Phnom Penh Street Stories: Part One

Posted on by Anna Spencer and Pen Makara


For the past 3 years I have enjoyed cycling, strolling, relaxing in a tuk-tuk or riding pillion around the streets of Phnom Penh, gorging myself on the visual feast that surrounds me. Of course I am a little less wide-eyed now, but still, I see a new thing every day.

I have decided it would be interesting to take one street at a time, delve a little deeper and maybe talk to some people on the street and hear their stories. My boyfriend Makara often takes me around on a ‘darleang’ or ‘walk play’ on his moto, so we thought it would be a fun extension of this… a ride around with a little bit of street investigation as we went.

So we decided to start with one of PP’s most memorable and interesting streets -for me because of its contrast between shiny/new with lost/forgotten- and for Makara because it is a street where he remembers a transitional point in his own life here in Phnom Penh. The street is Samdech Sothearos.

Let’s start at the beginning of Sothearos and the turn off to ‘Soul Town’, a forlorn entrance to a huge KTV building.

Sadly, some disgusting men will feel free to take advantage of girls there whose souls I am sure were left somewhere far away from the entrance to this ironically named ‘Soul Town’. At this point I would advise watching ‘The Girls of Phnom Penh’ or ‘The Virginity Trade’ to hear the stories of some young women that end up trapped in places like this.

These films explain a side of Cambodia that I think everyone should be made aware of. I am not an NGO worker or an expert on prostitution or woman’s rights, neither am I naïve enough to think that I could go into ‘Soul Town’ and ‘save’ the girls there. However, I do hope that I have and will continue to make my own very small contribution to promote the independence of women in Cambodia.

Not ever as much as I would like to, but as it is pointed out in ‘The Virginity Trade’, it seems the problem lies with some men from Asia as well as the sex-pats from other countries refusing or casually dismissing women as humans.

Moving on from ‘Soul Town’ we hit what is well-known as ‘Wicker World’ where you can buy lots of furniture and other things made out of ….well rattan actually but ‘Wicker World’ has a better ring to it. For me this is the perfect example of why I like living in Phnom Penh. B&Q or Home-Base on an industrial estate in Essex brings out an almost phobic reaction in me.

I know it is a personal thing but furniture shops on industrial estates are pretty much Hell on Earth for me, however these rattan furniture shops bring a smile to my face with the big swinging chairs, or the wide circular chairs and woven lampshade balls amongst hula hoops and shoe-racks, all there out in the open without any garish lights or labeled aisles of goods.

Right next to the pretty damn ugly Russian Embassy annex (see above) is the beautiful Svay Propay Pagoda where Makara recollects his transition from being a monk to a working life.

‘I was a monk for about eleven years, from the age of 12. I left my home in Kandal Province and went to stay at Vichetaram Pagoda in Kien Svay. My brother was also there. We stayed there for five years. Then I moved to Wat Botum Pagoda in Phnom Penh and stayed there for six years. ‘

‘When I was a monk I woke up at 5.30 for ‘Joal Preah Vassar’ (Morning Prayer) and did chores like sweeping leaves or cleaning the Pagoda. Then we went to do ‘Bunbart’ which is where we went to collect the offerings from the lay people until around 10.30. At 10.30 we ate and then we could not eat after midday but we could have soft drinks or tea. We rested until around 2pm then we would study Bali or Sanskrit as well as general knowledge.

That was my routine for ten years. I could usually only visit my homeland once a year for Khmer New Year so when I was younger, especially when my brother went to another Pagoda for a year and I had no family with me, I felt lonely and home-sick sometimes.

When I was 23, I stayed with my brother at Svay Propey on Samdech Sothearos Pagoda but my life as a monk stopped when I got a job as a waiter at Yindiy Restaurant on St. 63.

I was nervous but excited going to work but as my English was not so good at first it was difficult to understand the foreigners and I felt embarrassed sometimes when I had to ask them to repeat their order.

A year later I went to work at Liquid on 278 and it was a difficult job – busy with long hours but my waiting/bar skills and English had improved so I felt more confident working there. The customers were mostly friendly especially when I learnt what the regular customers drank and the tips were quite good.

There are some places where the tips are shared fairly between the staff at the end of the night, so even if the salary is not so good the tips make that better. Where I work now at ‘Comme a La Maison’ the wages are slightly higher but none of the tips go to the staff, straight to the owner, which is unfair.

Also, we do not get any of the Cambodian public holidays off; not even Khmer New Year. Even if we wanted to go and vote we had to take PH (personal holiday) and make the time up by working our day off the next week.

In service jobs, some customers are rude but I just ignore them. I don’t let it bother me. There was only one time when I can remember feeling really angry. Once a man was very drunk and he accidentally left a big roll up of money on the chair when he left. I saw the money and I didn’t count it but I could see it was a lot because it was a big roll of $50s. I ran out the bar and managed to call to him.

I gave him the money back. He looked at me drunkenly and took it. Not even a ‘Thank You’. I felt really annoyed that night.

Before, the Pagoda used to be quite free about what time they would close the gates at night but suddenly it changed to a 9.30 close and this proved difficult. I would finish my shift at 1 or 2am and if my brother was not free with his tuk-tuk to give me a lift I would have to walk the short distance back.

Then I would have to climb the locked gates of the Pagoda and the monks on guard would call out ‘who’s that?’ but when I just said it was me it was Ok. I would sleep at 2.30 and wake to the sound of the morning prayers three hours later, although most of the time I would just go back to sleep because I was exhausted from my bar shift.

That’s when the transition from monk-hood to working life began for me and I drive past there often and sometimes meet my friends who are still staying there- I have happy memories from that place.

I also get my hair cut on Sothearos. I have always gone there because the barber is very good. His name is Thoun. When I asked him about his work as he cut my hair he told me.

“I have been cutting hair for more than ten years. I cut on average about ten guy’s hair a day. It’s 5000 riel a hair-cut. I open at 7.30 and close at 5.00. I moved to Phnom Penh 2 years ago, before that I cut hair in Svay Riang province. I don’t pay rent for the building but I share my profits with the landlord.”

Anna Spencer and Pen Makara

Tomorrow the journey continues north towards the famous ‘White Building’ plus Anna and Makara meet ‘the Eggman.’

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17 Responses to Phnom Penh Street Stories: Part One

  1. Peter Hogan says:

    I very much enjoyed that piece Anna which was very real for me as it’s my own neighborhood and I know the places you mention.

    Soultown is an appallingly grim place, isn’t it? From a distance, it even looks like the barren, heartless hellhole it really is. However, I must take issue with one of your points mentioning white sexpats.

    I agree that that they’re a gruesome, unlovable bunch but I think perhaps they are off the hook here as from all accounts ‘Soultown’ is an Asian set up for Asian men. I doubt whether barangs would even get past the front doors of those KTV places in there.

    And that Russian Embassy annex is vaguely mysterious. With all its blacked-out or bricked-up windows, I really wonder what does go on in there.

  2. anna says:

    Thanks Peter,

    Yes I agree that the KTV places are for Asian men, the sexpats are elsewhere. What is really scary is the increase of gang rape in young khmer men, who blame it on Western porn. As said, i am NO expert on these issues but solution has to lie in changing these men’s atitudes to women, which is a masive challenge.
    I know many men from all over the world who are not at all sexist, it is just very sad the disrespect many men have in this country towards women.
    But yes KTV i.e soultown all local/Asian men.
    And yes, that is one hell of an ugly Russian Embassy Annex!

    • Peter Hogan says:


      Porn is illegal here so if Khmer men want to watch Western porn, it isn’t like they can simply chance upon it in a store and idly toss a few DVDs into their shopping trolly.

      They need to 1) make the decision to buy it and then 2) seek it out illegally. I think this puts the responsibility firmly onto them.

      Nonetheless, this is a thorny issue, nor is it a recent issue as ten years ago when I first set foot in Cambodia, there were discussions going on concerning the gang rape of young Khmer women by groups of Khmer men. I feel it’s maybe a little simplistic to blame this on porn.

  3. andy says:

    A major problem is that porn is the ONLY ‘sex education’ available, and now it’s very easily and cheaply available. There is nothing to balance it for young people.

  4. Vox Clamantis says:

    Well… I won’t be going to “Comme A La Maison’ again! Nice piece.

  5. Louise says:

    Thankyou for this piece Anna. I fell in love with Cambodia when I visited in January this year and your article brought back the complexity of Cambodia for me. Please continue to write about your experiences.

  6. Ken say says:

    Nice piece,thanks.
    I too will never go to comme la maison again either-tight arse frogs.

  7. anna says:

    Yes Peter, I agree it is too simplistic to base it on Western porn/influence. I also agree that the responsibility lies with Khmer men and also with the sex education system in Cambodia (or lack of it as Andy states) to adress the long term issues. I wonder if the mind set of sexual aggression in male Khmer society will improve or get worse.

  8. chris says:

    Light and breezy feel, a good angle and I like it that you mix the text up a bit with pics. Some anticipation thrown in re the eggman and all in all, an enjoyable read.

  9. Willem says:

    I’ve been to Soul for karaoke a few times with big groups of barangs. It’s not much different to any other karaoke joint. I didn’t engage in anything beyond karaoke though (and never have)…so don’t really know if it’s that bad.

    It’s worth reading some accounts like Annuska Derks’ Khmer Women on the Move, or Heidi Hoefinger’s work to actually get a better picture of what life is like for the girls in the sex industry. Not pleasant, but nowhere near as grim as we might imagine.

  10. Dermot Sheehan says:

    “it seems the problem lies with some men from Asia as well as the sex-pats from other countries”

    I feel that should be re-phrased as “mostly Cambodian men as well as men from other Asian countries and a small proportion of other foreigners.” It seems rather ingenuous to blame foreigners when most studies point to local men being the main customers for prostitution here. Both the documentaries you mentioned also support this.

  11. Anna says:

    I agree Dermot, that phrasing would have been much more suitable as it is pointed out in the films mentioned that yes, less than 10% of men involved in prostitution industry are foreigners so your rephrasing to “mostly Cambodian as well as men from other Asian countries and a smaller proportion of foreigners” would have been more accurate. I did not aim to lay the blame on foreigners; I just wanted to get across my personal feeling of what a Soul-less place it looks and then advised watching those two films for more information.

  12. paul says:

    Good piece. That’s the second time I have heard about tips situation at omme la maison the previous time they tried to justify it by saying it covered breakages etc.
    It’s BS but not illegal
    Under labour law mandatory service charges must be distributed to
    the employees but tips and gratuities can be distributed as the employer

  13. Vox Clamantis says:

    I won’t every go back. Disgusting behavior by Comme a la Maison. Used to be on regular rotation for lunch. No longer.

  14. Barry says:

    Comme a la Maison, What a disgrace. It sickens me that such western businesses feel they have the right to exploit the local work force like this. No western staff would stand for such bullshit. I will never go there again. Tell your boyfriend to stop working for these heartless pigs and look for work elsewhere.
    In relation to Soul karaoke, I went there a couple of years ago with my Khmer work colleagues. It is just the same as every other karaoke in town and we had a great night without exploiting or taking advantage of anyone.

  15. William says:

    I cannot agree that Cambodian men watching Western Porn leads to abuse of women, Western Porn is generally non-aggressive, Cambodian porn has a lot of forced sex, so to me, Cambodian men create forced sex through their desire for forced sex.

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