Phnom Penh is agiant red light district, with go-go or ‘hostess’ girly bars the most public example of Cambodian sex tourism. Although the government is raising efforts to eliminate illegal brothels, gambling halls and karaoke parlours, these are not places that Westerners would usually know about, let alone visit.
Martini, Sharky’s, Walkabout and Heart of Darkness are the most popular for Westerners, with each boasting a wide selection of local delicacies. Dozens of smaller, more intimate, bars are everywhere, and all are much the same. These can, however, make a nice change if you want to actually talk or be soundly beaten at Connect Four.
There is no centralised red light district in Phnom Penh, but the area around Street 130, Street 136 and Street 51 is where the majority of bar girls can be found, at any time of the day or night. Most of the ‘bars’ are little more than brothels with beer, although some run a clean, friendly operation.
All of the girls that work there are available to takeaway, US$10-$20 for ‘short time’ (an hour or so) up to US$50 for the night, depending on your bargaining skills. A bar fine will also need to be paid to take merchandise off the premise (usually about US$10), although make sure your hotel allows such ‘visitors’ to avoid a scene on your return. Girlie drinks are typically US$3.
The real action doesn’t heat up until after 23:00, when travellers and working girls become open season. Independent working girls (i.e. not staff, therefore no bar fine), also known as freelancers or streetwalkers, ply their trade from bar to bar looking for customers. These girls are not tied to a bar and pocket most of their earnings.
Unlike most other nations, prostitution is not heavily stigmatised in Cambodia, and many working girls from rural areas often earn the respect of their villages through sending financial support back home. While the city houses another, more hidden world of prostitution, travellers can find the right partner(s) at any of the mainstream bars, where greater security, air-conditioning and watchful staff make for a more enjoyable experience.
Phnom Penh’s sex industry is world famous, though far less glamorous than the likes of Pattaya or the Philippine’s Angeles City. There are numerous businesses in the city centre that ever-obliging tuk-tuk drivers will be happy to take you to. These are more tailored to Asian customers that prefer Vietnamese women, who dominate Phnom Penh’s regulated sex scene.
Their pale skin and delicate features are considered more attractive than the darker, more rounded Khmer girls. Most of these places masquerade as beauty salons or karaoke parlours. Activities take place on site, with the organising syndicate taking most of the profits and treating staff appallingly.
The notorious and infamous suburbs of Svay Pak and Tuol Kork, where hundreds of prostitutes huddle around grimy tin shacks, are still in operation despite repeated attempts to close them down. Expect Third World conditions, as these places are designed for one thing to take place, as quick as possible. Warning – child prostitution is a serious crime and is rampant in these shanties, with foolhardy Western men regularly busted by police for underage sex offences.
Please be aware – organised prostitution is illegal in Cambodia, and HIV rates are high. All the safety precautions must be taken seriously. Keep to the well-known, well-frequented bars and you will discover a flock of pretty companions that are surprisingly genuine, funny and diplomatic.
The following are the most respected, or least respected, bars to find company at. All are friendly, safe, hostess bars/ nightclubs. Most venues include the obligatory pool table, a decent menu and live sport. In each, the girls will usually approach you and are very up-front about what they can offer. Negotiate a price and destination, pay the bar tax and away you go. Most will be keen to get things over with and return to work unless well compensated. Some bars have their own onsite rooms, others mean a journey back to your hotel or to a new room.
Recommended Phnom Penh girlie bars
Sharky Bar: The original Phnom Penh club bar, with plenty of space indoors and out, is a popular mainstream institution with a huge dancing area that is always packed with girls.
Martini Pub: Made famous in the 90s by visiting UNTAC workers, this bar advertises for the hungry, bored and lonely. Good drinks and lots of ladies, it also features an outdoor cinema and gaming room.
Heart of Darkness: Cambodia’s most well-known nocturnal party bar. The modern version is far more stylish than its notorious predecessor; the game table on the dance floor sees more negotiating than pool. Full to the Khmer rafters on Friday and Saturday nights.
Walkabout: One of the best places to find freelance workers, the 24hr kitchen and guesthouse means you may never leave.
69 Bar: Small, lively hostess bar in the heart of the red light area, back from the riverfront. The girls like to drink, dance and play games.
Dream Bar: A more relaxing atmosphere than its neighbours, offering music that is not at volume 11 and chatty staff.
Flora Bar: A cosy hostess bar with hands-on staff. The couches in the back are for the open minded and adventurous.
Nay Nay Star Bar: A stylish hostess bar with the usual girls, sports and alcohol. The upstairs guesthouse can be convenient.
Oasis Bar: A great location in the middle of the nightlife circuit, with decent drink prices and reasonable music. Oasis is a good place for a drink with the ever-thirsty staff.
Candy Bar: One of the bigger complexes, with the 24hr sports-friendly venue offering plenty of hostesses in addition to comfortable seating, music at conversation volume and an upstairs guesthouse.