Naomi-Collett Ritz spends some quality time with a trio of Phnom Penh sex workers.
I met Leak, Bopha, and Makara a few months ago. I ended up at their bar on Street 104 in Phnom Penh one night when I’d had so much to drink that I didn’t feel awkward being a young woman in a bar full of prostitutes. We played Jenga, drank B-52s and danced to a playlist they let me choose.
Their shift finished at 3 a.m. if they didn’t get picked up, but I was hungry — and drunk — and decided that I wanted them to come eat with me. So I paid their bar fines and found myself gnawing on chicken feet at Sorya Mall as the sun came up.
Earlier in the evening we had, of course, made plans to meet in the light of day, but I was surprised the next afternoon to actually get a call from Leak and Makara.
This was the weekend of the CNRP sit-in at Freedom Park, which the girls had said they wanted to see, so I met them at the 6-11 convenience store for Carabao energy drinks, then we found a seat near the stage to wait for Sam Rainsy’s speech at 4 p.m.
They were each excited to see Sam andLeakso much so that she started crying when he hopped on stage. Makara happily translated his speech for me until her phone rang and she told me that she needed to go check on her son.
She could tell that I was taken aback by the realization that she had a child, and she smiled as she explained that she actually had two kids: three and seven years old.
Then I learned that she was 27, Bopha was 30 and had a 13-year-old, and Leak was my age (24) and had a two-year-old. She left her baby with her husband and his family two months prior because he had too many girlfriends.
She had only been a bar girl for a few weeks and her mother-in-law was threatening to keep Leak from seeing her daughter unless she returned. She had apparently told her in-laws that she was working in a shop in Thailand, and was very nervous at the demonstration that someone would recognize her in photos of the event. She wore my sunglasses until we got into a tuk-tuk headed to the room she and Makara shared.
We stopped at theirs so they could eat dinner, shower and get ready for work at eight that evening. While Leak went to get food Makara explained that the room they shared was haunted. She had four spirit houses scattered around their tiny one-room apartment. She poked and tapped each one while she clarified that she was not scared of the ghosts because they protected her. The ghosts knew who was good and who was bad, and whenever someone “bad” slept over they experienced someone or something poking their face and pulling on their hair and ears.
Leak brought fried chicken and steamed clams back – Leak and I both love the cockles, but apparently the fried chicken was for Makara because she was allergic to the little clams. Her English is excellent and I was sure that I understood her allergy, but she proceeded to tell me that they “made her pussy sick” and then lifted up her skirt so I could see the damage.
She said she had been unable to have sex for a few months, and although you certainly couldn’t tell by looking, she said she was healing and that she should be able to work again soon. I couldn’t imagine who would want to “work” with her in that condition, but Leak told me that Makara was famous at the bar.
I had agreed to play pool with them at the bar that evening and they wanted to take me to get my hair done with them after they got dressed
Somehow I found myself agreeing to try on heels and dresses that had been gifted to the girls by various boyfriends. Makara suggested that I take a shower, and I didn’t want to be rude while trying on their clothes so of course I consented.
When I stepped out Makara looked at my hair, shook her head and pointed at the shower.Makara followed me as I backtracked into the tiny space.
She told me to lean forward and look between my knees. Then she poured water over my head and started massaging shampoo into my hair. After a vigorous scrub and a healthy dose of conditioner I sat on the floor in my towel and Leak brushed the knots out of my split ends.
Leak had chosen a full-length blue dress for me and laid it out on their bed while Makara first put on her makeup, then did my makeup to match.
We went to a salon above the convenience store next to the bar and we all had our hair blown out, curled and crimped. An hour later Leak and I were playing pool and she said her feet hurt. I offered to change shoes with her for a few minutes when this guy from Connecticut grabbed my ass.
I realized I had taken the “walk a mile in their shoes” expression too far. Guiltily I traded her heels back for my flip flops and said goodnight to the girls.
But not before agreeing to spend the Pchum Ben holiday with Leak’s family in Kampong Cham province two weeks later.
The top image is a screenshot from the movie ‘The Girls of Phnom Penh’: an intimate portrait of three girls sold into Cambodia’s huge sex industry.
The second part of this article will be online late October.