Culture Vulture

9th May 2017

Dear Peter,

It’s taken me a long time to write this letter. You’ve been quiet too, yet I suppose that tells me everything I need to know about the joys of being a new parent. Time is no longer yours.

I’ve had plenty of time. That’s not the issue. And I’ve had many times I’ve wanted to put my time in Phnom Penh down on paper and tell you all about it, but the words just don’t come so easy.

As soon as I arrived in Cambodia, the midnight messenger started to ping.’Have you been to Pub Street yet?’, ‘You’re going to absolutely love it there!’, ‘Now you get to see the real culture’, I wanted to love it, I was ready to. Get that culture in my eyes.

After a long journey, I decided to have some dinner and then hit the rooftop for a beer. Snake, Cat and all sorts of tasty treats on the menu. I could eat a King Cobra for $100 if I wanted to. It would make me super strong, but I’m cool with being a weakling if it means I don’t have to eat snake steak. I won’t deny that 50 cent beer wasn’t a delightful find but there was something about this ‘Happy Hour’ that really struck me, and it’s still stuck in my mind now. The barman, his name was Sokhem, he asked me where I was from and soon as ‘London’ had slipped out my mouth he wanted me to tell him all about it. He dreamed of London, to him it was heaven.

He asked me what the jungles were like in the UK, and what my house looked like and where did I work. What did snow look like? How much did a house cost? What were British men like? His boyfriend was from Holland and had promised him trips to Europe and I hope he keeps that promise.

To put things in perspective, a bottle of water cost 75 cents. When I started asking him questions he told me his first job paid him $15 a month. His second job was $25 and he was a happier 23-year-old now, working in the bar as he got to meet lots of western men. How could it be possible for him to be paid so little yet work so much? He’s living, like so many here, well below the poverty line. I believe this is the poorest country I’ve visited yet.

A tattoo on his arm had a picture of a little fox with ‘if you want to love me, first fuck me‘ in italic underneath. Interesting take on things I told him, and he said this was how he felt. He felt lonely.

He lived with his Aunty now after his parents had left and gone North, they weren’t bothered with him and he said his Aunty didn’t talk to him either. For Sokhem, the only people that he recognised love from now were those that showed a sexual interest in him as physical connection, however fleeting, was all that filled his emptiness inside. It seemed he’d never known the unconditional love of family, friends and honest care so how would he understand that wasn’t all there was to it?

He’d been out the night before and his boyfriend had seen him in a bar with one of the hostel guests. Another dutch guy who’d invited himself along to see the nightlife. Soon as he’d set eyes on them, his boyfriend, you know the one that ‘loves‘ him, stormed out.

He pointed at his hair, “You see this bit here? I had to cut it this morning because when I woke up my boyfriend had put chewing gum in it whilst I was sleeping.”. Like it was normal, accepted behaviour and I talked to him about how wrong this was. Only the tip of the iceberg I’m sure. I wanted to take him out of that, away from that rotten relationship and show him what love really looks like. He was clinging to the promise of a trip to Europe, like that would fix everything. A hug, a listening ear and as many laughs as I could give him was all I could offer for now.

He wasn’t very good, terrible in fact, but every night he loved to sing. Such a joy for all the drinkers. I sat front row of course clapping and cheering him on. I hadn’t heard it before, I’m not a massive Emeli Sande fan, but he chose to sing ‘Clown’, and if I hadn’t clapped I would have cried inside. The other staff followed with renditions of Enrique and all the classics before boom! thunderclap.

A torrential downpour and a roof unable to keep the relentless rain from pouring in.

I ran inside soaked, careful not to slip arse over tit on the tiled floor. I’ve got a real fear of breaking my leg whilst I’m away. I decided I’d find something to watch about the area and learn something different about the area. That I did.

‘Finding Home’ was on Netflix. A documentary by Derek Hammeke made in 2014 which tells the story of 3 girls, yes girls… school girls, and how their lives went from bad to absolute vile and rotten when the sex trafficking industry swallows their heart and souls whole.

There’s girls as young as 5-years-old working in the brothels, maybe even younger. It’s thought that taking their virginity gives men vitality, youthfulness and magical powers that give them good health. It’s not what you’d first think either, not all abductions and criminal mastermind driven. A large amount of these children have been sold by their parents in desperate need of money. Religion here implies that when you are born you’re in debt to your parents and must repay them throughout your life, so a misunderstanding of that justifies this action. Add to that sex industry tourism and it’s a ‘real’ culture I’m not sure we’ll ever see the darkest depths of.

There’s a saying in Cambodia that “Men are like gold and women are like cloth, if you drop gold in the dirt, it washes clean and still shines. If you drop cloth, the stain never comes out.” 

When I woke up the next day I made my way to Daughters of Cambodia. A charity working to wash the stains from the cloth as best they can. The visitor centre was really nice. A little shop downstairs selling handmade gifts and home bits. On the first floor a spa and then on the next a cafe where I had really good lunch and giant pavlova for dessert.

The employees working here come voluntarily to be given jobs outside of the evil exploitation and trafficking they’ve become accustomed to. There’s a number of different job available, a hotel to be run, a spa to work in, the shop with all the items being handmade and sold and the cafe. I have a chat with Ruthie, the manager about furthering support in the future and ways they plan to expand their charity and the work they do. I have nothing but utter admiration for this woman.

The store is nice, very light with sky blue walls and white wash wooden furniture. The stories of the girls are painted on the walls in italic with swirling birds and flowers framing the text. ‘1 in 40 Cambodian girls will end up in a brothel’ it says.

What you don’t see is that they also support their employees with support workers, medical care, education and counselling. There’s a lot happening and I’m warmed to see that when faced with this overwhelming issue, there is a glimmer of hope starting to shine. This is one of around 200 charities trying to fight back and fix things, there’s another in the Coming Home documentary too. Daughters of Cambodia aim to take on 100 girls a year. That still leaves a lot. But everything has to start somewhere. From where there were weeds, beautiful flowers will start to grow.

I head on back to the hostel and up to the rooftop bar for more chats and songs with Sokhem and he tells me more all about his love of the X-Factor. A total dream machine to watch in wonder and amazement. He’s smiling and laughing and enjoying work today.

It’s what another friend said “Cambodians are such smiley people”, and it is beautiful and you are greeted with smiles everywhere but it’s what hiding behind these smiles, behind each shop door that’s disturbing. UNICEF research found around 64% of children here say they know a child who has been or is a victim of sexual abuse. Most victims of rape in Cambodia are children and the age is on a downward spiral. In just three years it had dropped by two. Once a victim of rape, the social stigma attached, the shame, the pain, and the broken soul left to linger would no longer see any future in this world. They feel too damaged to have a husband now or family. Feel too broken for any good to come their way.

It’s not just women: 1 in 5 men in Cambodia are victims of rape too.

Now, I know this isn’t all the country has, there are many wonderful parts too and I’m not thinking Cambodia’s the only place that’s got issues like this. In world slavery, they rank 14th. But when trying to take in the culture and enjoy my time here, I can’t help but have my heart go out to every local I meet, anyone that smiles my way, anyone that might try overcharge me or scam me in some way – Go for it. I get it. I don’t mind you trying to make me your victim.

There’s a lad in my hostel who’s on the bunk below me. He smells like an old lunchbox and is constantly whining because his iPhone got pinched whilst he was out in the city. He’s expecting sympathy from me I suspect, not the reality check I give him. Get in the sea!!

Cambodia history is brutal, we’re not educated on it in the UK and this upset me, I’d been so ignorant. The Polpot regime that killed over 2 million Cambodians, wiped out society, killing all educated people and all morals gone replaced by atrocious horrors and memories that nightmares are made of.

Why is it so prevalent then? How can it be so common? A UN report found that 45% of rapists in answered that sexual entitlement was their motive for raping a woman and 42% said they raped to punish a woman, it’s a terrifying mindset. Nearly 12% of them had raped 4 or more women with over half of them first raping their victims as teenagers and nearly 20% of them doing it under the age of 15. They’ve got enough problems here without the despicable perverts from the west coming over for a sex holiday too. Sick.

It’s a rarely reported crime. The shame that comes with it is too much and the legal process is poor. The most common punishment for rape tends to take place outside of court with the rapist having to pay an out of court settlement. How that makes it any different to how the brothels are treating the victims I don’t know.

Nearly 50% of rapists experience no legal consequences.

Real Cambodia. We not even scratched the surface.

Speak soon, take care,

Cat x

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