Thursday, September 11, 2014


For popular western music, there are few live bands in Cambodia (photo: Wikipedia)
One hopping Saturday night in downtown Phnom Penh, I went to Touk Bar, a reputable upstairs venue with a view of the Tonle Sap River. For once they had live music; a four piece band playing cover tunes. Years back I was a drummer myself, and listening to this ensemble, I'm amused. The band's drummer was really screwing it up. He was so out of touch with the other musicians, he didn't know when to stop playing as each song ended. Obviously he’d never played with this band before.

I asked the Canadian bar manager what was going on. Her answer: “Their regular drummer is in hiding. The police are looking for him on a charge of human trafficking.”

It's not surprising that the state of live music performance in Southeast Asia, is far less developed than in western countries. An odd phenomenon of live music in the region, is that although western music is very popular, few local bands can play western music well. Where there is live music in the capital cities, the best bands are from the Philippines. With more English speakers and freedom to perform, Filipino bands have filled the gap.

A popular downtown place for expats is Huxley’s a straight-laced English Pub. Unlike many of their neighboring bars, Huxley’s doesn’t allow prostitutes inside. Again, I went in on a rare night with a live band. Their name: ‘Stiff Little Punks’. I’d seen flyers advertising this gig, they promoted themselves as “The Worst Punk band in Cambodia”. It's more accurate to call them the only punk band in Cambodia.  

Playing in a tight upstairs space, I saw they were also the smallest band in Cambodia, with only two members. They included a lead singer, and a guitarist who sang background, and added digital music through foot pedals. Of course these weren’t full time musicians. I knew the lead singer, and his main job is teaching English. After hearing them play, I had to agree. They were the worst punk band in Cambodia.

As far as Phnom Penh's night life went, this is a tame place. Another night I happened to walk past Huxley’s, when I saw a big crowd across the street in front of Iris Bar. This was a ‘hostess bar’; a euphemism for a girlie bar. Prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, but police still allow it. There were many policemen present, an unusual sight. Their presence drew an even larger crowd of Khmer onlookers.

Across Southeast Asia, visiting bands from the Philippines play the best rock and roll.
The police were in the process of shutting down the Iris Bar. Before I arrived, they had arrested the Korean owner, and all the Khmer women who worked there. Everyone was hauled away in a police truck. The police then loaded all the bar's furniture into another truck, and hauled that away too. When the bar was emptied of its contents, the police locked up the front doors for good. I asked around as to why this bar was raided. It turns out that the Korean owner was unpopular in the neighborhood. He had forced his hostess women to work as prostitutes.

Fortunately not all bars and discos are of ill repute. But unfortunately for the women that work them, there is a stigma. Since Cambodia is still traditional and conservative, a ‘good woman’ would never work in a bar. Of course not all bar hostesses work as prostitutes, but given the low hostess salaries, it's not surprising that many turn to prostitution to increase their income. Such work also exposes innocent women to exploitation, as in the case with this Korean owner.

Predictably, Khmer values also look down on other things culturally accepted by western women. “In Cambodia, ladies who smoke are prostitutes,” a local woman once told me.

“Only prostitutes have tattoos,” was another prejudiced comment I heard. With the growing influence of western culture in Cambodia, such untraditional behaviors and fashions are becoming more common for women in Phnom Penh.

A week later, I walked this street again. Across from the closed Iris Bar, the police raided another nightspot; ‘Cheerleaders Bar’. I'd never been inside here either, but the police tactics were the same. The Khmer ‘hostesses’ were all packed onto the back of a waiting police truck. The furniture was carted away, and the English owner arrested; jailed just like the Korean owner had been. They weren't alone; the police had raided five city girlie bars in the past two weeks.  One was owned by a Singaporean; he had been trafficking women in from the Philippines for forced prostitution. Additional bars were raided and shut down in the city of Siem Reap. All were owned by expatriates. This must have been a campaign to reduce the girlie bars, or so I thought.

I was only partly right. An American owner of a legal bar filled me in on what was really happening. The police had shown up at some of the expat owned bars known to have Khmer women dancing. Some had pole dancing. None had strippers, though most had hookers. It seems that the police didn’t want Phnom Penh to turn into the next Bangkok. So they told the owners: remove those dancing poles, give the police $6,000, and they could stay open. If they didn’t comply with both of those directives, they were shut down.

The police also shut down a couple of Khmer owned bars, but not many. The American owner said that there just wasn’t enough money in them for the police to bother. For the expat owned bars, he had this explanation for me. “Cambodians don’t like anyone pimping their women, except Cambodians.”

Another American I knew in town, who spent too much time with prostitutes, was upset at all of these arrests and closures. He complained, “This is the US embassy’s fault! It’s all because they gave Cambodia a poor rating on the human trafficking list.

The American had his anger and blame pointed in the wrong direction. Besides closing a few bars, Cambodia still has major problems with human trafficking, even worse than human trafficking in Vietnam. Many thousands of Cambodians, mainly women and children, are still victims of human trafficking every year. In addition to prostitution, many are forced to work in sweatshops as slave labor. The Cambodian government does little to stop the human trafficking scourge.

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