I had long known that my cousin worked with the street kids, the poor, and especially the little girls that had been sold into sex slavery. There had been times when he mentioned the horrors that haunted him from what he had witnessed in the world that he was involved in. I knew he did not make it up, but I knew I could not understand or relate to things that he told. This time when we got to Cambodia, he said " I'll show you, brother", and he kept repeating that along the way.
The newbee's innocence
Together with one of cousin Thông's nephew (2 years older than him), we arrived at Phnom Penh around 2pm. He decided to stay there overnight at the capital, giving us the chance to visit the royal palace and some other sites.
That afternoon, after riding the remork and touring the capital city, he took us to the river bank to introduced us to some of places to visit. Then we picked up some fried crickets, a delicacy of the area, which we enjoyed right on a rock there. We felt like we blended in with the locals.
After going back to the hotel for a shower, my cousin took us out for an introduction to the colorful night world. All Cambodians were gone by 9pm and there were only Westerners on the street. I was surprised to see so many tourists at night because there is not much to see in Phnom Penh, only the royal palace, and of course the killing field, that we had seen during the day. As we passed by a street full of bars, cousin Thông told me:
-" Take notice, all the visitors here are older Western men who are alone. According to statistics, 3/5 of all Westerners come here for sex. Those sick old men are here mainly to have sex with little girls"
I was startled by that horrible fact. I had been enjoying my first experience abroad and had not realized that when I had passed by lots of bars and seen lots of Westerners there , they were all men, most of them looked even older than my father .Even in the bars and night clubs, I rarely saw a foreign couple together; they were mostly older men, and most had already acquired a Cambodian or Vietnamese girl. My heart sunk, it was not difficult to recognize fellow Vietnamese, "descendents of goddess and dragon" we are, as the legends told.
Practicing for the beast's lair
I was trying to keep a stone face (actually more out of nervousness from being surrounded for the first time by so many girls full of colorful make-ups in the bar), but still could not avoid a few "invitations". There really is nothing easier than getting a girl in Campuchia. My cousin said that, because it is against the law, pedophiles usually go through prostitutes or pimps to get the children.
Across from me, a few older Westerners were making out with the girls. I suddenly felt a hatred for all the older Western tourists visiting Campuchia. I know that I was generalizing but for the rest of my stay in Campuchia, I just could not stand the older Western man. Each time I saw one with a girl, I just wanted to yank his beard and slapped him up. The night scenes in Pom Penh made me feel very drained.
The road to Siem Reap
After a night in Phnom Penh, we took off for Siem Reap. During the 6 hours road trip I could see that Cambodian people are very poor. The land is probably not very fertile because I saw a lot of unutilized land. Homes were sparse and most were only straw huts. A few palm trees scattered in the burning sun. Children were dark and skinny. I don't know the statistics but the area looked even much poorer than most of the Vietnamese countryside.
There were a lot of signs on the road advertising tourism in Cambodia. My cousin pointed to a sign that said "Protect the Children" and told me to take a picture. He said: "What do you think when you read that sign? There must have been something going on that a sign like that had to be posted, right?". I'm just going to post the picture here for you to peruse
At Siem Reap, my cousin chose a rather upscale hotel where he had stayed before to use for his upcoming work, which he said I would get to participate and hold a important role in, though I had already prepared to crash at somebody's house. We did get to visit a charity school run by a teacher couple, Mr. Sang and his wife, that cousin Thông's friend had supported, and the next morning, I was able to spend half a day at Angkor. We also got to visit the floating Vietnamese village at Tonle Sap. I forgot to mention, my cousin did not go with us to Angkor Wat, saying he had a "personal errand" to run. He told us to go on our own and he would meet us later that day. Later on, I asked him several times what he was doing that morning but he only smiled and said "I'll write about it". So you and I will have to wait until later, hopefully he won't make us wait forever.
Treading the beast's lair
That evening, my cousin took us to scout the area. He has the ability to observe where he needs to go, and how to get there. Back in Viet nam he did not know the way at all, but somehow he seemed to know Siem Reap very well. He said: "When facing death, one gets a lot smarter."
I finally found out that this time going to Siem Reap, he wanted to check out the brothels that were run by Vietnamese owners. We went to a restaurant named after a beautiful type of flower but the restaurant was closed because it was too late (I later found out it was possibly because they were busy "entertaining" guests. He then took us to a club, which turned out to be a "teen club". Just as it was called, everybody there seemed to be in their teens; the oldest looking ones appeared to be about maybe 20 years old. I did not know what to think when I looked at the kids. I had a lot of mixed feelings, mostly feeling dispirited.
The loudness in the night club eventually chased us out of there. The restaurant right in front of that club was beautiful, spacious and very nicely decorated. However, the first thing that we were offered was not the menu, but a woman who came to ask (in English, of course) if we wanted a few pretty girls to keep our company, and at the same time advertised services such as transport back to the hotel... Only after my cousin turned her down that the restaurant owner appeared with the menu. Oh Campuchia, is there any place that one can sinmore easily?
Playing the role
I woke up the morning of January 30, feeling tired and with a headache ( I only remember the date because it was my birthday, I spent a long time wanting to forget everything that happened on that day). Maybe I had spent too much time in the sun. And maybe it was because I had slept under the fan without my shirt, since my throat also hurt. My cousin simply gave me two pills and started laying out his "plan of attack".
I had no faith in his plan when he said I was going to pretend to be his tour guide. I knew nothing about that job, I protested. But then I remembered the day before when the restaurant owner had mistaken me for a Cambodian, probably because of my undistinguished look and my dark skin. I would not be able to play the rich tourist as he did. Not that my English was good enough to play a Vietnamese expatriate or a tourist from another country, but.... what the heck. So I played the guide hired by a rich tourist - my cousin- who was supposedly a Vietnamese expatriate who wanted to visit Cambodia. He supposedly did not speak any Vietnamese, so we spoke English not only when we were "in character", but anytime we went out anywhere, so that we would not get caught.
We returned to the restaurant that was closed the day before, we wanted to find out whether they sold.."old or young coffee". How do they work? What are the escape routes? Later on, I found out my cousin also wanted to see if I was able to stay in character before we really started that evening.
He sent me in to "scout" the restaurant. A middle aged woman cheerfully greeted me. I said a few simple lines in English first to make sure she did not understand English before switching to Vietnamese.
-You devil you! She laughed loudly. Why didn't you tell me before? This air about speaking English and all!
I went out and called my cousin in.
The painful truth
We sat down, ordered 2 iced coffees with milk, and began observing. There were 2 young girls in the place beside the woman, both were Vietnamese. There was also a young teenage girl whom I guessed must be less than 15 year old ; she dressed more fashionably and looked different from the other 2 girls. I remember she looked like a younger version of a friend of mine. I put on a smile of a crook and started enquiring directly with the "mammy":
-I am taking this tourist man around. - I went on telling her that he went to the USA since he was little and didn't remember any Vietnamese.
-Oh really? The woman smiled engagingly.
-What else is offered here beside coffee?
-Massage is 5 dollars per hour.
-How close is the massage? I chuckled.
- As close as you want. Here we cater to the guests....all the way.
My cousin instructed me in English to ask for the price and the detail for each service, from the "massage" to "all the way"...I nodded and turned to her, pretending to translate. I thought I played pretty well the role of a repulsive tour guide. While outwardly smiling and translating, I cursed myself inside: "How can you discuss such disgustingthings so well?"
"Mammy" told me the price for the girls would vary around 10 dollars. Under his direction, I asked the girls' age. I also dropped hints that the tourist whom I was working for was very rich, and he liked young ones, the younger the better. She chuckled:
-The oldest ones here are in there twenties, and the young ones...- she looked at me-of course we don't want to break the law. Some of them may look very young but they are at least 16. You know, there are rules.
-They are all Vietnamese? I asked again as he instructed.
-How do you know? She asked me searchingly.
I froze for one split second, wondering if I had made any mistake, but I recovered quickly:
-Because everybody here speaks Vietnamese, and who doesn't know this is the Vietnamese area.
Though she probably only asked without any second thought, I still laughed and tried to act as natural as possible.
My cousin told me to ask if he could see the rooms here. He wanted to investigate in case he could not take the girls back to the hotel to get information from them. Also, "escape route", he said ," is the first thing I want to find out in these places"
The woman agreed to show him the rooms, he quickly followed her while I was still trying to take off my shoes. Just then the little girl yelled in:
-Mom, I think somebody was looking for grandma. They went in there, maybe they got lost.
-Not grandma; they must have been with a girl.
I looked at her in shock, I had thought she was one of the younger worker girls in this brothel. I angrily glanced at the woman she just called "mom". How was it possible for her to discuss buying and selling bodies in front of her own daughter? However, there is still a bit of humanness to her, I consoled myself, because she was listing the other girls but did not count her daughter among them. If she did, I would probably lose my sanity. I was also hoping that maybe all the girls here called her mom even if they were not her own.
Hope collapsed- selling her own child
After showing my cousin a few rooms, she asked him to go back out, the girls already scattered. These were hostess or waitresses, the little ones were home and were only brought there when there was a request. She seemed more friendly with me after I chatted with her and enthusiastically helped her when she fumbled with her big key chain. On top of that, the knowledge that the guest was a very wealthy man made her clearly happy, she kept on talking excitedly.
Now she started advertising a young girl that was only "initiated" once, and asked me to translate for my cousin to see if he would want the girl. He said to tell her to bring them all that night, I would pick the ones he liked. And then, something unexpected happened.
Unable to control my curiosity, I pointed to the little girl who had called her "mom" and asked: "Your daughter?" She smiled affirmatively. Still excited about having the rich guest, she pointed at her daughter ,bragging: " She already had someone put down 3000 dollars for the "initiation", only waiting for her to reach the age (getting her first period). She laughed proudly. I had to put on the reaction of a guide getting girl for his customer, laughing with her, but horror and anger filled up inside me. She had negotiated the sale of her own daughter's virginity and yet appeared very proud of it. I looked over at the girl; who was standing near the door, her hands in the pockets of her hipster jeans, she certainly heard everything her mother was saying but she did not show any reaction. It seemed that she even expected it, as if that was going to be another very normal occurrence in her life.
We sat back down to drink coffee and continued to observe.
“Mammy” continued to rattle on about the how young the girls were, “little, just as you like them. You guys would not want the ones who are too old”. The smile on my face was frozen in place but anger boiled up inside me each time I looked at the little girl. Every time I looked at the woman, or heard her laughter and her voice as she was advertising, I would also hear in my head: “She ‘s selling her own daughter! She’s selling her own daughter!”. I suddenly had an urge to jump up, grab her neck in my arms and twist hard. The thought only flared up for a split second, because I still remembered I was playing the role of a middle man looking for girls for my customer. However, I could not suppress the feeling I had; it was the first time I really wanted to kill someone. I murmured: ”Lord, please forgive my sins , please show me tasks that I should carry out, and as I do…”, hoping the prayer will help me remain calm.
I pulled out a big bill to pay for the 2 coffees but when the girl was pulling out money to make change, I told her to keep it. It was not because I was generous, but rather because I could not wait to get out of there, not wanting to look at her anymore. She ran to show her mother:
- “Look mom, he gave me the change.”
-“You can keep it to buy mangoes to eat later”, the “mammy” smiled as she answered.
They were just like any normal mother and daughter in a restaurant owner family. I was furious and and wanted to scream: “Why?” “Why?”
Fr. Thong and NHN
March 4, 2009
Translated by K.N. The original version in Vietnamese entitled "Lại... Một Chuyến Đi - Chuyện Thứ 4: Không Thể Tin Được! (Phần I)"