Red lights in Phnom Penh

“We’ll be staying in Phnom Penh’s Red Light District,” announced our guide Zoom Zoom with a suggestive raise of his thick, black eyebrows.

Zoom Zoom’s words weren’t immediately made clear in my travel addled brain. After nine hours, two squatty potties, and 320 km of jolting across pothole-ridden dirt roads to make the trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, all I wanted was a hot shower and a nap.

The public bus which boasted an on board karaoke set up pulled up at one of the city’s transport terminals. Stiff bodies unfolded after hours of being crammed into seats and dozens of feet scrambled to escape the metal box full strangers’ stale breath.

Our tour group was given a few minutes of reprieve before being shunted onto a mini bus, which would take us to our hotel. Having sniffed and struggled against the bus’s air-conditioning for several hours, my sinuses were keen for a whiff of fresh air. I breathed in deeply, relieved at having escaped my temporary prison.

As Phnom Penh’s air pooled in my lungs I realised that the city shared a characteristic with the other South East Asian cities I had visited days before— a distinct scent.

Most of South East Asia smells like my dogs breath on a hot day. This is the only thing I can liken the aroma to. I would, however, consider it less of a stink, and more of a subtle pong. I instantly recognised the tangy aroma redolent of Bangkok and Siem Reap. The way the smell hit me was similar to that of my dog too; despite the ruse of Cambodia’s winter months, the city panted in the thick, odorous heat. The aroma clung to my nostrils long after I had clambered onto the waiting mini-bus.

We rumbled through Phnom Penh’s streets teaming with motorbikes— the transport of choice for many people living across South East Asia. The mishmash of wires connecting electricity poles swung precariously low overhead as the driver navigated his way through tuk tuks and bikers, towards the Queen Wood Hotel.

Being Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh is full of hundreds of thousands of people doing thousands of things at any time of the day. The bustling city is still relatively undeveloped after having had to rebuild itself in the late 1990’s after being ravaged by years of war and tyranny under Pol Pot. Men wearing dusty working boots and overalls tied at their waists hung on scaffolding and hammered at structures across the city.

The city seemed to be made up of a jumble of modern bistros and boutique hotels and crumbling, derelict storefronts that sit alongside the new, well-kept buildings. As I discovered when I ventured into the city, Phnom Penh’s riverfront is peaceful place to walk and take in the grandeur of the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Tourists and locals meander the clean walkway that is a quiet break from the bedlam of the streets. Heading away from the river and even just one block into the city, the quiet bubble bursts and the hustle and bustle consumes travellers who make their way down pavements full of street stalls and hawkers.

Zoom Zoom’s words came flying back into my mind as the bus lumbered to a stop outside the hotel’s front; we were staying in the Red Light District famed for brothels and prostitutes. Casting glances up and down the bustling 136 Street, I saw the eclectic mix that made up this part of the Red Light District. Electronic signs advertising the cheap, locally brewed Cambodia and Angkor beers, which were buzzing bright in the dimming light of dusk, hung on crumbling brick walls. Motorbikes and tuk tuks zoomed past pedestrians. Local women and white-haired, foreign men were frequenting small café-cum-bars along the road.

This Red Light district was different to the images I had seen as well as the stories I had heard about Amsterdam’s Red Light District. There was a shabbiness to the area and while Amsterdam emitted a jovial air of naughtiness, Phnom Penh was shrouded in a mischief and a subdued sense of seediness. The women on the street, who I could only assume were prostitutes or sex workers did not smile. They stood waiting, watching as men and women walked down the pavements. One woman shook her long black hair over her shoulder as she led an older, white man in a tropical print shirt into one of the buildings further down the road.

Across the street from the Queen Wood, a man stood on the threshold of a bar which had no clear name. Instead, a sign on its awning simply spelled out ‘Welcome’ in peeling, yellow lettering. He beckoned to a passer-by as I dragged my suitcase into the hotel foyer.

The Queen Wood’s foyer, embellished with sleek, dark wooden panels and clean, white tiles, gave the impression that it was one of the better-kept buildings in the area. Unfortunately for us, this did not extend to its floors above.

My best friend Robyn and I, who were roommates throughout the trip, let out a small groan when we unlocked our door. The beds were made and looked alright but upon closer inspection I noticed unidentifiable splotches dotted across the linen. There were built in cupboards but after a few swings we realised the doors didn’t close. The barred window looked out onto a flaking grey wall. The bathroom had us in fits of giggles. It was one small, tiled box with the showerhead hanging right next to the toilet. The room was a sort of euphemism for the Queen Wood itself: Nice from far away but rather less pleasing up close.

Fearing potential bedbugs, we both laid down our own towels and sarongs before flopping down onto the beds to try and rejuvenate our energy levels before heading out into Phnom Penh in search of food.

On our way down to regroup, Robyn was unlocking the door when she let out a bark of surprise. I leapt across my bed with a yelp, worried that she had discovered one of the dreaded bed bugs.

“Have you read this list of Hotel Rules?” she asked.

“No, my eyes are still bouncing around my head after that bus ride,” I joked.

She began to read the list for me; “No loud noise after 12pm; Leave the sign on the door if you would like your room tended, Lock up personal belongings in the safe provided…” until finally she reached, “Lastly, no child sex.”

We guffawed in disbelief at the last rule, both wondering how and why that had come to be on the list. When we gathered in the foyer a few minutes later, I wasn’t surprised to find a few of the others in our group had noticed the list too and were rolling their eyes incredulously wondering what kind of person would need that warning.

The seediness of the Red Light District was palpable even off of the streets.

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