The other day I came across an email from my friend Karen. She’d sent it to me a few days before I left Melbourne for Southeast Asia, and in it, she issued a stern warning: Do not, under any circumstances, set foot in Cambodia. You can only enjoy it from the comfort of five-star accomodation, and the men are “sexual predators.”
It was interesting to read her take on the place in hindsight, especially since Cambodia ended up being my favorite stop on my summer of 2011 tour of Southeast Asia. Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” road trip might not make it to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, but I’m glad mine did. I’m thankful that I’d somehow overlooked Karen’s message until it was too late, but I must say, she had a point — or two.
The first part certainly turned out to be true, though at my age, I can no longer settle for dingy pensions like the ones I called temporary home in Madrid, Barcelona and throughout the South of France when I first visited Europe in 1994, and hostels where you’re assigned one of six rock-hard single-person cots in a room. (I’ve never actually stayed in a hostel like that, but I’ve heard a lot about them, none of it enticing.) The wrong sleeping quarters can ruin just about any city. But when you can get five-star accomodation for less than $50 a night, as I did at the Tara Angkor Hotel (which is technically a four-star joint with five-star trappings, like one of the most amazing breakfast buffets, featuring dinnertime options that I normally wouldn’t dream of devouring first thing in the morning), cost doesn’t present a problem.
Unfortunately, Karen was right about the men, too — at least many of the ones I encountered after sundown. As I previously detailed on one of my other blogs, they couldn’t have been nicer to me, but they sure like to use their hands. It’s one thing to say crude things to hot passersby. As I’ve always said, “Say it, just don’t spray it.” And “look but don’t touch.” In Cambodia, though, the men like to watch — and touch.
I’m a guy, so I can hold my own, but for all the single ladies considering visiting Cambodia, proceed with caution when venturing out at night. Put a ring on it (to help ward off unwanted advances by pretending you’re married, or engaged), and grab a friend. While I didn’t actually notice anything worse than I used to see in Buenos Aires (guys on the street corner, by the bar, on the dance floor, ogling every woman who walked by), I’d never had so many touchy-feely encounters outside of a gay bar. I can only imagine what the women were going through. And that was just in Phnom Penh!
As I sipped my primary-colored drink at Linga Bar in Siem Reap, I tried to avoid eye contact with the guy whose eyes were burning holes into me from across the table. His English was barely intelligible, so after a while, I gave up trying to communicate with him and just prayed that he’d get the message and go away. For a long time, he didn’t. He begged me to take him back to my hotel room. He wouldn’t try anything, just give me a massage. “How old can this guy be?” I asked myself, placing his age somewhere around barely legal.
I decided to ask. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-two.” He had to be kidding. I said he didn’t look a day over 16.
Finally, I got the truth out of him. He was 21. I wouldn’t reveal my age, but I did tell him that I was old enough to know better than to mess with guys his age, which, given my track record the last few years, is pretty laughable. It’s not that he was unattractive (although he was a little too much on the dainty and petite side). I just couldn’t deal with the way he was staring at me. At least he kept his hands to himself.
I didn’t believe it possible to have such a great time in a “gay-friendly” straight bar until another local guy brought me to Temple Bar a little later. It was full of tourists, expatriates and natives. I met people from all over the world — from Ireland, from Amsterdam, from Scandinavia, from pretty much every corner of Europe. There was even one beautiful black girl from Saint Martin, the Caribbean island where my dad is from. How often does that happen? Like, never.
The booze was cheap (pitchers of beer, or of whisky and coke, for $2.75!), and so were the thrills. The local boys just couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. Had I blacked out and woken up on the dance floor at Plop in Buenos Aires? Every time I turned around, I seemed to be swatting away another pair of hands. Some wanted to check out the tattoo on my right arm. Others wanted to compare their hands to the animated one on my t-shirt. (Too bad it didn’t say, “Put your hands where my eyes can see”!) Several wanted to see what was going on just south of halfway down. In general, I hate to be touched by strangers, but whisky has a way of removing my inhibitions and my boundaries. At some point, I stopped pulling away and just went with it.
A couple of days later I traded Siem Reap for Bangkok, and when I arrived at DJ Station nearly one week into my return engagement in Bangkok, I was completely sober, so my inhibitions and my boundaries where right were they should be. I ran into two Cambodian guys I’d met in Siem Reap who had come over for the weekend. One of them had taken me to Temple Bar; the other had tried to take me home from Temple Bar. Well, to be honest, they both tried to take me home from Temple Bar, but for me, a little bit of hard-to-get goes a long way.
Inviting yourself back to my hotel within one minute of meeting me is never the best way to get past the velvet rope into my VIP area. Neither is a cupped hand to the crotch. You would think they’d have learned that lesson In Siem Reap, where they both had been roundly rejected. Yet there they were in Bangkok, waving with one hand and reaching for my crotch with the other. I smiled and tried to be polite. It was hard when all I wanted to do was slug them. I’ve dealt with forward guys before — in Buenos Aires, at Plop and Ambar, they sometimes literally throw themselves at you to get your attention — but isn’t grabbing a guy’s crotch in a bar like walking up to a woman and squeezing her breasts?
I suppose the rules of bar conduct are different when you’re dealing with men and women. For me, this is a funny story to blog about now and tell the grandkids later. If I’d wanted to, I easily could have taken those guys down. For a woman, who’s likely smaller and weaker than her sexual predator, it’s a holiday nightmare. The morning after my Temple Bar experience, I read a frightening article about several recent cases in which intoxicated women had been raped by taxi drivers in Melbourne and Sydney. Now there’s something that would never happen to me — and God knows, a few cabbies, like the tuk-tuk driver who had dropped me off at my hotel the night before, have had the opportunity.
I can deal with a hand on my crotch, if I don’t have to worry about coming to with some big burly cab driver standing over me, zipping up his trousers. Is this really the sort of thing that women have to live in fear of? It’s bad enough that in crowded bars, perfect strangers try to reach out and touch them there, but if they make it to last call in tact, they still have to worry about remaining that way during the ride home. I used to think that maybe women overreact to the threat of horny, desperate men, but now that I have some small insight into what it feels like for a girl, I’m not so sure.
No wonder there are always so many of them seeking haven at DJ Station. If anyone’s getting touched inappropriately there, it’s probably gonna be me.