As many of you already know I am a frequenter of the hostess bars, or girly bars, here in Phnom Penh and there is much I have learned in the 6 years I have lived here. That having been said I host many poker players when they come to Cambodia and I am always fascinated by what most expect when they enter establishments of this sort for the first time. Thus I thought it might be pertinent to write a FAQ of sorts about the bars, the girls themselves and the scene in general.
HOW MANY BARS ARE THERE
There is no official record of this that I know of, at least a public one anyway, but rough counts given online in Facebook group puts the number somewhere around 200 bars in the riverside area. This does not include other areas around town known to have hostess bars so the number may be as high 250 to 300 bars. The riverside is the main area though and the one known by most visitors. It basically comprises of five streets along the river; 136, 130, 118, 110 and 104. Street 136 is the most well known of these streets and certainly the busiest with the most amount of bars. But with that variety comes a trade off as both the bars and girls are aware of this fact. Drinks on this street tend to be higher priced and the girls will also expect more in tips. Street 130 is always a nice alternative to street 136 as they also have many bars and a good number of them are owned by expats. I only bring that up as foreigners generally can expect a better experience in bars owned by other foreigners. Street 104 is also a good choice as many of those bars are long established and the girls have much experience in working in hostess bars.
HOW MANY GIRLS ARE THERE IN EACH BAR
The answer to this question really depends on the bar. On the high end some of the bigger bars on streets 136 and 130 will definitely have more than ten girls and as many as twenty possibly. But the smaller bars on some of the less busier streets may have as little as five girls in each bar. This is not to say that the bigger bars should be preferred as those establishments tend to be busier, nosier and some customers may get lost in the hustle and bustle of an establishment with twenty hostesses. A patron will certainly get more attention in a smaller bar as they are likely to be more grateful for your business. And there are other perks of a smaller bar as well such as that you probably will get to choose your own music most of the time and the drinks will be priced lower.
WHAT THINGS COST
I have discussed this topic once before on another blog post so I will reproduce the price list here and then discuss:
• draft beers $1.50
• canned beers $2.50
• high end bottled beers $3.50
• craft beers are not offered often in hostess bars
• cocktails and mixed drinks $3.50 to $6
• specialty drinks $4-$6
• lady drinks $3.50- $6
For patrons the price of drinks are a bit more than what one can expect from a non-hostess bar. Still I would not call any of these prices expensive, especially when considering where most of us come from and how much drinks cost in those countries. I have seen drinks for the hostesses range on the low end at $3.50 and $6 on the high end. A lot of this depends on whether you are drinking at a new bar, what street you are drinking on and how big and busy the bar is. When ordering a drink for a girl she will usually get a coke with a splash of whiskey in it, a draft beer with ice or in many instances just a soda or juice. When drinking the latter the girls will usually tell the customer that it's difficult to drink all night, but I personally do not care to hear that as they seem to drink cokes all night in which I do not see how that's so difficult. And I do not really care to pay for $4 sodas all night so I usually insist that they drink some form of alcohol.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Patrons are not guaranteed anything more than the company of a hostess within the premises of the bar, during the time in which they are being bought drinks. This situation sort of reminds me of Las Vegas where every new tourist arrives expecting certain things to be legal and readily available. While the comparison is not exact, the analogy is still appropriate as many new comers have expectations that do not always line up with reality. The bars are still plenty of fun regardless as most now have regular dancing shows on a stage or sometimes right up on the bar. Many of these girls have plenty of experience and are expert at showing customers a good time. But this is not to say that is always the case. With the proliferation of bars in the last couple of years newer girls have been in high demand and the bars have resorted to hiring many girls, younger and without much experience. So it could very well be that you may be sitting with a girl who is very shy and may not even speak English. In such a case it is appropriate to buy her the one drink and politely ask for the company of another girl. In any good bar they should be as interested in you having a good time as you are.
MOST BAR GIRLS ARE MARRIED
Every bar girl tells customers that they are neither married nor have a boyfriend. But of course this is what one should expect them to say and I do not really blame the girls for claiming this as it would hurt their bottom line otherwise. This reminds me of when I lived in Sihanoukville all the bars would get crowded every night and fill up with Khmer men around 2:00 AM, about an hour before closing. I wondered for a while why this was the case but soon learned that they were all the husbands and/or boyfriends of the hostesses, waiting to take them home after work. This should not really matter for the customer, although there are some who do go into the bars looking for their next girlfriend or even a wife. These girls certainly do exist, but they get married really young in this country and have children just the same. So it should not come as a surprise that most in the bars are the same as well.
MORE THAN YOU THINK ARE LESBIAN
I only bring up this next point because I find it somewhat amusing, but it may surprise some readers to find out that many of the hostesses working in bars are actually lesbians. Walk into most bars and customers can expect to find somewhat feminine appearing men working behind the bar as cashiers and bartenders. These employees are actually lesbians who have "transitioned" and are living out their lives as males. I find the situation humorous because often enough it is these bartenders that are dating the girls working as hostesses in the bars. They are often called "tomboys" here and are quite prevalent in the scene. So if you are ever wondering why the dude behind the bar is giving you death stares as you kiss your hostess, now you know why. Or if they are smiling, just know it is because they are both going to happily spend your money after.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SPONSOR A GIRL
When a girl at a bar is sponsored that usually means that a patron has pledged to give her a monthly allowance to stop working at the bar and essentially become a girlfriend. This was not always such a formalized practice as it was a more naturally occurring phenomena previously but with the ever increasing prevalence of the Chinese and other Asian cultures in Cambodia it has become more common. The practice does not mean exclusivity, at least on the part of the man, as it usually implies quite the opposite. In most cases the two parties do not live together and the man will most likely still see other girls. In other cases the patron will already be married and is basically looking for a mistress. The amount of the allowance varies as I have heard girls ask for as little as $600 but the going rate these days seems to be $1,000 USD per month.
THE CHINESE EFFECT
There has been an influx of Chinese here in Cambodia over the last few years and they have had a great impact on the society and the hostess bars are not exempt in this regard. As previously mentioned the practice of sponsoring is something that became more prevalent as more of them have entered the country and enjoyed the nightlife. So many of the most sought after girls have already been taken off the market as either they become sponsored or go to work at KTVs where the majority of the clientele are Chinese. Of the girls that remain in the bars as hostesses they have certainly seen this effect and desire the same outcome for their own lives. That having been said there are many girls who will exclusively keep the company of Chinese clientele and will basically ignore everyone else. If you ever wonder why the prettiest girl in the bar is sitting outside and pays more attention to her phone than to you, now you know why. But not everyone should automatically conclude that this is happening when they get ignored by a hostess. Simply put, this is of course a job for the girls and how they make their money. If a customer comes in and sips on a single draft beer for two hours and buys a single lady drink they are going to be ignored for the most part, Chinese or otherwise.
MARRYING A BAR GIRL
Plenty of expats come to Cambodia and end up marrying a bar girl or take one as a girlfriend. To get married as a foreigner here is actually very difficult as you cannot be older than 49 years old and must show a proper monthly income exceeding $3,000 per month in order to obtain a legal license. Many end up living together, having children and living exactly as a married couple without actually being so legally speaking. This is of course the dream for every bar hostess, to find a rich foreign man who will take care of her and her family for the rest of their lives. But it can often be difficult for the expat to live up to the expectations of what has basically been built up in their minds for years. It can be difficult for local girls to quantify just how foreigners have in terms of wealth and/or income. Since they have very little experience with bigger amounts of money, they just simply know that foreigners have more. This can often lead to the girls asking for what the boyfriend or husband considers to be too much, but one must always keep in mind that such can be due to their lack of experience in such matters. But for the man it can be difficult to near impossible to ever know if the girl truly loves him because the wealth gap is just too wide. The question will always linger of whether or not she would be with you if it were not for your money. Some simply do not care and take the situation for what it is as many have no such notions of what we would consider "love" in the Western world. For others it may be possible to truly know, but very unlikely without some sort of financial hardship or tribulation in which the girl stuck it out through a difficult time. In my six years here I have seen a little of both in which the girl was done with the man as soon as he ran out of money, and other situations in which they stayed together and went on to have a long and happy relationship.
Much of what I have written here are just data and numbers, while other things mentioned are of course my opinion. Some may find the topic offensive in general to even discuss on a forum such as this. But it is a reality of life here and it would be disingenuous to treat it as if it were not. My purpose in this writing is neither to endorse nor judge anything, but rather to be informative just as I would be about any other topic of reality here in Cambodia.
I remember the day Black Friday happened in America. For those of you outside the States that are unfamiliar, Black Friday was the day that the FBI seized the domains for the top online poker sites and essentially made online poker illegal in America. I was living in Las Vegas at the time and I remember my roommate waking me up telling me that the government had seized all the sites for Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet. I thought to myself at the time that this was nothing new and that they should be back up within the same day. But that did not happen of course and playing online became a very different endeavor after that date in America. I saw a variety of reactions online on the various forums, Facebook and Twitter. But what I found most peculiar was that those associated with live poker rooms seemed to rejoice at the news. Some poker clubs in Los Angeles raised their rake a bit as a result and even poker celebrities such as Doyle Brunson tweeted a challenge to online pros, basically writing that they would not do as well since they now had to play "real" poker in live card rooms. It was of course long believed that the casino lobby had a lot to do with the events of Black Friday as they have much power in the government and had pressured them to take this action. I always did think that such actions were misguided as poker has been in a state of somewhat free fall ever since. For the casinos this was a complete freeroll as even if the popularity of poker waned, they could always replace them in their floor space with other games that were most profitable. But for the players this was a complete loss as events since have more than demonstrated that live and online poker go hand in hand and that one cannot grow without the other.
The poker boom of course started back in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker took down the Main Event of the World Series of Poker for a cool $2,000,000. The story is all too familiar now that he qualified through a series of online satellites, paying $40 instead of the entry fee of $10,000. Moneymaker was not a poker pro but rather an accountant from the South and with his win began a craze during which quite literally every man thought they could obtain such riches and glory. And not long after that commercials started to appear on every TV channel for Party Poker, Full Tilt and the like. Poker was everywhere and it hardly seemed as if one could turn on ESPN, Fox Sports or the Travel Channel and not see a televised poker event. Other sites would soon open to fill the new market and sites like Absolute Poker, Paradise Poker, Pacific and Cake would join the ranks of the established platforms. With money being easily moved on and off of sites through banks, credit cards and debit cards the live rooms started to fill up as well as the game grew in popularity like never before. I spent the first few years of the boom playing in the live rooms of Los Angeles and I remember every game imaginable was being offered at the time. One could play anything from hold'em to omaha, from Mexican poker to 7-card stud hi-lo. After a few years of grinding the tables of L.A. I soon moved to Las Vegas where both online and live versions of the game grew as well.
When I lived in Vegas I played both live and online and this was a common phenomenon for poker players in sin city. There was money to be made in both arenas so we did not see any reason not to take advantage. During my peak I remember months when I would play 6 hours live and another 6 hours online 5 days per week. There was just that much money to be made back then and none of us wanted to waste the opportunity. And much like L.A. the game grew in the casinos as from somewhere around 50 poker rooms, the number would ultimately grow to over 100 in the city. Having spoken to casino managers at the time though, poker was never something that these entities wanted to run. In previous years poker rooms took a limited amount of floor space in a few casinos. But after the boom it was simply something that every facility needed to have as too many customers asked for the game and wanted to play. It was only a few short years after the boom that the casino lobby had started to attack the online industry and had even convinced some players that online poker was harmful to the game. But what most did not realize was that online poker was an introductory experience for new players. It may be difficult to realize for those of us who have played the game for years, but going to a casino and sitting in a game where others may be better than you is not an easy task. The online game allowed players to learn the game gradually and graduate to a live game, where they were probably still outmatched but at least they were more willing and likely to play at the casino. All one has to do is think about the mechanics of an online game vs live, especially in terms of the money that is being handled. In a casino game a player will have to take a few hundred dollars at least to play any meaningful game. But in an online experience one can simply deposit $50 just to get their feet wet, just as I did with the first deposit I ever made in Party Poker.
Money would soon become more difficult to move in and out of poker sites as the years went on. It became common for players have to use third party payment processors such as Skrill or Neteller. But this did not prove to be too difficult and the game continued to grow on all fronts. But once Black Friday occurred it became nearly impossible to get money on and off. All sorts of creative measures were enacted in order for players to deposit such as prepaid credit cards or Western Unions sent to a woman named Guadalupe in Costa Rica. I remember I made a deposit once that showed up on my bank statement that I did not initially recognize as it was listed as a purchase at a furniture store in Connecticut. When I called the phone number listed on the statement, a man answered the phone and was very coy about describing to me why that amount appeared on my statement. Legally he could not tell me that it was for a poker deposit and after about 15 minutes of giving me hints I finally remembered that it was for a $500 deposit into Bodog Poker. And when it came to cashing out things were even more difficult as I remember one check taking 6 months to arrive. Another time a check arrived in four months but bounced as soon as I tried to cash it. Things got so desperate that I started to sell money on my poker sites on online forums at $0.75 for $1. Players had to go to great lengths to move money and it was not the sort of thing that recreational players were going to put themselves through.
This of course had a big impact on the live games as well. As it was becoming more difficult to play online, grinders did initially start to flood the live rooms. But they soon found the rake difficult to beat and without perks such as rakeback the transition was a difficult one. And without any sort of introductory forum such as online poker, recreational players were coming in to live rooms at a lesser rate as well. When I moved to Vegas there were something along the lines of 50 rooms in town, a number that would eventually grow to 100+. I remember even a gas station near my apartment had a poker table in the back that would sometimes run a $1-$2 NLH game. But with all these events the game started to be less popular and soon enough casinos started to close down rooms. The most telling is what happened at the Mirage where the most well known pros once played their "Big Game." I remember one day playing on a Sunday with a friend at the Mirage when he remarked to the dealer that what was happening to the room was very sad for him. When I asked him for an explanation he told me that we were playing on table #1, where the likes of Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan once played games as high as $200-$400 mix. My friend found it rather depressing that this table was now being used for a $1-$2 NLH game. Other casinos closed down their rooms altogether of course and soon the number of them in town was closer to the 50 of when I first arrived.
All of this is not to say that online poker has always been a perfect partner to the live industry. There have certainly been enough scandals of cheating over the years on online sites to scare people from playing. And with the game played in a measured environment that online poker provides, the use of stats derived from software has done much to make the game worse. But I would argue that such would have been the case regardless and had not certain powers waged war against online poker, such players would be part of a much larger field and their impact would not have been as great. A minority of the pool will always win the majority of the money in this game, but they need recreational players from which to feed on and such players have been decreasing over the years to a presently alarming rate. The more recreational players exist in the pool, the more regs will play and generate more rake. And as more players get introduced to this great game of poker via the online experience, more of them will also gradually make their way to the live felt. All of this will go a long way towards making the game more of a social experience, especially the live version. In the end that is what many live rooms are missing today, the social experience, as the presence of grinders becomes ever more prevalent while less and less new players get introduced to the game. There has been a resurgence as of late with the popularity of private game apps that have emerged in Asia and quickly into other parts of the world. Unlike the established sites, these apps have gone to great lengths to attract new players and not just crushers. For the moment those that operate live rooms have adopted a welcoming attitude towards such apps. As I am agent for several such apps, one manager of a poker room here in Phnom Penh even remarked to me that we mutually benefit each other. Such was a refreshing take on this whole phenomena, one that I hope other operators around the world also adopt.
Much like earlier sites during the early days of the poker boom, these apps exist in a legally grey area and remain largely unregulated. But all of this only demonstrates how much there exists a thirst for online poker, even among newer and lesser established players. Clubs are now emerging from America to help fill the void when the market was vacated by the events of Black Friday and online apps are seeing a resurgence of great games with action that has not been seen for years. It is the hope of this writer that history will not repeat itself and like here in Cambodia, both room operators and law makers will take on a more accepting attitude towards the virtual version of this great game of poker. When run in harmony poker is a game in which a variety of different parties can benefit and the online experience does much to contribute to this balance.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.