The Sockeyed Blog

Ben Johnson's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Sex Trade

Anchor Beer Welcomes Ben to the Bodge

leave a comment »

It’s a lot of fun to be back in Phnom Penh, and it’s certainly several rungs up the energy ladder from Vientiane. After Laos, it’s noisy (lots of honking), the streets are dusty and crowded with scooters and tuk tuks and cyclos and trucks and cars, the sidewalks are jammed full of stalls and scooters and people sitting around, and there’s simply a lot more city than in Vientiane. It’s hotter, too, about 28 or 30 degrees, and fairly humid, so it’s easy to get sweaty walking around the streets.

Rob, Meriem and I had a good night out on friday. Our meal at Le Centrale was great. I had onion soup and tilapia served on a round of mashed potatoes and smothered in creamy sauce, and we all shared a bottle of French wine. For dessert we walked to a place near the fountain called Ty Na or something like that, and had a pair of very good crepes – one flaming one with bananas and rum, and one full of ice cream and chocolate sauce. I was very pleasantly stuffed after that. Rob and Meriem walked me the ten minutes to my hotel and we said our goodbyes.

Getting to Phnom Penh was very straightforward – a short van ride to Wattay airport, quick check-in, a bottle of lao lao hooch in the duty free, then I boarded my Vietnam Airlines flight for the one hour flight south. I sat next to a very young-seeming backpacker from Atlanta, working her way through Southeast Asia and Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. She seemed to be enjoying her adventures. I provide what tips I could about Phnom Penh.

I had a good laugh when I arrived at the airport and made my way out of the terminal. My friend Vinh Dao, a journalist who has worked with the Cambodia Daily and is now freelancing, sent a tuk tuk driver friend to meet me, and there he was holding up a big red Anchor beer box with my name written on it, much to the amusement of all the other drivers around him. Piy (Pee? Pi?) was his name, and he drove me to the Paragon Hotel on the riverfront. It was a lively, hot and dusty trip; very stimulating.

Vinh booked me into the Paragon. It’s a decent place to stay with a good bed, hot water, fridge, and more. It’s clean and very central. Initially I was in a riverfront room, but today have moved to the back of the hotel because of the incessant honking.

I made some phone calls and got settled, and wandered the great streets around the hotel. There are several markets close by, and no shortage of stimulation (and “moto-dops” and tuk tuk drivers offering rides, often to unsavoury locations). In fact, the ubiquitous moto-dops are very useful: for a dollar they will drive you almost anywhere in the central city. I’ve already used them a number of times.

Speaking of dollars, I’d forgotten that the USD is the de facto currency here, at least for folks like me. In fact, bank machines dispense dollars. The only time that I’ve got Riel is when I’ve been given change for amount less than a dollar (there are 4,000 Riel to the USD right now).

I got out on one PSI Cambodia project last night – an MSM drop-in centre about 5-10 minutes by car from the hotel. It was karaoke night, so the folks sat on the floor and crooned along with Cambodian pop songs. There was also a group game, although I’m not sure what was being taught through it, and a quiz with prizes. I’m pretty sure that the object of that was male sexual health. Green mango with chili and salt was being passed around as a snack and I helped myself to a fair whack as it’s delicious stuff.

I was there for about an hour, then returned to the hotel and called another friend, Rick Valenzuela, who is from New Jersey and is here working for the Phnom Penh Post. I’ve known Rick for about four years, though internet photo groups, but last night was the first time that I’ve met him in person. Since 2004, he has lived in the US, Chiang Mai and Dakar, Senegal, and has now returned here (he used to work for the Daily).

He has a great second-storey corner loft just a block from the hotel and also on the riverfront. It’s a classic Phnom Penh concrete building, and we sat on the curved corner balcony surrounded by a huge number of plants, and drank Mekong Whiskey with the tabby cat who came with the apartment. We were joined by one and then another staffer from the Post who happened to walk by and was beckoned up from the balcony. Both lived very close by.

At around 11pm, we heard from Vinh and walked the 15 minutes to the Rock Bar (which is actually called the Zeppelin Café). It is one of my favourite spots in Phnom Penh. The owner loves his classic rock and has a great vinyl library. He spends his time behind a couple of turntables and spins tracks all night. He doesn’t play the usual classic rock dreck you hear on the radio, but a great mix of hard rock, heavy metal, early punk and more. Rick and I had a few drinks ($1 Ricard on ice for me), then Vinh and Sue showed up. We chatted and drank there until after 1am, and ordered some great Chinese-style dumplings. They were up for going out some more, but I hit my sleepy wall, so we hopped on respective motos and were driven home.

Another favourite spot of mine here is the Chi Cha Indian restaurant, about four short blocks northwest of my hotel. I had breakfast there this morning at about 10am – an omelette, dahl, chapati and chai for $2.50. I had dinner there last night as well. I can imagine myself going to Chi Cha quite a few more times before I head home.

Today is sunday so there wasn’t a ton to do shooting-wise, so I mostly just walked the streets after breakfast. I strolled over to the Central Market, then to the new Sorya mall, where I bought a pile of DVDs to talk home to folks for Xmas presents. I moto’d back to the hotel just after noon and switch rooms, then wandered out again. I decided to walk down Street 63, which runs south from the Central Market. It is apparently where many brothels are found, so I figured that it would be relevant for my PSI work to see where they are and what they are like, but I didn’t spot one. They have to be there – the street is infamous for them – but I guess that I don’t know what to look for. There were no red lights, no legions of women sitting out front, no pimps dragging you in. Oh well. I’ll ask Sue about it tonight.

I went back into Sorya mall, partly to cool down and have a drink, but also to pick up a few more DVDs (at $1.50 each, it’s kind of addictive). The light was getting nice, so I returned to the hotel to get my Leica and wandered for about an hour and hopefully got a few decent street shots. Excellent material here to work with, regardless.

I’ll be meeting Vinh and Sue in about 20 minutes for dinner down at Le Cedre for Lebanese food, so I’d better get ready.

Written by sockeyed

November 24, 2008 at 02:00

Last Moments in Vientiane

leave a comment »

I’ve continued my work with PSI over the last two days. I didn’t accomplish much during the day yesterday; mostly just visiting sites – the old Wat Sisaket and the newer Wat Simuang – relaxing and waiting for things to happen. There isn’t a ton to do in Vientiane, I’ve decided, although I’m still fond of the place. At dusk I met up with Cristina, another PSI staffer just in from Washington, and an Albanian woman who used to be in the same field, at the Sunset Bar on a beautiful part of the river. There we had a beer and some delicious snacks, particularly the Mekong “river weed”, cooked up in a very tasty garlic and chili sauce, and some Vietnamese-style fried spring rolls.

At about 7:45, a taxi arrived for me and drove me to a hotel about 10 minutes from the town centre after a detour to the closed PSI office where he thought he had to take me. Attached to the hotel was a nightclub, and there I met two members of PSI’s sex worker outreach team, Mouiy and Latana, both peers I believe. Despite a profound language barrier, it turned out to be a very productive evening. They set up in the ‘backstage’ of the nightclub. Over th next hour or so, about 15 women arrived and prepared for the evening by putting the final touches on their outfits and makeup. I found out today, talking to the communications director at PSI that they were likely 15-25 years old and their clients were Thai and Lao businessmen. They worked out of the nightclub, and either went to backrooms in the club with clients, or to hotel rooms upstairs. The client pays about 1,000 Baht, or $35, for the women’s time.

To me, it seemed that the women were healthy-looking and relatively happy; they don’t seem to show the desperation that many sex workers do in Canada. Then again, what I’ve seen in Canada is the women who work the streets and in desperate situations. Again, there is less stigma associated with being a sex worker here, and it is recognized as an opportunity to make good money.

The PSI folks were there to promote good sexual health. They provided condom demonstrations and got each woman to do the same. They did a couple of simple presentations on STIs (the graphic images resulted in some alarmed looks), and passed out Number One condoms and pens with PSI’s information on them.

I was able to get some good images that I hope will be useful. The women were comfortable with being photographed, and the peer workers had a great energy and spirit. My greatest regret was not being able to communicate with them.

The club was deserted with the exception of the women when when I left at around 10pm, but I understand that the clients arrive around 11pm or so, and that the club stays open until 2 or 3am.

Today I spent most of the day at the PSI office. When I arrived mid morning, we drove out to the warehouse and I photographed the cute blue PSI truck being loaded with large boxes of condoms to be taken to the office where they’re repackaged for sale and distribution. Rob Gray, my old friend and the Country Director for PSI, arrived last night from Bangkok, so I saw him for the first time at the office. I got a couple of images of him looking officious at his desk next to his bust of Lenin (from his time in Uzbekistan).

Elena and had a great lunch at a local restaurant down the street from the office where we bumped into the staff from the men’s drop-in centre. We ate delicious green papaya salad and noodles, both in spicy, tangy sauces. The other staff also shared some very nice sweet/sour meatballs and cucumbers called something like “small children”. For dessert, a large cold and creamy iced coffee shake.

There wasn’t a lot to do this afternoon other than catch up on email and news, take some group shots in front of the office. Back at the hotel at 5:00, I decided that I’d better take in my last Laotian sunset over the Mekong of this trip, so I went to the top floor of the Bor Penyang Bar, as recommended by either Cristina or Elena, and enjoyed a dark Beer Lao and an amazing view up and down the river as the orangey sun went down.

Back at the hotel I packed up my room and will shortly join Rob and Meriem for dinner at Le Central.

Written by sockeyed

November 22, 2008 at 02:00

14kms from Vientiane

leave a comment »

Things generally don’t really get happening until the afternoon and evening in terms of PSI’s outreach work, so I had the morning to myself to explore the town a bit more. After a breakfast of granola, fruit and yogurt, and a cappuccino, at JoMa, I walked up to Samsenthai Road, then east to Lane Xang. A bit north there are a pair of markets, the ‘morning market’ which is mostly electronics, clothes, and so on, then the much more interesting Khouadin market, which has a covered and atmospheric clothing area and a very lively outdoor food market. I shot a lot of film on my Leica of vegetable and fish stalls, a bacci game (on which many thousands of Kip were being wagered), barrows and barrow-men, and just lots of action.

Walking back in the direction of the hotel, I stopped at a sandwich and juice shop on Samsenthai for a very tasty cheese (Vache qui rit), mayonnaise and salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and lightly pickled veggies) baguette and a mango shake, all costing about $2.50.


I rested a bit back at the hotel and tried unsuccessfully to have a nap. I don’t seem to be able to nap here, and sleeping is not coming that easily for some reason.

At 2:00 the driver came to the hotel and whisked me out to PSI. I met up with Elena and the two of us went to PSI’s nearby drop-in centre for transgender (TG) men and men who have sex with men (MSM). The centre offers a variety of services including anti-HIV and STI education (condom use and awareness), internet access, a doctor’s office, kitchen, dance area, TV room and access to peer support workers. It was a busy place and I managed to get some good shots of the action, plus some staff portraits.

Trangender men have a very different position in society here than they do back home, and katoey, as they are called, are quite visible and very accepted. It is a very similar situation to that in Thailand. Some katoey have a subtle effeminate nature while others are indistinguishable from women and have undergone hormone treatment and sometimes surgery. In some cases, their female mannerisms are very accentuated and are caricatures of what it is to be a woman. Some do work in the sex trade, sometimes with foreigners, sometimes with locals. I was told that some katoey will sleep with a foreigner, then take that money to pay a young local man (likely university age) to sleep with them. That young man will in turn take that money to buy things for his girlfriend. This is apparently not a rare phenomenon.

Being openly gay but not a katoey, from what I understand and have seen, is also broadly accepted. When I went out with the peer outreach team, we spent time in very ordinary places and the team was very openly who they were. There were no looks or energy from any in those places; they were simply who they were and that was considered normal. I can’t say that the same would happen in Canada, despite how liberal we might be. TG men certainly couldn’t live the same kind of open life.

The first excursion with the team was to a beauty salon about 14kms from the centre of town, very close to the massive and impressive Beer Lao brewery. There the peer workers chatted with about four men, some katoey, some not, about condom safety. They passed out literature and free condoms, and the men they talked to seemed very open and relaxed.

We returned to town and I had a bit of time before we were to head out again, so I went out for dinner at the same restaurant as the previous night. I had a tasty green bean salad, as was the bottle of dark Beer Lao, but the main course was challenging. Fried Vientiane-style beef sounded good, but the tough jerky-like leather that arrived, while tasty, required endurance to chew through. I made it, and also downed about a pound of sticky rice. I felt a bit dazed afterwards.

I met up with the peer team on their motorbikes at the main fountain in the centre of town just before 7:30, and I got on the back of a bike and we headed out of town again. We stopped on the way to pick up a young Danish student doing her masters in public health. Over the course of the night she provided me with some very interesting and useful information about katoey and MSM in Laos.

We drove out near the Beer Lao brewery again and pulled into a restaurant where we had beer and snacks. The peer workers knew it as a place where they could make contact and share information. There was not much action, however, so I mostly picked the Danish student’s brain.

Down the road a kilometre was a sprawling outdoor venue called the Dodo Bar, adjacent to a hopping nightclub (it seems that Wednesday is one of the main nights to go out). Here there were a great deal of katoey and some MSM, so the peers sat down at a table with some beer and would take off around the place to chat with folks, share info, and give out condoms. Sometimes it was quite subtle and fast, sometime less so. It was a challenging place to do photography as it was very dark, but I think that I managed to get some shots that captured the essence of what they do.

Sitting at the table was interesting as well as people would come and sit for a while and chat. We, the farang, weren’t of particular extra interest to anyone (as is generally the case in Laos), which was fine, and people were comfortable with being photographed. Quite a few katoey joined us, and some very quite stunningly female and certainly blurred all sorts of preconceived lines of what gender means for me. A number have spent time in Pattaya, the sex capital of Thailand. They were saying that they could make more there in a week than in a month in Laos. At least one had a regular foreigner boyfriend who called and sent money frequently.


We drove back to town on now-deserted roads at around 11:00 (Laos goes to bed early).

The evening was one of those mind-bending experiences not dissimilar to my work with deminers on the Lao-Vietnam border last year, in the sense that it’s so different from my routine experiences back home. One could not possibly pre-imagine spending an evening drinking Beer Lao with Laotian katoey at a outdoor bar 14kms outside of Vientiane.

Written by sockeyed

November 21, 2008 at 00:46