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.