Sex Work and Branded Clothing

After sitting at a sidewalk café having a bite and a few Mojito’s on Sisawath Quay on Phom Penh’s busy riverside, watching Tuk Tuk drivers, Moto taxi’s and sex workers ply their trades to the many European and Australian tourists, I decided on a walk on the riverside over the large expanse of newly made pavement. There, many couples sat on small concrete benches; some boys were playing soccer, and many older men both locals and foreigners staggered from place to place, obviously dizzy or drunk. The occasional Lady Boy swerved past making loud attention seeking gestures with all his/her body parts. It was past midnight and a wonderfully soft breeze came over and enveloped all with its soft embrace. It would’ve been a romantic night if I weren’t alone.

Out the black of nothing she appeared. She casually walked over toward me and easily gave me a smile and a glance, her eyes twinkled and she wanted to know where I was going. I told her I was just sitting for a while. Without asking my permission she sat. This seemed natural to her and she didn’t seem drunk or high so I let her stay. She only stared at the distant street. From where we sat we could see the very busy 136th street bars, surrounded by lazed drivers on Tuk Tuk’s and many people hanging out in the streets.

I didn’t quite understand her name as she told me. It sounded like Srey Touch. I asked her suddenly, after feeling a bit uncomfortable, “What do you want from me?” She gave me a confused look and said nothing for a minute then said, “I don’t live Phnom Penh. My village near Viet Nam.” I asked her why she came to Phnom Penh and she told me she was here to make some money making up women’s faces. I joked with her and told her I don’t wear make up and I’m not a Lady Boy so, I don’t have work for you. She smiled and in a few minutes we began dissecting her life.

Life with her family was simple, even for villagers, but the father worked hard at any kind of labor and the family remained in the village, respectable, and survived as millions of families do in the rural Mekong region of South East Asia; on just enough to not suffer or starve, but not enough to survive a disaster. Their easy life ended when the father died. With no one to support them, her older sister moved into a brothel on the border of Cambodia and Viet Nam and began supporting her mother and younger sister. Business was good and in a few years she saved up almost $500.

When Srey turned seventeen she wanted to help support her mother and younger sister by working in the brothel with her older sister. Srey’s mother agreed but her older sister rejected her desire to help by working in a brothel. She and Srey’s mother gave Srey over $700 to attend a small cosmetic school in Phnom Penh. They borrowed most of the money, but they felt the sacrifice was worth the risk that Srey would become a cosmetologist and find a good paying job in the city. This would bring respect and new wealth to the family. It would be a source of income that could last a lifetime. If lucky, Srey could open her own business. This was their dream.

Srey arrived in Phnom Penh, lived upstairs from the school where she spent a month learning how to make faces and help the working girls of Phnom Penh’s bars, and disco’s. It was there that she learned about surviving in the sex trade.

After her one-month was finished she received her certificate and went about contacting her family to tell them. She had no mobile phone. She had little money left as the owner of the school also fed her, housed her, and gave her some clothing; she realized that she was then indebted to the cosmetology school’s owner. Her mother and sister were proud of her and were happy that their hopes and dreams for the family were coming true. Srey, worried, went about searching for work but found none. Finally, realizing that her school debt and her family’s expectation that she begin sending money home was a mounting weight on her day by day, Srey turned to the only source of income available to her. Otherwise, she would be shamed to go home without any money or success, and the family would still have the debt to the cosmetology school owner in addition to the loan they took out in their village to send her to school.

Her first customer was European. Srey met him not far from where I met her. Unable to live with herself for selling herself and her virginity to that man, Srey decided to try harder to find respectable work. Not knowing if she was pregnant, she found a recruiter for a garment factory in a town not far from her own. Her new job would be working in the garment factory, seven days a week with one day of holiday every month. Sometimes her workdays were only 11 hours but most of them were more, up to fifteen hours a day. For her work over two years in garment factory Srey was making about $27 a month. In rural Cambodia near the Viet Nam border this was not enough money to support her family but combined with her older sister’s contribution, it was the most the family had since her father died.

Srey said she was in Phom Penh for the Khmer New Year holiday. She said she had four days before she returned to her factory job. Of course, she never mentioned to me that she was seeking a different kind of employment that night. She was staying in a friend’s guesthouse on the outside of Phnom Penh. I didn’t care to ask her about her prospects for making extra money on the Riverside. It didn’t matter, but no doubt whatever she made would be more than she made at the garment factory in several months, maybe even more than half a year’s income. She mentioned her son’s age was four years old.

Before I said goodbye to her she told me, “Give me some money.” It wasn’t a demand. It was a statement. She said, “How much is your hotel room?” It was $35 dollars. She told me, “You spend more to sleep in one night than I make in one month.” I reached into my shirt pocket and gave her the cash it held, about $7 dollars in Cambodian Real. When I got back to my hotel I went to the all-night bar and ordered a Bombay Sapphire and lime Juice. It was $3. More than Srey made in one day at her job in the garment factory. I ordered another but it wasn’t tempting to me and I left it on the bar. I wasted more money in one minute than Srey makes in one month. I wondered what brand of clothing she was making. Then thought, it didn’t matter. I went up to my room and slept.

Ko Tha Dja is an educator and writer who lived in Burma for five years. His collection of stories about his time in Burma is forthcoming. Now residing in Vientiane, Lao PDR, he can be reached via his personal blog at Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.