This is the story of my trip to a Cambodian brothel.
Long ago, when I was in law school, instead of the traditional summer clerkship, I decided to volunteer to work with Legal Aid of Cambodia. This was back in 1996, and practically no one had ever heard of Cambodia, other than the Dead Kennedys song.
A bit of history, before we go further. Back in 1970, the King, Norodom Sihanouk, was deposed and the Khmer Republic was established. This was done at the behest of the US, because Sihanouk had allowed the Khmer Rouge to run supply lines in Cambodia- the Ho Chi Minh Trail, if you will. Anyway, from 1970-1975 the Khmer Republic limped along, and then the Khmer Rouge took over the place in 1975. This was not a good thing for the Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, killed somewhere around 2 million people in Cambodia. By the way, 2 million people is 1/4 of the total population of Cambodia at the time. This is the time of the Killing Fields. Basically anyone with any level of education was killed, or driven from the cities into the fields to work, or starve. If you had glasses, they would have killed you. I can point you towards a number of resources, but this story isn’t about the Killing Fields.
In 1978, fed up with the bullshit from their neighbors, and done with the US, the Vietnamese turned on their former protege, Pol Pot, and invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, which was effectively a Vietnamese puppet state in Cambodia in 1978-79. A government in exile was established in 1981, and ultimately the UN helped broker a peace deal in 1991. Elections were held in 1993, and the monarchy was restored under King Sihanouk. But, things in the country were a shambles. The country was basically getting back on its feet.
Flash forward to 1996, when I hit the country. I had, by this point, completed 3 semesters of law school. But, because of the history of the place, I was damn near one of the foremost legal scholars in the country. Almost no one had any legal training whatsoever. So, 3 semesters of an elite American law school? I’m Earl fucking Warren. Also, at 5’10”, I was one of the tallest people in the country, and being, well, Midwestern, (@225 lbs at the time) I was for damn sure one of the biggest. Basically, I was a fucking ent among the hobbits. There’s a picture of me somewhere with 12 Cambodian orphans hanging off of me, like a jungle gym. I was able to use my white skin, foreign stature, and size as a club to get stuff done.
There were a couple other interns with me that summer, but we were all sent, individually, to the various provincial offices, and then rotated. I was out there operating without a net, or a script. No provincial governor, nor judge, could fail to see the farang (foreigner) with the blue eyes. It also helps that I already spoke French, and that I have a facility for languages and so picked up a fair amount of Khmer while I was there. Can’t read it, but I can speak it, or at least I could then. I bullied my way into judges chambers, into governmental meetings, and tried to make the system more fair. Basically, I tried to teach the staff counsel and the judges about the rule of law, and the rules of evidence. Why hearsay is bad, etc. If you were in the Cambodian legal system in 1996 or later, I had some effect on you. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life, and one I’ll be sure to write more about later on in here. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of helping someone get out of jail that shouldn’t be there, and knowing that if you weren’t there, they’d very likely die in jail.
Anyway, one of the cases we handled involved theft. As I recall, one family was claiming that somebody had stolen a bunch of stuff from their house, and then sold it at the market, and spent the money at the brothel. So, one of the witnesses that we needed to interview was the prostitute. Off I, the lawyer I was working with, and the investigator, went to the brothel.
While I’m no prude, and was not a monk while I was overseas, one thing I was never gonna do was have sex with a prostitute in Cambodia. You need to remember that AIDS was still rampant, and there were no real drugs to manage it. Plus, prostitution, yuck. I’m not going to pay for it. No prostitution, no way, no how. No sir.
Anyway, we got to the brothel around 11 in the morning. It being a primarily nocturnal profession, things were slow. I remember walking in the front door, and being hit with a cloud of perfume and cigarette smoke. It smelled like, well, a brothel. Or a strip club. You get the idea. The whole place was painted Pepto-Bismol pink, and full of chairs and pillows to lounge upon. We spoke to the madam, and then sat around a table, while she went and got the prostitute who’d apparently been the recipient of the funds from the ill-gotten loot. After interviewing the girl for about an hour, and finding out what she knew about the customer in question, and where he got his money, it was time to leave. We all stood up, and made for the door, another job having been done.
My curiosity got the better of me. I had to know. While all of the previous conversations had occurred in Khmer, I asked the attorney to translate for me, so there was no misunderstanding. This is what I said:
“Please don’t misunderstand me, but I have a question. I am curious how much is charged for your services. I do not want to hire you, I just want to know how much you charge your customers.”
The girl looked me over, from head to toe and back again, and said, “Well, for local men I get $2. But for you? $3.”
Hey, I took it as a compliment. Still do. I’ve been judged as 50% more freaky than an average Cambodian guy, by someone who would absolutely know.