I love Christmas: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, tiny tots with their eyes all aglow, yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks dressed up like Eskimos. It’s a magical time of the year when we gather together with friends from years past and share in good food and good fellowship. Unfortunately, I knew I wasn’t getting much of that while living in Korea. So I decided to take a hint from the Dead Kennedys and spend my holiday in Cambodia.
The trip was a very emotional experience for me. I was both thrilled to be in a new place (and a hot place) and depressed to be alone. However, as always on vacations, I was able to quickly make some friends. Expats always amaze me in that regard. You are never truly alone. Everywhere you go, people latch onto each other and friendships are born. In they’re own way, those friendships are mini-miracles.
Hostels can either be really cool or really crappy. The Mad Monkey hostel in Siem Reap is the former – and like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The managers and staff went out of their way to bring all the guests together and make everyone feel comfortable. They created an environment that felt like home. Everyone who chose to participate enjoyed a legitimate Christmas complete with Eve and Day celebrations (turkey dinner with stuffing and malted wine with plum pudding!). But what amazed me even more than what expats do for each other is what they do for the local community.
You may not know much about Cambodia however, if you’re at all familiar with Southeast Asia, then you’ve got a pretty good idea. It’s one of the poorer regions of the world; most definitely third-world. During one of the many celebrations that took place in the hostel during my brief stay, the song, “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” played and I found myself tuning out of the conversation and paying close attention to the lyrics.
“There’s a world outside your window,
And it’s a world of dreaded fear.
Where the only water flowing,
Is the bitter sting of tears.”
In November 1984, Bob Geldof put together a coterie of British and Irish musicians called Band-Aid who recorded a benefit single to help the famine that was taking place in Ethiopia. The result was a song featuring over two dozen top rock artists from George Michael to Bono. You have undoubtedly heard this song before. And until this year, it didn’t really carry much meaning for me – no more than the rest of you. But that changed after spending this Christmas in a third-world country swimming in poverty.
Hostels aren’t typically segregated from the local community in the way five-star resorts are. In fact, more often than not, they’re plopped right smack dab in the middle of the cheapest real estate in town. Siem Reap is a very touristy small town but you don’t have to travel far to catch a glimpse of the real Cambodia… it’s closer than crossing the street. A few of the other visitors delivered donated food to an orphanage per day while they were there (I even chipped in myself).
Cambodians don’t celebrate Christmas and as such, I saw no lights strung around windows nor plastic Santas with 8 tiny reindeer. Except for the decorations the expats hung in the hostel, there was no way to differentiate the week of the winter solstice from any other during the year. Most Cambodians are generally more concerned with finding their next meal. And worse than the hunger is what some people do about it – they sell their children.
Exploited children pour into the streets of both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh attempting to cull a few dollars from any generous (and naive) tourists. While the younger ones only have to dance or sell flowers, the older ones (girls and boys, sometimes as young as 13) offer ‘full body massages’. I shouldn’t have to spell that out for you. In a country of over 17 million people, there are over 600,000 orphaned or abandoned children. Secondary school enrollment hovers around 30% (a huge drop as primary school is in around 86%).
Of course, the smiling little faces of dancing kids are cute. But 9 times out of 10, those tips they make don’t stay in their pockets for very long. The best case scenario is that their parents keep the money. That being said, it’s rare to find parents holding the other end of the leash. Just like their teenage massaging counterparts, these defenseless youngsters are working for local pimps. The Lonely Planet guide mentions some of this but doesn’t explain the dangers tourists pose to these children just by tossing a dollar or two into their baskets. Every single penny increases the horrific tradition of child exploitation.
On Christmas night I observed one visitor in particular: a white man (not sure of his nationality) in his 60s and probably pushing 300 lbs, walk right up to a girl, politely smile and strike up a conversation. Within minutes, this 14 or 15 year old girl was on his arm climbing into a tuk-tuk. The driver, most likely affiliated with her pimp, shuttled the new couple off to his hotel room. And this was on Christmas day.
On Christmas Day!
The only old fat man I want to see on Christmas wears a red suit that shakes his belly when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly. I wouldn’t want to see what this other guy was shaking. And it’s pretty safe to assume, that wasn’t on the girl’s Christmas list either.
That girl and the thousands of others who come from poor villages in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand have most likely never received a Christmas present. They have never been taught about gift giving or more importantly the reason for the season. They don’t have families to spend time with. Hell, they don’t even have families they can trust to protect them as these girls (and boys) are sold into sexual servitude by their very own parents! No biggie right, one less mouth to fill…
As far as the sex trade, there are over 15,000 girls between the ages of 15-18 working the streets of Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital city), most of whom are brought in from neighbor Vietnam (sometimes China) and put under strict contracts up to a year. The girls sleep in crowded rooms and are slapped around by their handlers – mistreated in every way and typically underfed. The club owners and pimps pay the international traffickers between $450-$700 for each attractive girl 16 years or younger (17 and up only fetch between $200-$250). This is the debt the girls work off, and pocket less than $5 per customer themselves.
The bottom line is that sex tourism in and around Southeast Asia is a huge problem that feeds the beast of underage sex trafficking. The only way to get through to the pimps is to undercut their profit margins. That means, men have to stop paying for sex altogether. Only when the pimps believe they can’t make money any more will these horrible tragedies slow and hopefully eventually fade away. And that’s a new years resolution we can all get behind.
So as you sit in the comforts of your home, with your loved ones gathered around you this season, please don’t take a single second of it for granted. You don’t have to go all the way to Southeast Asia to find teenage girls trapped in the sex trade.
Until Next Time…