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A Tourist Town

by Going Slowly


One of the disappointing things about Sihanoukville is how touristy it is. The place is jam-packed with young, partying backpackers. On the other hand, one of the great things about Sihanoukville is how tourist-friendly it is. The two go hand in hand, I suppose, lending a charming, yet loathsome quality to this beach resort, or at least our small corner of it.

For instance, along every street, there are foods from all over the world on offer, from pelmeni to doner kebabs to pumpkin spice pancakes. It was the pancakes that sealed the deal for me, especially considering that it's autumn at home right now, and I'm feeling a little homesick. We've also had some really really good burgers, with honest-to-god cheddar cheese. I don't remember the last time I've had cheddar cheese.

Besides food, there are other benefits to being in a touristy place. There was a time when we would spend hours, and even days running around cities trying to get visas sorted. We were about to do the same today – find the Vietnamese embassy on the map, drag our bikes out, cycle all around the hilly town, likely get lost, likely wait in in a long, hot line, and then have to wait a few days to see if we received our visas.

We were going to, until while walking back to our hotel from the beach, we passed one of the many travel agents around town. Though we have a tendency to dismiss anything that also provides tour buses, guided city tours, or our favorite, a countryside bicycle ride for only fifteen dollars a person, Tyler went in to see if they could help.

Sure enough, for the paltry commission fee of three dollars, these people run around and do all the waiting in line and provide same day service. Amazing! It sort of feels like cheating, but spending our day relaxing by the beach and working on our projects instead of running around town has made it pretty easy to get over.


So, the tourist thing has its advantages. But here in Cambodia (and surely many other countries in the world), there is a darker side to tourism that extends deeper than our crotchety annoyance at the dude-bro partying backpacker scene. This morning, at the breakfast table, we get our first up-close-and-personal glimpse into the seedy world of sex-tourism.

First, a creepy guy hits on our server, proffering a very thinly veiled request for sex (to her obvious discomfort), and then, moments later, he makes a scene about the "outrageously" high $1.50 asking price for an iced coffee. It is a surreal exchange.

Our attention is soon distracted by another table, where two skeezy guys are downing beers at 9AM whilst talking loudly enough for us to hear them clearly about their sexual exploits, referring to women they've slept with as meat. It is difficult to endure silently.

As if the morning couldn't get more disgusting, a greasy, middle aged white guy arrives with three little Cambodian girls in tow. They all look to be under the age of seven, and he can't seem to communicate with them. We try to quell our outrage, reasoning that maybe he is running an orphanage… or possibly he's married to a Cambodian woman, and these are his kids?

The more we think about it, the darker our thoughts become, as we remember the warnings we saw in our hotel about not allowing prostitutes and Cambodian children under the age of 18 into the room. Before we can say anything, the guy gathers them up and they drive off in a tuk-tuk.

We're both feeling positively odious about the world, when a tour bus passes by, proudly displaying a naked woman and the words "Hunting Season!" on the front. It is though some veil has been lifted, like when you learn a new word and promptly start seeing it everywhere. Now, we can't stop noticing the slimy-looking western men around town with ridiculously young-looking Cambodian women.

Get me off this planet.


When we get back to our hotel, I'm disgusted and overwhelmed, depressed and curious. I spend several hours reading about sex tourism online, specifically in Cambodia. Though I know it happens the world over, even at home, I've never encountered it before. The whole idea of it makes me seethe.

The combination of low value placed on girls, and the stigma associated with victims of the sex trade in Southeast Asian culture, along with a booming sex tourism industry, has helped perpetuate the cycle of trafficking and slavery in the region.

Somaly Mam Foundation

In spite of the depressing vibe we're starting to get here, there is hope. Thanks to Frank Harper, a friendly reader and fellow cyclist, we learned about the inspiring story of Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who escaped this exploitive trade, and has now devoted her life to helping other women and children (as young as three years old) do the same.

While we are heartened to know of Somaly Mam's story, it is a sobering pill to swallow that we live in a world where watch-dog groups like need to exist.

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I've often thought that bike touring shows us the very best and the very worst of the world. When we returned home, we found these things hard to forget, and it made our problems of daily life seem very trivial in comparison.
Posted by Friedel on January 12th, 2011 at 12:59 PM
I forgot to add that while we were there, we also met a European man who had married a Cambodian woman and who had been accused of being a sex tourist many times by tourists when he was with his daughter so (sometimes) all is not what it seems.
Posted by Friedel on January 12th, 2011 at 2:52 PM
Hi Tara and Tyler,
Thanks for the blog - I'm enjoying following along in your adventure.
This posting reminded me of a law in Canada (a pretty recent one), where if a Canadian is caught engaging in child prostitution anywhere in the world they can be charge in Canada. It is exactly the situation in Thailand, Cambodia - throughout Southeast Asia - that has instigated the need for such a law. If only more countries would make it illegal for their citizens to exploit children, there might be some hope for eliminating it.
I'm not against older men marrying younger women - that is a choice the women make - but having sex with children is definitely over the line!
Safe riding.
Cheers, Becky
Posted by Becky on January 12th, 2011 at 11:10 PM
I am 36 years old, married with two children and have lived in Cambodia for 6 years . Two weeks ago I was sitting at a riverside restaurant with my son (4) and daughter (7) when two western women walked past and mouthed the words 'disgusting'. My crime? I am western and my two children are half khmer. Luckily my Khmer wife wasn't there or it would have broken her heart.
Posted by Jon on September 5th, 2011 at 8:26 AM