These are extracts from a chapter I entitled, Where the Bad Are Good and the Good Very Bad (which will continue into part 4). It took me about, let’s say, six hours from decamping from my guesthouse/flophouse to finding my first Phnom Penh hostess bar. I liked it. I liked it a lot.
In fact I liked it so much that I made return visits every evening for weeks – months, actually. Reading back over it seven years later, it seems as alien to myself as it will to many of you.
It’s just not me; was I really so pre-grizzled in those days? So nice? So utterly stupid? Part of me wishes I could recover some of it – not the hours and money spent in the hostess bar, and the embarrassing naivety, but the non-cynicism that I see in my younger self.
Have I really become so jaded over these years? The contrast not only extends to my attitude towards the bargirls, but when I see a guy who’s just parachuted into the hostess bar scene as fresh as I was, I tend to sneer and think, ‘Boy, this sucker’s got it coming’. I have no right to do that; it came to me – in buckets.
What you will see here is someone who was really full of himself slowly, slowly walking into a disaster of his own making. That’s a little further down the line – but the seeds are sewn at the very beginning….
To me the Khmers lack the subtlety and sophistication of their Thai neighbours – or to put it another way, they lack their guile and are refreshingly honest and straightforward. By ‘honest’ I mean even their lies lack the tricky ‘tell him what he wants to hear’ evasiveness and are obvious to spot.
Therefore – and admittedly I could be very wrong here; I believe that I can tell when someone is being straightforward and when there is another agenda at play. Now, I could sense potential difficulties looming in my favourite bar (not so much for me but I learned that some girls were heading for trouble from their bosses because they were refusing to talk to any customers in the hope that I’d turn up) so I began restricting myself to a maximum of one hour there, then not more than an hour in each of my new regular eating/drinking spots, which in turn led to my exploring a few new ones whilst vowing to myself to refrain from getting too involved with talking to any staff. Alas, I go into a new place and the first thing I hear is “Oh, you’re Andy, yes?” and we’re off again, vow in tatters.
So far this is just background – I’m just painting this picture of having acquired a fairly extensive network of friends who all happen to be ladies in the hospitality sector. Another factor I need to reiterate before getting on to the main point is that I’ve dropped the line about not having much money. I never really worked out how effective that stance was since the usual responses were always along the ‘I don’t care for money, you have good heart’ nonsense.
I know the precarious financial predicaments of all these girls (the ones I talk to) and their families (all single, most with babies or children) and not one of them tries to tap me up for money. I should perhaps clarify here that some of the girls for their own admirable reasons choose not to sell their bodies under any circumstances and most of those who are willing are remarkably unsuccessful given the chronic oversupply.
Actually the only ones who really earn are the most glamorous ones and I tend not to relate to them anyway. What tends to happen is the first time I go into a new bar those sorts will look down their noses at me as others come over, and when they do condescend to talk to me I don’t care for it since typically they’ll intrude on a deep and interesting conversation with crudely sexual comments and the arrogant and erroneous assumption that I’ll be more interested in them than their plainer colleagues.
The more I observe the more I realise that a lot of those girls have imprisoned themselves in their own vanity, but as that insight dawns on me I do develop a sense of compassion for them, especially when I catch the look in the eye, the momentary slip of the mask as they entertain their clients; the look of disdain and contempt – not so much for their clients as for themselves.
The women I relate to are the ones who don’t assume a guy wants to sleep with them; they assume any guy wants to sleep with their glamorous colleagues and that just reinforces their low self-esteem. However for those who are prepared to, their desperately needed extra income comes from mopping up the left-over customers when they can.
When I’m there two, three or four friends will sit with me, foregoing the opportunity to be with others customers; they know I’m not interested in sex and none of them try to persuade me otherwise, neither do they try to turn the conversation onto any area that hints at pressuring me to hand over money.
They do ask me to give English lessons but help me learn Khmer in return. They simply treat me very nicely, not asking for anything at all from me which given their circumstances I really appreciate. It might sound like an odd thing to say when we’re talking about girls many of whom are effectively hookers, but it’s their basic decency and dignity that touches me.