Poipet town, Banteay Meanchey province – It’s not easy to spot a makeshift pornography cinema and coffee shop near Phsar Akak, though most residents know where to find one.
They are difficult to spot to the uninitiated. Rather than the typical sounds accompanying a blue movie, it is the noise of ultra-violence that wafts out into the street, rendering the coffee shop less conspicuous from the street.
Once inside, two screens are showing salacious videos. The patrons are almost all young males: Day laborers, construction workers and motorcycle taxi drivers who have migrated to this dusty casino town and official Thai border checkpoint.
The sex cinemas are conveniently nestled among brothels—in case one of the young patrons gets the urge after he is through watching hard-core pornography on one screen as someone is being disemboweled by a machine gun on another.
The patrons of the sex shop are far from home, have a small amount of money for entertainment, but few familial responsibilities. Likely they are young, poor, unencumbered and are at a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction than any other demographic group in Cambodia.
Lured by the economic pull of Thailand, the relative anonymity of the sex trade, a lucrative job in one of the town’s seven casinos, or any of the trades that support them, Cambodians from all over the country flock to Poipet in search of a better life.
But though opportunities abound, health care officials and NGOs worry that Poipet’s population is at extremely high risk of STDs, sexual exploitation or assault and drug addiction. Some have called Poipet the embodiment of all of Cambodia’s social ills.
Walking in a Minefield
Tucked behind the provincial health center just off of Poipet’s main traffic circle is the two-room building that houses the Ministry of Health’s HIV/AIDS testing center.
On hospital beds in one room are four patients who are too sick to leave the center. One week ago there were five.
In the other room the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers free, voluntary blood tests. Though the program is only two months old, the early results are alarming.
In the first month of the program, said CDC consultant Ok Sivatha, 16 out of 27 people that volunteered to be tested were found to be HIV-positive. In June, 101 people were tested. Of them, 30 were HIV-positive.
Ok Sivatha concedes that the first participants came to the center came because they knew they were sick. But, he says, participants in June appeared healthy when they arrived.
“The people who come here are poor people, some have debauched husbands, some are brought by NGOs and some are laborers,” he said. “People in Poipet face a high risk of HIV. They are poor and not well-educated and they are all moving around. The rich people never come here. They can pay for a better clinic and if they are rich they can find a better girl, a good girl.”
The sex industry in Poipet is not for the wealthy gamblers that visit the casinos from Thailand and other points in Asia. The beggars, the young men who trundle goods back and forth from Poipet to the Thai market in Aranyaprathet, construction workers and motorcycle taxi drivers are the ones who patronize the brothels, paying anywhere from $0.50 to $1.25 for a sexual encounter, according to Ok Sivatha.
Tia Phalla, deputy director of the National AIDS Authority, attributes the high HIV/AIDS rate in Poipet not only to the high mobility of its residents but also to the fact that most transient workers are away from their families.
“We believe that the rate of [visits to sex workers] is very high and the price is very low. They are very poor, but make use of their little money to buy sex.”
In 1998 the government initiated its “100 percent” condom use program, and Tia Phalla estimates that 90 percent of the town’s brothels have condoms available. But access to condoms is not the issue, he said. It is a willingness to use them and an understanding of the risk associated with not using them.
A Poipet brothel owner said he believes 100 percent condom use in the brothels is attainable. “But we are afraid that the girls will go outside [the brothel] with clients or boyfriends and not use condoms and then come back to work in the brothel.”
Ok Sivatha also believes that locals are aware that they are at risk. “You live in a minefield, I tell them. You know where the mines are and you know how to get away from the mines, but you still step on them.” he said.
Though many agree that various HIV/AIDS awareness programs, like the 100 percent condom use campaign, have had a degree of success, Ma Sameat of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center believes it has had an unwanted side effect. Rapes committed by young men, he said, have been on the rise since the awareness campaigns started and he blames the increase on the town’s sex cafes.
“Boys who are 14 or 15 years old rape the 10-year-old girls. According to our research, these boys get the feeling to have sex after watching the sex videos at the karaoke shops. This is the result of the campaign against AIDS: Before the awareness campaign, they watch the sex videos and then go to the brothels, but now they know the brothel is dangerous, so they rape the young girl,” Ma Sameat said.
Ma Sameat says he has complained to the authorities for years to close the sex cafes, but no action has been taken.
Banteay Meanchey provincial Governor Thach Korn, a Funcinpec member, said that he has never received any requests to close the sex cafes, but said that he agrees that if they exist they should be closed.
“Those shops and brothels really cannot stay open without being masterminded by district governors, police and military police,” Korn said.
O’Chrov district Governor Sar Chamrong, a CPP member, also said he has not received official notification that NGOs want the sex cafes closed and dismissed claims that the government doesn’t listen. “When the NGO workers say this it sounds like they are the only ones who love the nation and the authorities have no conscience,” he said.
Sar Chamrong said that he wants to close the sex shops, but that the government does not yet have a strategy. He added that authorities have raided brothels and sex shops repeatedly, and those that are still open are open illegally.
Dealers and the Stakes
At any hour of the day, any number of Poipet’s more than 10,000 casino employees can be seen in their black pants, colorful vests and clip-on bow ties returning from or going to work. They are dealers, restaurant staffers and cleaners, and the CARE NGO considers them to be vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.
“Most casino workers are young, single and might have migrated [to Poipet]. They have come alone or with relatives or friends. They live and work with casino colleagues in hotels or dormitories,” said Caroline Francis an HIV/AIDS consultant working as an adviser to CARE Cambodia’s Casino Worker HIV/AIDS prevention program.
The women, she added, might also be away from traditional support networks and under pressure to engage in sex work.
CARE’s 2002 report on the vulnerability of casino workers, titled “Gambling With One’s Health,” cites “a lack of social controls, ready income potential, availability of commercial sex and a general ‘wild West’ feeling” in Poipet.
“The vulnerability of mobile people originates in the source communities, where the decision to move may be guided by desperation, an absence of choices, misinformation and, often, unrealistic expectations,” the report continues.
Indeed, working in a casino can provide a dramatic lifestyle improvement for young adults.
Dek Sopoann, a 22-year-old dealer from Battambang, says that many casino workers are single.
“A high percentage of casino workers work together for a long time and fall in love and get married. By my observation, there are no sex workers in the casino. But in their private lives, they [might] fall in love with a client and resign from the casino,” she said.
Another dealer, Chora Nhol, 28, agreed.
“Casinos do not use the dealer to sleep with the client, but sometimes the girl falls in love with the client and wants money from them and will decide on her own to sleep with them,” he said.
“This is not in the open, because the casino does not want the dealer to get close to the client. He wants to have the girl as a mistress in Poipet because he can’t bring her to Thailand. Usually he asks the girl to quit her job. He sends her money, and rents a house for her and her family.”
The CDC’s Ok Sivatha is concerned about this. “We suspect that some [casino workers] were prostitutes or karaoke girls but became a good girl when they got the job at the casino, and then they get involved with their co-workers. But we don’t know their background because there is no family around to ask.”
Speed at Work
The rest of Poipet’s economy is supported by construction workers, laborers and young men and boys who haul goods back and forth from the markets on the Thai side of the border. These are the people, said Graham Shaw of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime, that constitute much of the demand side of the market for methamphetamines.
“This is the very nature of economic activity in Poipet. People need [the drug] to work long hours. It is an energy boost and it is linked with the high availability and low cost…people can maximize the hours they work and maximize their income. It is a means to an end. They are living for today and they don’t think about the long term,” Shaw said.
Rough estimates made by the UN indicate that 75 percent of laborers and construction workers are taking drugs, said Shaw.
Smuggling is another source of income for street kids, according to Andreas Rosch of the Tumnak Tuk NGO. “There is a mythical control at the border, the kids can pass [at the checkpoint] and the kids are smuggling along the old railway line,” he said.
There is a booming business in smuggling clothing said Rosch. “The kids can go to the Thai market and buy clothes by the kilo and get them fixed here and re-sell them,” he said. “There is a huge business in smuggling.”
It is not uncommon to see a young man putting on around a dozen pairs of pants under the gaze of border officials before duck-walking into Thailand.
Two years ago, when he was 14, Chhanda stole some money from his parents and he and two friends ran away from their homes in Phnom Penh. He thought about building a house in Poipet, which he believed was a good place to start a business.
Shortly after he arrived, he says, he was robbed and beaten. With nowhere to go and nothing to eat, he met a man named Mao, who offered to be his “foster brother.”
“He asked me if I had ever sniffed glue before,” Chhanda said, from the Tumnak Tuk compound where he is recovering from two years of drug addiction. “He gave me some glue to sniff and then taught me how to smoke the [methamphetamine] pill. We usually beg for food money or go to the Thai side of the border and steal or pick pockets. Then we give [what we stole] to the ringleader and he gives us some glue or pills.”
Methamphetamine pills, called “yaba,” are cheaper than a can of beer, says the UN’s Shaw. “It has been cheaper to make yaba in Thailand and then to buy and use it in Poipet. As you get farther away from Poipet, the price goes up.”
There were around 10 members of his gang, Chhanda said, and each one would be given two pills in the morning to prepare for the day’s thieving. “We sometimes for almost a week go without sleeping or eating,” he said.
“The police know what we are doing. But they don’t crack down. If we steal a phone or a wallet, we sell it to police. We share with the police or we will be arrested.” Chhanda said.
“Some in the law enforcement community are involved in the drug industry either in protection or selling,” said Shaw. “And most of the law enforcement community’s salaries are so low that some of the bigger dealers will offer them a lot of money to look the other way.”
Rosch agrees. “It is not easy to collaborate with the police here. We had one workshop organized by the Ministry of Interior, but the police officers did not show up,” he said.
In Their Dreams
“Poipet is a mix, a condensation of all kinds of problems. All these issues are very important. Poipet is like a funnel: Migrants, AIDS, sex work everything is converging in Poipet,” says Nicolas Lainez, of the NGO AIDeTouS, who has researched the vice industry in numerous Southeast Asian border regions. “You can’t watch Poipet without watching Thailand,” said he.
Lainez believes that Poipet’s problems are closely linked to Thailand and points beyond. The people engaging in vice in Poipet are poor, migrant people. “The wealthy people go to the big Thai resorts. They go to Thai girls that speak English. Poipet is not touristic. It is ugly, hard, horrible, polluted and dangerous,” Lainez said.
The sex workers in Poipet leave after three or four months and new ones arrive, said Lainez. “The women don’t stay in Poipet very long, some go to Thailand, then get deported, go back to their home province or to the countryside. That is how AIDS crosses borders.”
Motorcycle taxi drivers and laborers make some money and get involved with sex workers, Ros Sovanna, prevention team leader at CARE added.
The children are from everywhere, too, says Rosch of Tumnak Tuk. “They heard about Poipet. They heard about the possibilities, They heard it is close to Thailand.”
But by sundown the dirty center of Poipet’s traffic circle starts to smell of airplane glue. Without options, street kids have to settle for rock hard, day-old bread and a small plastic bag filled with a small amount of white glue.
After a few huffs off the bag, 12-year-old Taing Uong, from Siem Reap, says that “when we sniff it we see the stars. It makes me drunk, and in my dreams I see everything.”
Taing Uong says he sniffs glue because he is bored. But when it is suggested to him that sweeping the street or some other form, of work could relieve his boredom, he runs off laughing hysterically.
Sar Chamrong says he has heard of glue sniffing in Poipet but he has never seen it. “We have cracked down repeatedly, including [on] the users, but it still exists because they do it in hiding places,” he said.
And then there is human trafficking. Women are frequently duped into entering Thailand in hopes of finding better paying jobs but are then forced into servitude in brothels in Thai resorts or border towns. Young boys and old men and women are trafficked to work in begging gangs in Bangkok.
“A lot of [boys] get trafficked to Thailand and come back addicted to drugs,” said Shaw.
“Trafficking is linked together with begging, and traffickers work together with the police. For the kids…anything is possible,” says Rosch.
And the UN has heard of pedophile rings in Thai resort areas like Pattaya where young boys are delivered. “They don’t want to dirty their feet in Poipet,” Shaw said.
Further Rosch says young cart pushers are frequently abused in the public toilets in the Thai market for payment.
Since the late 1990s, Poipet has often been thought of as a casino town. But it is not the case that the people working in the casinos or attending them are taking drugs and having unsafe sex.
“It is outside the walls. It is a non-story inside,” says Shaw. “Poipet is the worst it actually gets in Cambodia.”