So Sopheak was a virgin before entering Malaysia’s Crazy Karaoke Parlor last year. After only a month, she was having sex with up to five men a day. If she refused, she said, she was threatened with a heated metal rod.
So Sopheak, 19, is one of three Cambodian women who were freed from a Malaysian prison and repatriated last week, after being smuggled overland from Cambodia to Kuala Lumpur nearly a year ago.
A fourth woman remains in Malaysia, while she recovers from a recent premature childbirth.
“The first client I had sex with was a cruel man. He ordered me to take my clothes off, but I didn’t know how and I was shy,” she said at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center Thursday morning. “But the man said he would beat me if I didn’t take off my handkerchief. Then he turned on the light.”
When So Sopheak agreed to wait tables in a Bangkok noodle shop last March, she had no idea she was headed to Malaysia.
“I sold shells on the street in Poipet, but I earned little and a woman said I should have a more respectable career at her son’s noodle shop,” So Sopheak said.
“My mother was scared that the woman would take me to sell me out. And she asked many times if the woman was going to trade me,” So Sopheak remembered. “But the woman said, ‘If I sell your daughter, you can break my head.’”
So Sopheak decided to shoulder her family’s financial stress. A lender was paying frequent visits to her home, demanding repayment of the 10,000 baht (about $256) her mother had borrowed.
“So I crossed the Cambodian-Thai border, where the woman and a man waited for me in a car,” she said.
When they arrived in Bangkok, the Cambodian woman locked So Sopheak in a room and turned over the operation to another woman.
“I heard them talking about my price. They said 5,000 but I don’t know if it was baht or dollars,” she said.
After three days, the second trafficker and a male partner shoved So Sopheak and another Cambodian girl into a car to drive across the Malaysian border. The girls lay curled up on the floor of a specially made compartment located behind the car’s back-seat and trunk.
In Malaysia, the woman sold So Sopheak and her companion to a Chinese man, who then sold the girls to a Vietnamese woman.
So Sopheak said she was indentured to work at the Crazy Karaoke Parlor. She said she is not sure where she was, but a friend said they were just outside Kuala Lumpur.
“At 4 pm they took me to the karaoke parlor. At 4 am they took me back to the room and locked the door. Everyday,” she said.
In the parlor, So Sopheak and three other Cambodian girls were forced to have sex with customers. Despite the long hours, they never saw any money. The clients—men with a lot of money and good neckties—paid their fees to a “mamasan,” So Sopheak said.
For work each day, So Sopheak squeezed into a strapless bra and a skirt so short that it barely grazed her bottom, and so thin that it showed her underwear.
Each girl in the parlor wore a number. So Sopheak, one of the newest arrivals, was 315. She stayed for a little more than a month before deciding to run away.
“I dare to die. So I had to find a way to escape,” she said.
With a guard posted outside their locked door, So Sopheak and her three Cambodian companions set to work on the ventilation grate above their window.
“We removed the vent and passed through a small space to the outside. A ledge covered each window from the rain, so we moved little by little down three stories and jumped to the ground,” she said.
The girls were chased by two men but dove into a roadside sewer canal and escaped capture. They hid for two days in the sewer, emerging at night to eat rubbish, So Sopheak said.
They managed to flag down a passing motorist who offered the girls shelter. But they soon decided they needed money to return home and determined the only way to earn it was to prostitute their bodies.
“The man didn’t want us to sell sex again. But his Chinese friend found us clients and rented out a hotel room where we could work,” So Sopheak said.
On June 5, Malaysian authorities raided the hotel room and arrested the girls, So Sopheak said. They faced illegal immigration charges in a June 24 trial.
The girls were sentenced to three months in jail, then moved to the Simnheis detention center in the Selangor state of Malaysia. There, Cambodians, Vietnamese and “long-nose” Westerners waited to be deported or repatriated, So Sopheak said.
For the four-and-a-half months the girls were detained, they slept on the floor in a room with no water.
Months earlier, in a cry for help, So Sopheak had phoned a family neighbor in Cambodia.
“I told my mom I was sold into prostitution. I told her I don’t know were I am, I just know I’ve been locked in a room in Malaysia,” she recalled.
That brief call was the girls’ first step toward freedom.
The families filed complaints with an NGO, which then cooperated with the UN Project on Human Trafficking in the Mekong Sub-Region, the Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility, the Ministry of Women’s and Veterans Affairs and the Malaysian and Cambodia diplomatic communities.
After the intervention, the girls were treated as victims of trafficking and repatriated to Cambodia. A fourth woman remains in Malaysia, while she recovers from a recent premature childbirth.
So Sopheak said for now all she wants is to return to being a shell seller in Poipet.
“I hope I can start again. I want someday to have a family and a gentleman husband,” she said.