Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (3)

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.

Andy Ahmed

11 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat (3)

  1. Gerard Reply

    Interesting Andy. I’m currently in China. But I’ve found in that in Australian, Indonesian, Filipino, and Chinese nightclubs, it usualy costs the price of a drink in order to have the company of a hostess.

    So are you saying that in Combodia you can actually have a normal ‘social chat’ with the girls for free? I understood your point about exchanging language lessons, but that’s without buying ‘extra’ drinks, or suffering dark or intimidating dirty looks from the BAR OWNER?

  2. Jay Reply

    I don’t know but I am getting the feeling the author is after all these years still somewhat naive, despite his professed sophistication mentioned elsewhere. Does this article really portray those girls as nice and friendly? Is this written in hindsight or with the impression of those first encounters?

    Cambodia and its young girls are just one of the later additions to the world of sex tourism. It all started big-time in the 60ies when American GIs were flown back to Bangkok for R&R. Once they left and with the onset of worldwide mass tourism, tour operators in Europe ferried planeloads of sex tourists to Thailand. These tourists then discovered Cambodia some time ago. And has anyone ever noticed that the many of those hostess bars are operated by foreigners? Although Cambodia hasn’t, and hopefully will never reach the level of Thailand in this respect, UNTAC raised this business to unknown levels in Cambodia. Yes, most of the girls don’t do this by choice but out of necessity. But no matter how you slice it, they are after your money given the opportunity. They don’t really care about you, no matter what they say. They might even see a prospective husband in you that gets them out of this life (Pretty Woman Syndrome). They wouldn’t go into the hostess business without having this on their minds. And by the way, the glamorous ones are snatched up pretty quickly by some rich Khmer. Certainly you don’t get the cream of crop in a hostess bar. Just look at those poor suckers that parade their butt-ugly girls down the street. Don’t anybody be fooled by this article. A good prostitute is only a good prostitute once she got out of the business and tried to make a living like the majority of the poor girls in Cambodia. They all have a choice – they can make $120 in a garment factory or opt for more money by selling their bodies. Well, the majority still chooses the factory, regardless of their looks.

    • Jim Reply

      When i was a soldier becasue of my duty station here in the US i often was a visitor to thailand, philippines and 2 others i prefer to not mention! Firstly i will say this, remember something folks, these woman are dealing wiht their own men who treat them like crap, then you get some foreign guy that visits and does the same, these people as seen through their eyes we are rich! So when you get these looks or how these girls act its becasue of persona, meaning we are the ones who have given these girls their current frames of mind regarding how we are viewed by these woman from asia. I have seen south east asia change dramaticly over the last 27 years, tourism has made it worse and now with the introduction of russians? wait and see how much it will cost in the coming years to enjoy the simple part of asia when its gone. Like some, i go to thailand, cambodia and vietnam to enjoy the simple unrushed life! Girls are easy to find, especially nice ones and that are not bar girls. Not saying bar girls dont have a heart but i dont like dealing wiht a girl that has 500 guys that been in the saddle. I need more simple logic and simple desires. thats a real woman to me, not stupid, not easy but real.. soke of you need to think this way and you will enjpoy more your time in asia. by the way im 47 now no kid here.

    • Ali Baba Reply

      –Yes, most of the girls don’t do this by choice but out of necessity.–

      If only they had hi-so parents and trust funds then they could shun their only oppourtunity to earn a living wage within the county.

      –They all have a choice – they can make $120 in a garment factory or opt for more money by selling their bodies.–

      Which factory would that be? Please tell me so I can send some CVs!

  3. andyinasia Reply

    Jay, my little introductions are the only parts written with hindsight. The memoirs are reproduced as I wrote them, when I was utterly naive, just as some newbies to the scene today are. You, the reader, are invited to see what I didn’t see coming, and scream at your monitor, “Andy! Don’t be an idiot!”

    Gerard – after a while the owner did throw me out for being a ‘bad’ (i.e. cheap, non bar-fining) customer. It’s all to come!

    • Jay Reply

      Andy, all right, then I say, ‘How could you have been such a naive idiot?’ How old were you then? 40, and you didn’t know or read anything about taxi-girls, dancing girls, bar girls, hostesses, or whatever you call them in SE Asia, whether it’s Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia? As mentioned above, this has been going on since the late sixties. The UK and Germany were the premier countries sending their men in chartered 747s to Thailand.

  4. andyinasia Reply

    Jay, far from attempting to defend myself, I’m deliberately leaving myself open to ridicule. I was that dumb. Fact is, whenever I make a now rare excursion to the bar scene, I see guys of all ages making exactly the same mistakes or worse, far worse. I’m just telling it like it is (or in my case, was). Anyway, nothing’s happened yet; wait a few weeks …

  5. Gerard Reply

    Hi Andy. Thanks for the honesty, that’s the key ‘thread’ in your accounts. Keep going as you are, you’re doing fine; after all, it is basically what happened all that time (years) ago, right? Don’t forget the well worn adage Te err is human, to forgive is Divine!

  6. Ali Baba Reply

    -they know I’m not interested in sex and none of them try to persuade me otherwise-

    Is that true Andy? The phrasing makes you sound like an asexual man who has no desire for physically intimate relationships. Would “looking for sex” be more accurate or perhaps private?

  7. Ali Baba Reply

    I’m a little confused about the responses here. Are you guys under the impression that only prostitutes are interested in seeking financial security from their relationships and all other members of society are indifferent or somehow ambivalent? Do the farm and factory girls shun tradition refusing to accept dowrys or milk money and insisting on small low key wedding ceremonies?

    Obviously there are huge disparities and inequalities in the sex-tourist/bar-girl relationships but there is no need to be so rude about those involved.

  8. Sateev Reply

    Seems Jay would have us all groveling in awe at his feet, so worldly and wise is he…I, for one, appreciate Andy’s honesty and vulnerability, and think that the more honest and secure among us can easily relate to his experiences.

    Jay, on the other hand, is…boring.

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