albeit an unusual routine). Ask them about getting into it for the money and they’ll say, “are accountants volunteers?” Ask them about criminalization and they’ll tell you to fuck off, it’s their body.

      So, there’s that. As a social issue it’s not so clear.

      Saying that the problem comes from the pimps and third parties is like saying I love the beach but hate the sand. Our experience is that prostitution inevitably brings problems of abuse, sex trafficking, kidnapping and drugs. Many women do feel victimized and degraded, even when they technically made a choice. Although in theory legalizing prostitution would let people come out from the underground, in practice it creates as many problems as it solves. “On average,” reports the London School of Economics, “countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.”

      That’s a pretty sanitary way of saying the pimps thrive under legalization.

      I’m honestly not sure where I come down, although my instinct is for the model that legalizes prostitution but criminalizes solicitation. (Sorry!) This is an issue where personal choice runs into social consequences, and from what I’ve seen those consequences tend to be pretty consistent.

      As far as your visit to Cambodia goes, have an incredible holiday. It’s a gorgeous country and do try to get out east to see Bokor National Park. For the girls though, my advice is to chat up tourists at the Angkor What?. Avoid the pros.

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