Chamroeun has been hawking his services on Phnom Penh’s heavily touristed Sisowath Quay for close to 10 years, though he is now only 16.
He gives all of the money he makes to his mother. “She is home, jobless,” he says.
His father is a motorcycle taxi driver who also services Phnom Penh’s growing number of tourists. When he grows up, he says, he also wants to be a motorcycle taxi driver, ferrying tourists around Phnom Penh.
Chamroeun sells newspapers and shines shoes and often watches motorcycles for a few hundred riel. Because he is financially strapped though, Chamroeun is also willing to service tourists in a more unsavory way.
He says that for as little as $3, he is willing to go a nearby guest house and let male tourists have their way with him sexually.
“I meet the foreigners when I am selling the newspapers,” he said.
From there, they go to a guest house or occasionally a secluded location outdoors.
“I feel [physically] hurt after I sleep with the foreigner, but I need to go, I need to make money,” he said, after describing in detail what he lets the men do to him.
Chamroeun has been making money this way for two years now and he says he knows about six or seven other boys who do the same thing.
Motorcycle taxi drivers, shoeshine boys and paper boys say that at least one boy-they call them gigolos-is picked up for sex each week.
“I never go with the tourists, but my friend does,” said Rith, a shoeshine boy.
They come from Australia, England and the US, he said. The boys that go to the guest houses with the tourists range from seven to 18 years old and they can make $20 or $30 dollars per session, he said.
“Some boys want to go with the tourist because they need money, but the tourists are bad because the boys are sometimes very young,” Rith said. He was one of several boys to describe a US teacher who regularly visits Phnom Penh from Bangkok.
“Another guy from Europe used to come here a lot,” Chamroeun said, though he hasn’t seen him in a while. “I heard he went to Kosovo,” he said.
An option for street kids and children who are in such dire financial straits is the Friends/Mith Samlanh NGO.
Friends provides vocational training, education and outreach programs for street children. They have about 600 kids in their center, located a few blocks from the river, and sponsor programs to encourage street children to support themselves in constructive ways, said Outreach Team leader Pin Sokhom.
Pin Sokhom identified three types of street children.
The first live alone, on the streets, without families. Then there are children who live with their families, but because of poverty they need to work on the street. Finally, there are children who have been affected by parents or family members who have HIV/AIDS or another type of debilitating sickness.
Friends educates children about the risks associated with street life, such as STDs, HIV/ AIDS, drug use and violence. They have 30 outreach teams and handle about 30 cases of child abuse-sexual or physical-each month.
“These kids only think three to four years into the future and [their behavior] must be put into a Cambodian context. These kids are survivors,” said Sebastien Marot, who runs Friends. “If the kid is 14, 15, 16 [years-old] he can make his own decisions, but there are always alternatives. And, he might be old enough legally and sometimes emotionally, or he might be mature enough physically to have sex, but not for that kind of relationship.”
“In cases involving children we have to be careful, the stories are usually quite complex and there are cases of vendettas [against foreigners],” said Marot. “But, the bottom line is that sex with underage boys is against the law.”
Oum Sath, deputy bureau chief of the Juvenile Protection Against Child Exploitation department of the Ministry of Interior agrees. “We cannot completely believe a child’s claim if we only talk to him or her. Sometimes the child lies to us because of personal interests they have,” he said.
But according to many of the boys, police don’t seem interested in cracking down on the sex trade at all.
“There is no police station here,” Rith said, “And [the police] don’t care because they get the money from the boys. When they catch them, the police take the money away from the boy,” he said.
And, he added, the police also take bribes from the tourists and the guest house owners, so they are not interested in putting a stop to it.
“I think any complaint I made would be nothing to the police,” said Rith. “It is not fair [what they do to the boys]. Police just always stand around, but if anything happens they just ignore it.”
“Cambodia is a poor country,” he added with resignation.
“Police are not doing anything or they are benefiting from it,” said Marot. “Arresting a foreigner is a lot of trouble, if they can avoid it, they would. Also, they can make money.”
“Police officers’ living standards is the first priority…otherwise law enforcement will remain poor. Police will not get involved with scams if they have enough money to support their families,” said Oum Sath. “A poor living standard for the police forces [officers] to accept money besides his salary to keep his wife and children alive.”
He added that if he wants his officers to conduct any special projects or missions, he usually has to pay out of his own pocket.
“Some people say that Cambodian law is weak. In fact, our law is strong enough, the weakness is in enforcement.” he said adding that police need more training and equipment.
And kids have found all sorts of ways to profit from the riverside sex racket. Marot recalled a story he heard of a boy who owned a set of clothes: pants, a shirt and shoes. He would rent the outfit out to other boys so that they could go to the guest house with the men and look respectable, and not like a typical street kid.
Though Oum Sath feels that the police do not have the resources-and often the will-to implement, he agrees that poverty is at the core of the issue.
“A mother will not stop her child from having sex with the foreigner, even though she knows her child is underage. Some poor widows depend on their child to live. And if they ban the child from doing this scam, then they will not have food to eat.
Meanwhile, tourism numbers continue to rise in Cambodia. In the first nine months of this year, 39,672 foreigners flew into Cambodia. That’s an increase of 8,187 people from the same period last year. And with the increase in tourists and foreigners coming to Phnom Penh, the sex industry at the river is expanding as well.
Now, it seems, women are also coming to the area to solicit sex.
Thearith, an 18-year-old paperboy, said that recently he slept with a 28-year-old US tourist.
“I was selling the papers and she was looking at me. She said, ‘Do you want to sleep with me?’ We went to her guest house and in the morning she left Phnom Penh,” Thearith said.
He said he received $20, and would do it again if given the opportunity.
“I did not do it for money,” he said. “But when she paid me I took it.”
“Some of the boys look for women [to sleep] with them” Thearith said.
He said that some of the older boys sit by the river and foreign women know they can go to them for sex. “If one boy says no, others will say yes.” he said.
Thearith has been asked by men for sex, but has declined. He said he does not want to make money that way.
While the vast majority of sex abuse cases occur in local communities, it is the cases that involve foreigners that become the most high-profile.
“It is more newsworthy when it is a foreigner. No one really cares when they are arresting a Khmer for having sex with boys. Locally…the cases just disappear,” Marot said.
In July, Italian citizen Alain Berruti was sentenced to 10 years in prison for soliciting sexual favors from four boys who worked along Sisowath Quay. The boys told the court that they were from 10 to 13 years-old.
In court, Berruti was unrepentant, saying that the boys were indeed gigolos and their availability was part of Cambodia’s appeal.
“They are prostitutes,” he said after the trial. “They are from the [street]. They always work this business, and they will continue this life…. In my country I never meet this kind of opportunity with this kind of super-available boys.”
As his eyes wander in search of fresh tourists climbing off of a motorcycle or cyclo near the Foreign Correspondents Club, Chamroeun says he would welcome the opportunity to ask the court for compensation if he were ever arrested with a foreigner.
As part of his sentence, Berruti was ordered to pay a total of $1,000 to his victims’ families. Those payments have not been made, as the case is still in the appeals process.
Ultimately, said Marot, it is the choice of the boys, but if no one went to pick them up, it wouldn’t happen. “The kid needs cash to survive and it is easy money, but if it weren’t available, he would not do it,” he said.
Most who work the river acknowledge that it is not as seedy as the brothels of Svay Pak, or one of the city’s numerous public parks. But Sisowath Quay is geared toward tourists, and, with its close proximity to the Royal Palace and the National Museum, is one of the most visible areas of the city.
“It is very sad that it happens at the river,” said Marot. “So many foreigners come there and there is no control. Everyone just turns a blind eye.
“Tourists and locals see it and say it is disgusting, but they don’t move. Maybe they don’t know what to do, maybe they think they are just Cambodian children. But, they are in public, surrounded by other people.
“You would think they would be lynched. It is easy to complain, but nobody does anything.”