The lost bars of Phnom Penh
Cambodia is often described as a major sex tourism destination in the mainstream press. I’m not sure if that is simply a result of its location in Southeast Asia or a product of the unsavory reputation the country developed after the mayhem and chaos of the nineteen seventies and eighties. While there are certainly people who travel to Cambodia with the purchase of sexual services in mind I don’t think they outnumber the millions of visitors who travel to the country to see Angkor Wat. Even a town like Sihanoukville which has a substantial foreign popular only has a very limited adult nightlife scene.
On the other hand I think the number of travelers that go to Thailand and the Philippines with an eye to shelling out cash for sex probably come close or even surpass the number of visitors that go to those countries to see significant sites or spend time on a beach. I could be wrong. I am not a statistician or tourism expert. This is just my educated guess based on years of travel and research.
Cambodia is one of the countries I have yet to cover in much detail on this website though this is not due to a lack of information. It is not alone in that regard but as I mentioned in a previous post that will change in the coming months as an increased in the number of published each month will make room for new material that I hope will entertain the readers.
There are many places in Cambodia where sexual services are sold but collectively they don’t compare to the vast industries of nearby countries like Thailand. There is nothing like an Angeles City go go bar or a Bangkok soapy massage complex anywhere in Cambodia. In some ways the adult entertainment scene is even more conservative than a Western country like the United States. Women don’t dance nude or even in bikinis at any establishment in Cambodia. Things are a lot more low key.
It was not always that way. In the nineteen nineties and early 2000’s when the country was a lot more lawless than it is today some pretty brazen bars popped up in the capital that made it seem as if a new Pattaya could be emerging. It wasn’t long before the long arm of the law cut those sprouts short however. Economic and other factors have managed to kill off a number of less risky businesses in the time since. There are still many establishments around and hostess bars in particular seem to be on the increase but some of the most famous and infamous places in Cambodia’s capital city have gone the way of the dodo bird. Several months ago I wrote about the lost blowjob bars of Bangkok. Today I report on the lost bars of Phnom Penh. This report is especially timely because two of the most well known bars in the city shuttered their doors this year.
Cathouse was the first major hostess bar to emerge in Cambodia. It was founded during the time when UNTAC was administering the country in 1992-93 and kept on operating until the lease ran out a few months ago. Rumor has it that the landlord wanted to turn the building into something more respectable. That very well may be true since the place has been quickly transformed into a high end baby supply shop in the months since Cathouse had its final last call.
I’ve heard it said that Cathouse was variously operated by American, English, Filipino and Vietnamese people over the years though to be honest I don’t know the complete history of the place. Early on it had rooms upstairs but that quickly changed and for the rest of the bar’s time in business it didn’t even have a barfine system in place. Guys who wanted to meet a woman outside of work had to make arrangements with the girl individually and meet during her free time.
The bar opened early in the day, had a full kitchen, charged losers for games of pool and closed at midnight. This along with the large number of Vietnamese woman on staff set it apart from most other bars that came after even though Cathouse was the original. After the Cathouse closed many of the women who worked there went on to work at Mao’s Bar next to the Night Market which operates on a similar basis. A few moved on to the similar Shanghai bar on Street 51 near Golden Sorya Mall and a handful of others went to work at other bars around. Some of the women from Vietnam went back to their countries of origin.
Martini was a bar and more that like Cathouse had a long and storied history. With an outdoor movie theater, a full kitchen, a bar and its own little disco, the place operated for years through relocations and reincarnations before finally closing its doors for good a few months ago.
At one time Martini was on of the only places for foreigners to go for late night food, dancing and dolls who came in the form of a mix of local and Vietnamese freelancers. The business model was undercut by the emergence of more mainstream discos like Pontoon at Golden Sorya Mall and hostess bars in the busier riverside area that stay open until the last customers calls for a check.
I don’t know why Martini closed but the rumor that the lease ran out and the landowner was asking too much money to renew it is probably true. The property where the bar was located is now listed for rent for several thousand US dollars per month even though it is worn down and practically in the middle of nowhere. Some of the freelancers who worked in the bar seem to have moved on to the bar at the Nagaworld Casino but others have disappeared from the scene.
In any event most English speaking punters don’t seem to mind the end of Martini much with many agreeing that it lost its luster years ago. I’m not sure what the Chinese guys that were a lot more common in the last years of the bar’s operation have to say however. In any case a monument to nightlife is now gone. I have no idea what will happen to the dwarf who sat in front of the place asking for money for years but I’ve heard he’s already found new places to prod for paper.
A small on Street 174 near Golden Sorya Mall was being worked on about a month ago. Signage out front reads “The New Martini’s.” This may be a reincarnation of the place but if so the new space is much smaller than the old. In a place like Phnom Penh it is just as likely that someone else would open a bar with a similar name to piggy back off its fame.
Nay Nay Star Bar was a large bar and guesthouse on Street 102 near the riverside established in the remnants of a closed bar. The place stood out by opening early in the day and having rooms upstairs where punters could retire with willing women working in the bar. At one point there were more than a dozen women working the bar though at some point a few years ago there was a bit of an exodus that sent many to look for employment at various hostess bars around the city.
Nay Nay was listed for sale a little while back and was quickly grabbed up by a European guy who gave it a face lift and renamed the place “Valhalla.” It is still the only bar on the street though it does get its share of customers at times. Although it has been given a fresh coat of paint it doesn’t look all that different. The pool tables are still in place and a few women work the bar but things don’t get going until the evening or later and sometimes not all. As far as I can tell the place no longer bills itself as a bar and guesthouse and customers who want to spend time with women working there have to do so off premises.
The most infamous bars in Phnom Penh had shorter but much more eventful histories. Places like Mikado, Sofie’s and the original Le Cyrcee employed dozens of women who offered action either inside or right above the bar. The women at Mikado didn’t wear panties just like the women at the original Club 4 in Pattaya before the raid. In the case of Sophie’s oral services could be sampled for the price of a lady drink right in the bar which was also the way things were at Wild Country in Bangkok’s old Washington Square.
Cyrcee was raided in 2004 not long after it opened its doors. The owner was arrested but released soon after. The bar reopened fairly quickly but the rooms upstairs were customers could previously retire with willing women on staff were closed to the public. Secret Bar still operates today but customers who want to spend time with any of the women who work there have to do so outside of the bar.
Sophie’s was closed sometime in 2007 though I have never discovered the real reason. There’s no note of it in any English language newspaper or website I can find but rumor has it that the police closed the place after complaints from neighbors. I find this a little hard to believe. There are people living in expensive apartments in the middle of Bangkok that have no idea they live next door to blowjob bars even though the are advertised with illuminated signs. Meanwhile Sophie’s was surrounded by pretty poor housing and could only be reached by going through an unmarked door, climbing a flight of spiral stairs and getting let through a locked door by the staff. On the other hand I could be wrong if past reports of similar situations are anything to go on.
Mikado was closed after a raid in 2008 that resulted in a long prison sentence for the owner. The word at the time was that the crackdown was inspired by a Western pornographic website posting a video featuring Cambodian women that was titled something “Whores from Mikado in Phnom Penh.” This sounds feasible but similar videos appeared of women working at other bars in the city that were not subsequently shuttered. Another rumor states that the owner of Mikado had hidden cameras in the ceilings of the rooms in the hotel attached to the bar and sold footage he acquired on video discs in local markets.
Tragically there were reports that some of the women rounded up and arrested in various busts that occurred in the late 2000’s ended up getting abused and even raped in police custody. While I hope these reports are false at least one comes from a very trustworthy expat who spent years in country and plenty more have come directly from sex workers.
As recently as a year ago a bar that looked like every other hostess bar on Street 172 had a short and surprising run as a place where action could be had on premises in a “VIP” back room. It left the scene just as it arrived, seemingly out of nowhere. Apparently the local owner sold it to a foreigner who tried to run it as a regular hostess bar. With reduced staff and no real draw he was only capable of keeping the place in business for a month or two. It closed and was sold to someone else who has reopened it under a new name. Many of the women who worked the originally incarnation of the bar moved on to other hostess bars around the city where any action in the bar is for the most part forbidden. A bar has opened in the same space with a new name but nothing goes on inside other than drinking and games of pool.
Last but not least I will mention Golden Boss. This was a charming local oriented bar on the riverside that was more like a ballroom than a brothel. Local women wearing beautiful dresses did ballroom dances through the night. Some of these women were the wives or boyfriends of local guys and came to enjoy the music of the live band. Others were on their own and looking for customers. Many would go off to private places after a few dances to exchange a bit of sexy time for payment. It was a throwback to older times. While it always had customers I don’t know that Golden Boss was able to compete with other places that opened in recent years. The final straw for the bar was a shooting in 2012. It never reopened and the ball room model seems to have largely died out with the bar.
So that’s it. Quite a few places are gone and will likely never return. Those who love and appreciate the ways of the past aren’t totally out of luck however. Famed freelancer haunt The Walkabout on Street 51 is still in business as is Sharky’s on Street 130. The latter is no longer “the oldest rock bar in Southeast Asia” since it now hosts all sorts of live music but some freelancers still make their way there. Some of them also ply their trade at Nagaworld where they ask unwitting guys for up to twice as much as they do at the shark bar.