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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Cambodia

The Karaoke Girls
Shakil Rabbi

I was there as a part of an English-teacher training programme. The programme started out in Thailand and then moved onto a tour of Phnom Penh University; it aimed to expose the potential teachers to other work environments. I have always been interested in Cambodia and so was excited at the chance of seeing it, in going on an adventure. But even with the romance of it in my mind the first thing I noticed while on the Tuk-Tuk, going from the airport to the guesthouse, was how underdeveloped Phnom Penh was – even in comparison to Dhaka – and that most of the people I saw on the roads were young.

The guesthouse I stayed in was close to the newest shopping mall in Phnom Penh, which was famous for being the first place in Cambodia with escalators. Some teachers and staff attached with the programme were also staying there. The regional chief teacher trainer and head of the Cambodia programme was a man named Robert. He was an American who had been living in that part of the world since the seventies. He spoke Thai and Khmer as well as any ‘forang’ might have. He was also kind of kooky and somehow made me think that he was the modern equivalent of a swashbuckling pirate, the type one would see in old movies or old books. I liked him straight away and felt that I could trust what he said.

The two other teachers staying there were actually quite young, both were in their twenties. The first was Tom, an Australian stockbroker, who had taken a year off from work to travel, and then had somehow met up with the teacher-training programme and became a teacher in Phnom Penh University. Tom was funny; a man who had never grown out of the wise-ass slacker attitude he must have had when he was younger. He said he liked Phnom Penh, though he did feel that – being white – he was a little bit on display most of the time.

The other guy was Andy. He was from Chicago and fresh out of college. He told me that he was supposed to work in Vietnam but changed his mind and came to Phnom Penh. "Cambodia is mad chill," he said. "Vietnam is much more uptight. This place is so much more fun."

Finally there was Choch, the resident Cambodian concierge, a cute little Khmer woman with a fiery temperament. She spoke English as well as any local I had yet come across (including in Thailand) and had the peculiar habit of being a rambler; if she started talking it was pointless to try and get a word in edgewise. But I liked her anyway; she seemed nice, although she did keep blaming the guests for being a lot of trouble all the time.

On my first night the people in the guesthouse decided to go out and take in the city. All of us, including Robert and Choch, took two Tuk-Tuks and started the night at a nice restaurant. There at dinner, I found out that Cambodia had two official currencies: the Khmer Riel and the US dollar. Everyone paid in dollars most of the time, using the Riel – which was valued really cheaply at four thousand real to one dollar – only for spare change.

"This is freakin weird," I said to Robert, holding the dollar and seventeen hundred riels in change.
"This is Cambodia," he replied. "This is the Wild West. Anything goes!"

After dinner we all went to a club for foreigners. The club was made up of two large rooms, one for the bar and the other for the dance floor. In the far end of the barroom was a balcony that overlooked the Mekong. The dance floor was full of drunk white foreigners and their local companions.

The novel thing about the place was that it was Mexican-themed and the staff was dressed up like what the Mexicans might look like in Hollywood-Westerns. Their costumes were complete: with sombreros, heavy ponchos, and shoulder belts holstering shot glasses. It was quite absurd. Standing with Tom at the balcony, looking at it all from the outside, I said: "What sort of insane place is this? Why is there a Khmer there dressed up as a Mexican pushing tequila?"
"I know mate," he replied. "Can you believe you’re still in Cambodia?"
I nodded to him in agreement and kept looking at the scene for some time from the balcony, sometimes switching off to look at the Mekong below and remind myself I was still in Cambodia.

It was a harsh awakening the next day. The windows in my room did not have any curtains and faced East. I awoke with the morning sunlight hitting me directly in the face; it was the visual equivalent of a bullhorn blast two inches from the ear. When I came out of the room I saw that Robert and Choch were already sitting in the office, drinking coffee and making up a lesson plan for teaching Khmer.
"Morning champ. You’re up early." Said Robert.
"Good morning," said Choch.
"Morning," I moaned in reply. "My room doesn’t have any curtains and the sun hit me really hard this morning."
"Sorry about that," laughed Robert. "You’re only here for a couple of days, so it wont really be that bad."
"I guess." I shuddered at the thought of having to wake up like that again.
"Get dressed though. We’re going to go to the university for you to take a look at the place."
"Do I need to dress formally?" I asked.
"Nope," replied Robert.

We went to the university on Robert’s motorbike. Sitting on the back gave me a great look of Phnom Penh in the daytime. It was a well-planned city, with broad and straight roads that intersected each other at right angles, breaking up the neighborhoods into neat and organized blocks. The main highways were six lane roads and I did not see any traffic jams.
"I know what you’re thinking," said Robert. "This city is really well planned. Driving here is great. No one follows the rules though but since everyone drives so slowly it’s impossible to get into a real accident."
"How fast are you going?"
"Twenty three miles an hour and it’ll still only take half an hour to get from one end of the city to the other. The city is pretty small and the roads are completely free. But streets are called Rues here. It’s the French-colonization thing."

Robert acted the tour guide the rest of the way. But he avoided any questions I asked about the violent history of Cambodia, explained that it was an internal thing and it would not be right to ask too many questions about what had happened. "The way I figure it is that they really don’t like talking about it to the outsiders. Maybe it might change with the trials." He added: "To them it is more important to look forward rather than backwards. They want to leave the genocide behind them. I think it’s a good thing that they are trying to move on. But we’ll see what happens."
Robert’s guided tour of the university lasted about ten minutes. He had to meet the director and so just left me to myself to wander and look around for myself. The place was full of young staffers, many of whom must have had grown up in exile and had come back because there was now peace: most of them spoke English with diverse Western accents, from the straight American to Northern-Italian. I noticed Tom and Andy after a little bit of walking around and went up to them to say Hi.

"Hey mate," Tom said in his Aussie manner upon seeing me.
"How’s it going fellas?" I replied. "You guys had classes?"
"Yeah," replied Andy. "But we’re done for the day and going back to the house. You gonna come along?"
"Sure. But I’m here with Robert. Need to tell him first so that he doesn’t start looking."
"Not a problem," Andy said directly. "I’m heading to the Director’s office anyway to drop of some documents. Will save you the walk and tell him."
"No problem." Andy said and left for the office.
"Hey, there’s Sam," pointed Tom. "She’s from England. Been here for six months. She likes dark fellas. Her last boyfriend was Khmer."
"Hey fellas," said Sam as she walked up to us. She was extremely thin and very soft-spoken. Her accent was thick and almost sounded Scottish. Sam later explained that she was from Northern England, a place close to Sheffield. She also explained that people there were called Geordies and what she had was a Geordie accent.
"Hey, Sam," replied Tom. "You met this young man here. He’s here as a part of the programme from Thailand. He came with Robert yesterday."
"ello, name is Samantha. How are ya?" she cooed. Cooing was the only way to describe the way Samantha spoke. She would have been great at reciting lullabies; her voice was calming and soporific. It was nice to hear but that softness, combined with the thick accent made it hard to understand her.
"Hello," I replied carefully. "Tom said you’ve been here six months. What do you think of the place?"
"I likes it pretty fine. It’s a little hard about food but I gets by."

Dinner was just the four of us; Robert and Choch were not around. We four decided to walk around for awhile and pick out a place which looked good. We eventually settled on a Karaoke restaurant; one out of the many that sprinkled the city in the same manner as fast food chains did elsewhere. As we were walking in I noticed that there was a line of girls sitting up front by the entrance. I was about to ask one of the others what the girls were doing there when a waiter ushered us to follow her to our table. They seated us in a corner table lined by three rows of tall potted plants, on the other side of which I could hear the noise of street traffic and pedestrians.

I scanned the menu to order and was taken aback by an option in the last page – after the deserts, a couple of line spaces underneath was listed: ‘Karaoke Girl…$8’.
"What is this?" I asked the table.
"It’s exactly what you think it is mate," replied Tom. "Those girls up front. You pick one and they come up and sit with you at the table."
"And then what?" I asked, had to just hear it said.
"She comes and sits with you at the table for the rest of the night," said Sam. "She becomes your date. Afterwards you can take her home at no extra charge. You’ve already paid for her for the night."
"It’s like a trial run, her sitting a the table with you. If you don’t like her you don’t have to take her back," explained Andy.
"It makes the entire process such that you’re not really buying a hooker so much as ordering entertainment while you eat. They call them Karaoke Girls, they’re supposed to sing for you while you eat."
"And all this for eight bucks?"
"And whatever tip you might want to leave them," cooed Sam. "They’ be hookers everywhere in this part’ of the world, as you musta seen. But these Karaoke restaurants makes it like a date."
"And you can order it off the menu," I pointed out.
"Hey mate," replied Tom. "You have not been to the Russian market yet. You can buy live landmines there. I don’t know why anyone would want to do that but they’re still there for sale."

We laughed about it all for a little longer: about the Mexican club, the money, the Karoake girls (local points, which we with our alien understandings found novel, absurd or amusing). Sam teased that we were all big boys and that we ought to get a Karaoke girl to see what it would be like. I was also quite curious about what the girls might be like. I wondered whether or not they would be able to speak English; I assumed that they probably had to deal with foreigners a lot and so they must have needed the use of the language.

The next day was my flight back. I said goodbye to the others and thanked them for showing me around Phnom Penh. Robert bought me lunch at from a duty free kiosk while we waited for our flight back. I asked him whether or not he had been to the Killing Fields. He said that he had gone and that if I had stayed in Cambodia longer, I probably might have gone to see it and Ankhor Watt.

"You can take classes on the history of Khmer Rouge at the Thai consulate," he said.
"Why is it that the Thai consulate gives these classes and not a Cambodian organization?" I said in an indignant manner.
"Don’t rock the boat too much Champ," Robert replied. "What happened is their business. And the Khmers have a way of shutting down against things that they find uncomfortable. The truth is that they are trying to move on. Maybe the trails will help or maybe it’ll just be for show. All they can do is hope. This place is terribly corrupt. And with all the new money from oil all set to come in over the next couple of years things are just going to get worse. But still some of it might just get to the people."
"But what about their history?" I said. "Don’t you think that it’s important for them to remember the genocide."
"They’ve never forgotten it. You might not understand it, but it’s everywhere. How many old people have you seen in Cambodia? There are very few over forty in this country, so many of them died in war. Almost everyone has a list of close relatives that were killed in the war or in the camps. What happened is not something they will forget anytime soon."

Robert and I spoke no more about the topic after that; we switched to what there was still to do in Thailand. The flight back to Bangkok was uneventful. The plane was almost empty and each of us were able stretch out over our very-own isle. After Phnom Penh, Bangkok’s Macdonalds and Seven-Elevens made it feel like it was the developed world. I felt that it was terrible that Macdonalds was now almost a sign of development.

© Shakil Rabbi Oct 2009
ssrabbi at

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