According to my friend, George, the American proverb that “even blind pigs can find an occasional acorn” is understated in Cambodia. “The ‘Kingdom Of Wonder’ – as Cambodia is advertised by the tourism board – is a haven for sex-pats. Easy immigration policies let foreigners stay for extended periods. A phrase repeated around the capital is ‘The older and uglier you are, the easier it is to get a woman in Cambodia’ The women seem to understand their ‘target market’. Sometimes the stark difference of an older, overweight, patchy grey haired man and a lovely young woman out walking together is startling.”
Hey, I’m with the dolly birds on this one. What are the real choices? Well, there is substance farming in the provinces. But spending hours in muddy water in a rice paddy with the occasional break to pick the leeches off my legs doesn’t appeal.
Neither does working as a servant – who may have to put out for the master of the house – from pre-dawn to post-dusk for less than the new minimum wage of $75 a month. And the mere thought of spending six days a week hunched over a sewing machine for $100 a month makes me cross-eyed and causes my back to hurt.
Yes, there is work as a waitress, if you can find it. Slinging hash may come with a shared room to sleep in and food to eat; at least you won’t go to bed hungry, as you might in the other situations. The so-called “choices” for barely literate girls from the provinces aren’t pretty.
All of a sudden the blind pigs start to look very attractive. Handsome and desirable even.
No Money, No Honey
Does it get much simpler? If you don’t have the cash to pay-as-you-play the women aren’t interested. The sex industry is, after all, a fee for service business. Just as you can’t dine out at Quitapenas or Tropez for $2.50, neither will you be able to attract the beautiful, young Khmer acorns. Up that to $2,500 a month, however, and you will have to duck and dive to evade the hordes of wanna-be girlfriends.
But will you still love me tomorrow?
How about the sex-pats who hook up with Khmer women hoping to live happily ever after? Under this rubric we have the good, the indifferent and the pathetic.
Let’s start with the good. Bopha and Conrad live across the hall from me in an expat enclave. As an aside, he is neither fat nor ugly, so that is a bonus. She was from the provinces, had a four-year old son from a forced marriage and escaped to the city. In Phnom Penh, she met Conrad when he was visiting from Australia. From what I can see and hear they have an amicable relationship.
Conrad pays the bills; Bopha runs the house. He walks her son to an English school, where he also covers the fees she could never afford. They stroll off together to get groceries. When Conrad returned to Australia for a few months he asked me to keep an eye on the family. No problem, mate. That translates as helping Bopha make Skype calls when she can’t figure it out.
Part of the request is helping Yif with his English homework. Every week day he lurks and waits until I get home and then bounces over with his assignment. What? I detest children, but this one has woven his way into my heart, as he did with Conrad.
The good news? Bopha is pregnant with their baby and s/he had a future with options that only money and security can buy. Conrad will make sure the child doesn’t end up scavenging through the garbage, as is the fate of many children in Cambodia.
Brent retired and looked for companionship after his marriage of 42 years ended. “In Cambodia the highs are higher, the lows are lower. I soon realized that you aren’t going to get love from the taxi girls, just sex. And sometimes it isn’t all that good anyway. So I started to look for someone who ticked all the boxes: spoke English, no kids, didn’t gamble. I met Makara and it seems to work for the most part.”
He takes a sip of his beer and continues, “I have to confess to trying to improve her situation. I’ve given her things, but they always ended up with someone else in the family. And there is no point in putting money in her account as it just gets spent on helping some down-and-out third cousin.”
Men like Brent don’t understand that in the Khmer culture social status comes from what you can give away, rather than what you have. Shades of the isolated Indian reserves I used to live on in northern Canada where a winter’s worth of furs could be lost in a poker game. Half a world apart, perhaps, but the same-same cultural values.
Still, having some eyelash batting eye-candy does make ageing easier. Men in this group may not be over-the-moon happy, but, they rationalize, at least they aren’t alone. In fact, as well as the woman they are involved with, they also inherit her extended family – and sometimes half the entire village.
“I don’t know who these people are who keep showing up to visit.” confesses Brent, “but they seem to keep coming and going. Sometimes even Makara has a hard time explaining them.”
“When I went through her handbag I found condoms so I knew she was working again, even though she denied it. She tried to say she used them as a shower-cap.” whined Paul, a sex-pat from the Netherlands. “Then I checked her phone and men answered the calls.” Thus is the fate of a sex-pat who becomes emotionally dependent on a bar girl and deludes himself into thinking that she really cares for him. “I love to put her photo on Facebook because I know my friends in Amsterdam are jealous that I have such a beautiful woman.” As well as being blind, this pig is also deaf and mute when it comes to the realities of his situation.
“The problem with sex-pats of this type is that they over-dose on the lifestyle,” claims George. “Basically they are rundown schmucks without any potential. In their own country they wouldn’t get any attention from the women. In Cambodia, they are 60-something and rubbing elbows with nubile smiling hostesses in the bars. You name it and you can get it here. Drugs, the cheapest alcohol on the planet and as many beautiful woman as you want.”
Some guys can’t cope and end up flaming out from misadventures connected to booze and/or drugs. The mortality rate for that group is high. Bodies turn up regularly from drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, or motorcycle accidents.
When money is the only limiting factor to having ‘fun’ and you have lots of coins jingling in your jeans, some westerners go on life-ending benders. The average rate of death in Sihanoukville is probably one berang (foreigner) every couple of days during the high season.”
The Final Verdict
In Cambodia, there is a cultural tolerance of older men with younger women. Locals aren’t nearly as hung up about the age factor as some of the politically correct in the western world. Further, it is a consensual agreement between adults, so who is to judge? Another bonus is that some of the money filters back to the provinces and helps the families.
Some of the Khmer women marry their blind pigs and have children. So what if the men are older? Rupert Murdock is a role model as he became a father again at 70 and 72.
Perhaps money can’t buy the blind pigs love, but it will make their later years more enjoyable. And what are their stories? Ultimately, they may be needy, lonely wanting attention or seeking love. Even if the affection comes with a price tag, it is better than being alone if you don’t want to be. And what is wrong with living out the fantasy of having a beautiful young woman?
The next time you see the young women along Sisiwath Quay, remember Jackie and Wendi played in the same role. Move over Aristotle and Rupert, you’ve got company.
Amnesty International: Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights
Open Society Foundation: Ten Reasons to Decriminalize Sex Work