Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 7: Secrets of the Skin Trade

Posted on by Andy Ahmed


Last time I half-jokingly referred to the place I’m staying in as a brothel and it is, but really if you interpret the term through western lenses it is very misleading, just as the term ‘prostitute’ is. There are certainly hundreds of establishments that would fit your conception of ‘brothel’ around the city – and indeed in every small town and village in the country but they mostly service the local populace.

The place I’m staying at is nothing like that. The girls start work at six and finish at two and apart from the cashier they are hostesses, meaning they make pleasant conversation and flirt with the customers over a drink.

If they do their job well the customers will buy them ‘lady drinks’ for which they get a dollar per drink. The ones who speak little English tend not to be too successful on this score but the best ones will garner up to ten per night which adds up to serious money.

If the customer propositions a girl there are rooms upstairs which are available for $5 per hour (that’s what I pay per day which makes me a disaster in terms of profit margins especially as I don’t spend much on drinks either.

The girls are entirely free to accept or decline a customer’s proposition and they negotiate their own fee and keep all of it.

I quickly discovered that two of the dozy motodops who loiter outside the establishment are actually the husbands of two of the working girls. They hang out to ensure no punter takes their wives out of the establishment, oblivious of the rather obvious fact that they do their work upstairs.

For a long time I assumed they weren’t really that stupid and it was a face-saving thing in the same way that wives here commonly accept their husbands’ infidelities so long as their faces aren’t rubbed in the reality, but then I learned the real deal.

I agreed to help one of the wives – she’s 21 and is by far the most beautiful and popular of the girls – to read and write an email. Some besotted idiot who had slept with other girls but not this one is under the delusion that she’s unmarried and has never been with any man (er, it’s a brothel!) and wants to send her money (and is trying to work out a way to do so without his wife finding out) so she doesn’t have to go on the game.

She wants me to help her open a bank account. I said I’d also ghost-write her email reply but she’d have to think this through a bit. Is she going to tell him she has a husband? How is she going to explain to her husband why he’s sending the money? When the fool next shows up he’s going to expect exclusive rights – how’s she going to square that with her husband?

The whole situation left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable but with the other men offering wholly unhelpful and unsavoury advice I had to help out when she turned to me.

Talking it all through it did become evident that both men really are unbelievably stupid, to an extent that it’s hard to have much sympathy for either. It gets worse: I ran the story by the cashier who told me that the girl asked me to help as she dislikes the cashier. The cashier helps most of the others write emails and many have two, three or even four hapless besotted idiots sending money.

Finally, you may recall I actually came to Cambodia on a specific mission and I haven’t said much about that.

I need paid employment to pay my way and unfortunately all the options involve working at the same time as any voluntary organisation might require assistance, so I’m limited in what I can do to help street kids at the moment.

What I have been doing is patiently and carefully sizing up the kids that work the tourist strip along the riverfront, which is where I’m staying. I’ve been quietly sussing out the politics and the various tricks and lines to part tourists from their dollars.

Generally speaking the kids are not always subtle but they are very smart and you cannot take anything they say at face value. I’ve been consistently making them aware that I’m no mug and I won’t buy anything from them ever (it’s the ‘minders’ who get all the takings), but that if they want to talk to me with a degree of honesty I’m interested and there are a few who have begun to do that. I also occasionally buy them a meal.

Most of them go to a school at 7 or 8 am for two hours for which they pay $6 – 10 per month. Some of them dropped out either due to lack of interest or lack of funds. For the latter I offer them an option; if they are completely 100% truthful with me I’ll pay the fees and buy their uniforms and equipment but they have to show me every two or three days what work they’ve covered.

The slightest whiff of bull and they get nothing more from me – ever. To be fair, as I learned from the beggars in Calcutta whom I was living with a year ago, a lot of the kids (and adults) don’t even know they are lying since they’re so conditioned to operate like that, and out of jealousy or malice some are liable to stir things up, and if I’m going to prioritise those ones fall to (or through) the bottom.

What sometimes happens is that the kid is honest with me but then an older kid or adult gets to them with a ‘milk the idiot barang’ tactic like claiming the fees are higher or that you have to pay six months’ fees at once; this is why I’ve taken my time to get my facts right and am taking such a firm line, but bit by bit I’m putting kids into school and by checking their English work afterwards in the late morning I’m giving them a little extra tuition.

Words: Andy Ahmed

Photo: Chris Coles (To see more of Chris’s Cambodian photos, go to Noir Nights in Phnom Penh.)

This entry was posted in Expat Life, Phnom Penh, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 7: Secrets of the Skin Trade

  1. Dermot Sheehan says:

    Certainly a lot more interesting than the run up articles.

  2. andy says:

    Despite the title, my main focus is on trying to help the streetkid sellers. I follow this up in my next article.

  3. Dermot Sheehan says:

    I’m guessing you didn’t write the title? Am I right?

  4. Willem says:

    I enjoyed reading this…when did you write it? It’s not current is it?

  5. andy says:

    Title and photos are nothing to do with me – I cringe at the latest one, tbh. I wrote these observations in 2005 Willem. I’ve moved on a long long way since then!

  6. Jay says:

    With all due respect, Andy, you are not telling anything really new. These kinds of stories abound in SE Asia, from the hapless foreigner to the pimped wife, (I can’t believe the motodup didn’t know what was going on inside), to the ruthless, exploitative bar owner. I am missing that extra ingredient that would make your stories unique.

  7. soi dog says:

    I think the uniqeness will come from his next few posts when he reveals the dichotemy of his nightlife and his charitable endeavors with PP street urchins in the daytime. Andy seems to have had a foot in both worlds and that does seem unique to me. His tale is getting better with each installment IMO.

  8. khmerhit says:


  9. Peter Hogan says:

    ”I quickly discovered that two of the dozy motodops who loiter outside the establishment are actually the husbands of two of the working girls. They hang out to ensure no punter takes their wives out of the establishment, oblivious of the rather obvious fact that they do their work upstairs.”

    You forget that these guys are without exception bottom-feeding, drunken, low life, gambling little pricks and the real reason they loiter outside the bars where their wives sell sex is to get their clammy hands on their wife’s immoral earnings the second she finishes her shift.

  10. andy says:

    Not so much “forgot” Peter; remember, these were the observations and interpretations of a newbie who didn’t yet grasp all the nuances.

  11. Greg says:

    Who do kids who sell things on the river need help? They are able to easily earn two to three times a factory wage working part time. In addition, they perfect their language skills and soon speak fluent English and sometimes other languages as well. Your efforts would be of much more value if you looked at families who had been kicked off their land and now live under a tarp. Of course…… would have to leave the hostess bars and the riverside to be of assistance.

  12. soi dog says:

    Because those kids cant sell books for a couple bucks a day forever. If they are not getting an education they will have no future. Andy encouraged them to go to school and checked their progress. Sounds useful and kind to me.

  13. Greg says:

    Sending kids to school is always a useful endeavor………..but I suspect the most useful thing about it is it provides an ego boost and a good reason for living above a hostess bar. I have seen many many guys with good intentions try and help the kids on the riverside without making a dimes bit of difference in the end. CHOICE is a good example of a local organization that is making an impact by directly distributing food and supplies to desperately poor families living by the side of the road. BTW, I have no affiliation with them whatsoever…….but I do admire their work more than someone who comes here to save the world and turns into a bar girl expert.

    • Gerard says:

      Greg: I think you’re being a little bit unkind here. Anybody with their eyes open and who enjoys a beer or two can become a ‘bar girl expert’ simply by listening to the ‘bar’ stories, most of which are common throughout the Asian communities anyway. I’ve even heard it said that ‘poverty is the bar girl’s aphrodisiac'; what’s new!

      Andy is just sharing his ‘original’ experiences from years gone by as a ‘Newbie’, I don’t believe he is still living in a hostess bar these days. His help, any help, extended to street urchins can only have positive effect. Sure, maybe not immediately, but as Soi Dog says, it may take some years before one of those kids takes on board what Andy did or said, and make the right choice when it is needed. You are being very shorted sighted in this respect for you only see the immediate ‘ripples’ in the water, and don’t give thought to the ‘continuation’ of the ripple effect.

      If you have nothing good to say about another person, it’s better to keep ‘it’ closed, rather than take a free hit at the person. Can you tell us when YOU DID something for a street kind? For me, I’ve never helped a street kid, and I found Andy’s story embarrassed me for it reminded me of a time when I turned a blind eye.

      Food for thought Greg: Two men behind prison bars; one saw mud but the other saw stars. (I can pretty much guess what you saw mate!)

  14. soi dog says:

    How do you know if “one dimes bi of difference” was accomplished? You won’t see the benefits of a child’s education in a short time frame. It manifests itself in a thousand small choices over a lifetime.

  15. Greg says:

    I once spent 500 US to fix the teeth of a girl selling books on the riverside. She had no front teeth and was constantly embarrassed to open her mouth.

    I lost track of her and a couple of years later she called my name on the street. She is now married to a German, living in Germany with a child.

    Best money I have ever spent in my life.

  16. soi dog says:

    Greg…well done helping a riverside child. Not sure why your first post questioned the usefullness of Andy helping those same kids though. He helped in a different way.

  17. Curtis Lemansky says:

    Would somebody please post something current? The author indicates this is from 2005. That’s almost another era.

    How about this:

    Don’t tell bar girls you’re sick of hanging out in girly bars – they don’t want to hear it!

  18. soi dog says:

    Yeah, the thing about memoirs is that they generally tend to be ABOUT THE PAST!!!!

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