Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (4)

photo courtesy of Stickman Bangkok

Some weeks the ‘plot’ will move on; other weeks it will go deeper. This week’s article reproduces further notes I took during my first week in Phnom Penh.

It is my reflections on some of my first encounters with ladies working in both the hostess and non-hostess bar scene. I guess my thinking was very black-and-white; not in terms of sexual experience but in terms of ‘good heart/bad heart’, although I tended to ascribe more goodness and victimization to deceitful girls that I would now.

What do you think – was my thinking that of a naïve fool? A wise old compassionate soul? A dangerous short step away from saving a damsel in distress? I was very conscious of and determined to avoid the latter mistake; I’m still not sure if I succeeded or not.

I sometimes wonder – am I the only person here who is free? I studied and taught for years about the philosophy of Free Will, of Freedom and Determination (I’ll spare you; suffice to say I’m still studying, even though my teachers are unlettered).

I believe that I’m here because of all the places on earth I chose to be here. I can make that choice thanks to my education, skills and money.

Nearly all the Khmers I know feel that on a metaphysical level it is their karmic curse to be born Khmer at this time. On a physical level none of them would be living their lives, doing what they’re doing if they had a choice. Maybe you’re thinking ‘Hah, same here!’ but if you really understood you wouldn’t think that; you’d realise how grateful you should be for the good fortune you have.

Sure richer people can be trapped within constraints of class, caste, societal pressures and expectations and family responsibilities but it’s not the same, it really isn’t. Still dubious? Let’s tell it like it really is – I have friends who hate themselves for having to sell themselves to strangers for a pittance so they can feed their children. How they would love to exchange their daily problems for yours – are you willing?

I asked a very attractive older hostess who used her ID to get me a SIM card what she’d like to do with her life if she had a completely free choice. She told me she’d be so happy if she could buy a stall outside the Central Market, cooking chicken and rice for passers-by. She’d enjoy her work, be her own boss and support herself and her little boy. That’s a lovely dream – would it be yours?

It struck me how there is no thought of bagging a rich white husband, being bedecked with gold and spending her life shopping and watching mindless local TV (by the way I was talking to this friend one evening when two young foreign women tourists butted in to ‘interview’ her: “Excuse me, are you a prostitute?” they began, “Do the other girls go with men for money? Do you like foreign men?” and so on. I was gob smacked).

The sweet, plain, chubby girl from my favourite bar’s dream is to improve her English and get a job as a tour guide – a dream of study and work. How can I not admire these girls? Alas in both cases these modest dreams will almost certainly share the same fate as most dreams and go unrealised.

For years now I’ve been trying to gain an understanding of the nature of poverty. Right now I’m seeing the same tragic TV images as you from Niger, images that correspond with most westerners’ notion of poverty – spindly legs, bloated malnourished stomachs, nothing but a tattered rag for clothing – all this fits that preconceived mental image; that’s poverty that is – and of course so it is.

Now paint this image in your mind’s eye: a group of gorgeous young ladies in fetching (and some very revealing) black cocktail dresses, hair and makeup immaculate – glamorous, sexy, penniless, hungry. That’s poverty too. I have a new definition that incorporates those scenes from Africa but I think more accurately reflects the unreported chronic poverty that pervades so much of the world: ‘No security, no hope, no choice = poverty’.

As much as I was enjoying the hours of conversation with hostesses and hookers evening after evening, sometimes I felt a bit suffocated by it and craved other topics of conversation. I needed a sanctuary from the hostess bars – from myself.

Early one evening I stumbled into one bar which has only been open a fortnight (I’d initially gone into the place opposite but three girls without knickers jumped on my lap so I drank up and left). The owner (another Englishman) is actually a teacher and he’s trying to create an arty/intellectual ambience. It’s all lava lamps and pretentiousness but I’m clutching at straws here; it’s possible to have a non-sexual discussion, the few women expats in town feel comfortable there and he has a policy of no sex with the staff (him and the customers) – I can’t tell you how much of a relief that is.

Admittedly there are still jealousy issues which are not helped by the fact that the staff are unspeakably good-looking, and sassy taxi-girls still pour in but in the context of this country it’s the closest to a sanctuary as I’ll get.

Andy Ahmed

10 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (4)

  1. Alan Reply

    I like these ‘social explorations’. I was always frustrated by the shortness of time when I was travelling and that it’s difficult to delve into conversation with anyone much deeper than a street seller in Vietnam or a bar girl in Cam. I’m looking forward to where it went after your intial weeks in PP.

    As a point of interest; do you still stand by your definition of poverty?

    In answer to your questions, I’d say you’re just a sentimental old fool but I mean that in the kindest sense!

    • Gerard Reply

      Listen matey, there’s nothing ‘nice’ about being ‘old’. Trust me. You’ll better understand it when you get there…IF, you get there!

  2. Gerard Reply

    Andy. Great stuff! But can’t get the ….

    ‘Two young foreign women tourists butted in to ‘interview’ her: “Excuse me, are you a prostitute?” they began, “Do the other girls go with men for money? Do you like foreign men?” …out of my head.


    Did you jump up and ‘smack’ them…shout at them…pissed them off with an Alpha stance and growl!!

    Just reading it I felt outraged for both you and your friend. For sure, I would have ‘jumped up’ matey and ran them of…not a doubt in my head about that. (And I’m more grizzled than you!) That’s just so rude. Disgusting really.

    The very last paragraph left me a bit confused though, that bits about ‘jealousy issues’ and ‘sanctuary’.

    Tell ‘us’ more. Getting good Andy

  3. andyinasia Reply

    I’m not an alpha male by a long chalk, but I would have intervened if she hadn’t signaled me to leave it. She wasn’t actually upset by the incident, only I was.

    The last paragraph is a foreshadowing of the most significant part of my story, but it will be buried under the main plot for some time.

  4. andyinasia Reply

    Alan – I’d say I’m not sentimental anymore, but I don’t think that makes me a better person. As for my definition of poverty, it took me 4 years of intensive participant observation in Nepal and India to arrive at that definition; I don’t think I do now stand by it, but it would take me some time to come up with a pithy new definition – don’t push me!!

  5. soi dog Reply

    QUOTE = “….I’d initially gone into the place opposite but three girls without knickers jumped on my lap so I drank up and left.”

    You could have talked to thousands of people about poverty and desperation. This nonsense about you ‘investigating the perspectives’ of bar girls (specifically) night after night and assigning some intellectualization to spending most of your free time in hostess bars is a bit delusional.

    You went to these places because you liked talking to and flirting with prostitutes…which is the same reason most men go to hostess bars in Cambodia. It seems like you are claiming to be somehow different from others in this respect….as if to say “It’s different when I do it because I’m asking lots of deep questions and I care about stuff.” This ‘searching for the higher truth with whores’ garbage seems silly to me.

    • Ali Baba Reply

      I especially like the fact that he did this despite being on a low budget.

  6. andyinasia Reply

    Ah, Soi Dog, you’re just not getting it. I have explicitly pointed out that the whole point of this tale is to show just how delusional this newbie was and the consequences of my stupidity. If you need your reading to be presented with all the subtlety of a Rambo story, I’m sorry that I can’t help you.

  7. Gerard Reply

    Andy. Here’s an idea. Why not have the full set of your installments made into a ‘Paperback’!?

    For as sure the sun rises and sets their contents will be taken out of context, piece by piece, or just blindly not understood no matter how many time you explain what you’re about.

    At least you could make a ‘quid or two’, and whoever can say whatever!


  8. Nick Reply

    Andy, I will be working in Phnom Penh for the next 12 months and would be looking to avoid hostess bars. I would love to know what the other bar with the lava lamps etc is called if you can let me know?

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