Page 1 of 3

In a Brothel Atop Street 63

The intimate face of slavery in Cambodia -- where buying and selling children is a family business.

I THINK OF THIS RICE FIELD AT SUNSET, out in the countryside. I’m with Lisa and the sun is going down and the sky is dark with storm clouds on the horizon, but the long grass is glowing, luminescent, and there’s a water buffalo caked with mud standing motionless by the side of the road staring me straight in the eye. Two men are riding by on heavy Chinese bicycles, each wearing sandals and shorts and a headlamp powered by a six-pound battery slung over his shoulder, each holding a wooden spear against the handlebars. Frog hunters. And from far away—a mile across fields and trees—an electric guitar and the bass notes to “Oye Como Va” played karaoke style.

There’s a village of wooden huts built up on stilts—cows and chickens underneath, pigs in a pen around back, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, marijuana plants. Lots of kids running around, babies on their sisters’ backs. Dogs barking. Mosquitoes. The men come and we eat dinner sitting cross-legged in a circle—one of the chickens and some of the vegetables in a noodle soup made with ganja buds, a specialty for Lisa, who says her stomach has been acting up. The men are joking and laughing, pouring shot glasses of homemade alcohol and making toasts where every glass touches. The two oldest men are in their mid-50s and one is wearing a hat with a bald eagle and an American flag. I ask him if the Americans bombed this area in the early ’70s, and he says not this village but in the mountains nearby there were a lot of bombs. “And you still like America?” I ask. He says, “Yes, of course. I fought with the Americans as a Lon Nol soldier.” He tells me the man whose house we are eating in also fought as a Lon Nol soldier, but he died four months ago from AIDS. He and the other men believe his ghost is still here, that he hasn’t left yet. We toast the ghost, and it gets quiet, except for the crickets.

Advertise on

After dinner, we walk through a couple of gardens to a small hut made from bamboo poles and thatched palm fronds. There’s no light inside, completely dark, but there’s a voice, like a rock being rolled through dry grass, and the room smells as if an animal has died. Someone brings a light, a 29-watt fluorescent tube on the end of a long extension cord. The woman is at least 80 years old, white hair, skin and bones, lying on a wooden bed without a mattress, blanket, or pillow. Her eyes are moist and cloudy. She sits up and holds her arms around her shins. The toes on her right foot have swollen to twice the size of the toes on her left foot, and there’s a three-inch square of skin on the top of her foot that has turned to mushy liquid, pureed salmon. Above the infection, the skin is a black flame, turning green and yellow. Gangrene.

She says it hurts.

There’s no money for a doctor or a hospital. Traditional ointments and teas did nothing to stop the infection.

Lisa sits down next to the old lady, takes her leg gently in her hands, and speaks to her in Khmer. Lisa is an American who produces public service commercials and documentaries for Cambodian television. She knows nothing of medicine, doesn’t know the woman has gangrene, but she does know she’s dying—slowly and painfully—she can feel it, and she tries to comfort her. I’m frightened by the whole thing and turn around and there are 12 children pressed together just inside the door, all motionless and absolutely quiet, eyes fixed on Lisa’s hands, all wondering if this American woman who is tall and beautiful can cure their great-grandmother. Maybe she has magical power. I can’t quite take it and step through the kids to get some fresh air and listen to the dogs bark. Next door there’s another, larger hut, and inside a man is sitting on a stool two feet from a 12-inch television screen. He’s glued to it, as if manning a periscope. The screen shows new cars and houses with carpets and refrigerators, beautiful people with stylish clothes, women with lipstick. It shows this world, another planet, where there’s lots of cool stuff and money, a place where grandmothers do not die slowly, painfully, in the dark, from gangrene.


THIS IS HOW what we now call human trafficking begins. It’s an awkward term, borrowed from the black market for drugs and guns, only in this case it means the buying and selling of human beings. We used to call it slavery, but the United Nations and the U.S. State Department thought we needed a new name because it’s become such a big business. Worldwide, people are cheaper now than ever before, and there seems to be an endless supply as well as an endless demand.

The causes are said to be exploding populations, increasing power differentials between the rich and the poor, corrupt governments, failed states...and television, which functions like a huge suction machine, a black hole, pulling people away from shrinking farms and into swollen cities. It starts as migration, a children’s crusade for some of that stuff to bring back home. They leave the village and give themselves up to the great sky of luck; they take a chance. And it ends, too often, with young people being bought and consumed and thrown away like a candy bar and its wrapper. And this is also a cause: the desire, the pull for more cheap bodies, whether they are put to work in garment factories and paid 15 cents an hour for 90 hours a week, or thrown onto Thai fishing boats and fed methamphetamines for a few years then shot and thrown overboard, or sold into prostitution or domestic service in Sweden, the United States, or Saudi Arabia. The supply and the demand, the push and the pull, are inseparable.

Nobody knows the numbers. Slaves, unlike guns or drugs, are hard to see and count. Is this boy on your fishing boat an employee? Is this girl a willing prostitute? Is your maid free to leave the house? No one tells the truth. The United Nations claims that every year 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked as slaves across international boundaries and millions more are sold as slaves within their own countries, but experts in the field say these numbers are inflated to gather public awareness. None of the experts, however, deny that there is a serious problem. And many, if not most, have gone past the point of believing in a solution.

When I spoke with Cambodians about slavery, they very often didn’t know what I was talking about. They answered questions I didn’t ask, and I asked questions they didn’t understand, back and forth. It was very frustrating. Then I found out that in Khmer there is no word for “slavery.” No word for slavery, but there is a word for “slave”—khiom, an old word from back in the days of Angkor Wat and the God/Kingdom. Now the word has a new meaning: It means “I.” A young Cambodian art historian told me this. Maybe he was stretching an etymology, but it seemed to make sense to me. We think of slavery as the practice of depriving people of their individual rights and liberties, turning them into objects that can be bought and sold. But Cambodians have never had a concept of individual rights and liberties, so how can they be deprived of them? To them it’s like, “Of course people can be bought and sold. It happens all the time. What’s your problem?” They think of slavery as cheating, a business deal gone bad—one person lies and tricks another into bondage or work with no pay. And cheating they know very well. They’ll talk about being cheated all day long—out of houses, food, cars, children. But I didn’t want to know about cheating. I wanted to know about slavery. I’d try to make the point that human beings are different from used cars. “To buy and sell people—isn’t this a bad thing?” And they’d say, “Yes, sometimes, when the person is cheated.”

An example of how it happens: A 14-year-old girl is bored with living on the farm in the countryside. She has an older sister who left and went to Phnom Penh and hasn’t been heard from since, but the girl believes if she can get to Phnom Penh, she can find her sister and live with her and maybe get a job in a garment factory. So she sneaks away and gets on a bus and meets a woman who says she can help. She knows a restaurant that needs a dishwasher, and she’ll take her there. The girl thinks, great, what good fortune. But the restaurant turns out to be a brothel, and the woman sells the girl for $300 and walks away. The girl, being from a poor farm village and knowing virtually nothing of the world, believes this is a debt she has to pay back. It was just a woman on a bus, and the girl to her was like a wallet found on the street.

Up until recently, experts in the field of human trafficking believed that members of crime organizations came to the villages and recruited young bodies with deceits and lies. They called it “stranger danger.” But now they are starting to believe that most of the time the young people are tricked into slavery by people they know—an aunt, a boyfriend, even their own mother. It’s more like everybody knows how to do it, and usually people are betrayed by those whom they trust.

Another example: There’s a family of Vietnamese immigrants living in a wooden shack next to abandoned railroad tracks on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The mother, who says she is 70, though I peg her as closer to 50, has 13 children, none of whom have an income except for her two youngest daughters, whom she periodically sells into debt bondage as prostitutes. With this many kids and lots of grandkids and cousins, somebody is always getting sick or hurt and needing medical attention. So the mother borrows money from her neighbors at the going rate of interest—20 percent a month. Soon she is way over her head in debt and has no way to pay it off except by selling her daughters again. She’s been doing it since they were about 10. She recently sold the older one, her name is Nee, now 17 years old, to a brothel in Taiwan for $1,000, and was getting ready to sell the youngest one, Auk, now 15 years old, in the same way for the same amount, but Auk ran away. Now, the mother says, she is worried sick about her. Auk, hidden away in a house on the other side of town, is also worried and scared. If she refuses to do her mother’s bidding, she will risk breaking her “mother-daughter relationship,” essentially cutting herself off from her family forever, meaning she will live and die alone and then spend many rebirths in pain and suffering. Nee was a good girl and willingly left home to work in Taiwan. She calls Auk on her cell phone and says she doesn’t know what city she’s in and has to sleep with six or seven men a night and that her stomach hurts, but she’s not going to come home until the $1,000 is paid back because their mother needs her help. The mother says she cries for her daughter in Taiwan every night, but what can she do? She owes money that must be paid back, and there is no other way.

It’s like a soap opera, and it gets worse. Enter Mark, an American, early 50s, living in Phnom Penh. Five years ago, he was living in Florida and had arthritis so bad he couldn’t walk one block. So he quit his job and flew to Thailand, where he exercised every day, drank lots of tea, and had a lot of sex with young prostitutes. He cured himself in a few months. He says, “Everybody should have a regular sex life. Jesus, when I was living in the States, I couldn’t get nothing. I might go six months without getting laid.”

Page 1 of 3