Holiday in Cambodia

We knew only two things about Cambodian history before our visit: it was home to Ankgor Wat, a very old abandoned temple, and that after US bombings, it was ruled by Pol Pot, a Very Very Bad Man. Coming to Cambodia knowing so little about the Khmer Rouge period would be like someone going to Germany in 1975 without being quite clear on what that whole Holocaust thing was about. As we visited the sites of a major Khmer Rouge torture center, and the infamous killing fields (where the pile of skulls gave me a very physical reaction), we found ourselves furiously backfilling history, through books, websites, and conversations.

From 1975 to 1978 (and in some areas, afterwards), Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a group who thought China's Cultural Revolution didn't go far enough. They turned the whole nation into a prison camp, separating families, killing about two million, and destroying the nation's cultural, professional, and transportation infrastructure. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge lost power after a Vietnamese invasion, but their legacy exists in the hearts of a deeply traumatized population, as well as in the millions of land mines they left behind. Stories came up repeatedly as we interacted with locals as tourists: the cab driver who'd lost several family members, the museum guide who lost her husband and children, the tour guide who defused land mines while working in the military. It was jarring to hear these matter-of-fact stories first-hand.

The Khmer Rouge period and the associated civil war helps explain some of the development differences between Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. In Vietnam, we had a comfortable train system to take us from city to city, but in Cambodia, it's all long-distance buses, traveling highways of middling quality; the nation's train system was made unusable by the Khmer Rouge, in the proud tradition of destroying the village to save it.

As tourists, we've also been seeing our share of older white men and youngish Southeast Asian women hanging out around town, which gives us the creeps. Sex tourism is complicated. We've been trying to figure out what's wrong with it: is it creepy, unethical, or oughta-be-illegal? (Or some combination of the three.) For Barnali, the biggest ick factor was the difference in age. For me, it's the difference in power, economic and based on passport privilege. This led to some really interesting conversations.

What surprised me was the extent to which some sex tourism was publicly framed as "relationships." We'd see couples smiling, holding hands by the river, eating at restaurants, walking with children -- a very different image from that of run-down brothels, dangerous clients, exploitative pimps. (Which obviously exists here too, just not in mainstream public places.) In Pico Iyer's Video Night in Kathmandu, he interviewed a number of women working in the Thai sex trade, where many of them referred to their "boyfriends," who'd come to see them from abroad. It's obviously a convenient framing on all sides, but it's hard to feel solely anger or pity for a sex worker when she's smiling, holding hands by the water with some relatively well-to-do older man, as her kid plays next to her. The sex work climate here may be broadly exploitative, but peppered with areas of consent and happiness. And what the hell are you supposed to do with that? How can you be supportive of sex workers, but not of sex work? Or supportive of sex workers, while strongly disapproving of sex tourism and trafficking? We just chose to look away, explicitly avoiding hotels and areas that seemed to attract sex tourists (not easy, given that they mixed in with other tourists).

This reminded me of one of my favorite political songs, Consolidated's "No Answer for a Dancer", a male feminist take at trying to figure out how to deal with sex work. Barnali and I sat by the river in Phnom Penh, listening to Consolidated on my phone, trying to figure out how we felt.

I was also irritated by the fact that as soon as I started visually reading older-white-man-and-younger-Southeast-Asian-woman pairs as sex-tourist-and-sex-worker, it largely shut down my capacity to read it as any other kinds of relationship. A visiting professor and his local research assistant? A white man and an Asian woman visiting from abroad? A white grandfather traveling with his multiracial or adopted granddaughter? I was stunned by how quickly I learned to build and act on a new stereotype (however true).

Oh, and yes, Cambodia's lovely. We enjoyed seeing innovative use of public space in Phnom Penh, mind-blowingly cool architecture in Angkor, and lovely beaches in Kep and Sihanoukville. The people are very nice -- do consider visiting if you're in Southeast Asia.

(Further reading: The Asia and the Pacific Network of Sex Workers' blog deals with labor and human rights issues in Cambodia and the region; I discovered the group via a post on Global Voices Online. And ECPAT Cambodia, which works to end child prostitution and trafficking; we saw tuk-tuks running their ads all over Phnom Penh.)

-- Anirvan

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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