I just moved back to the USA after living in Cambodia for the last five years. I was hoping and praying that moving back to the USA would make it easier to recover from all that I had been through, all that I had seen. Unfortunately, there are still many triggers that force my memory into action. The last trigger was watching an old episode of the show Laramie. This episode was about a young man who was half Indian and half white, and except for the stars in the show, the others in the town referred to him as a half-breed, a thief, etc.… It was this reference that brought back all the memories of living in Cambodia and what I witnessed and encountered.
I moved there to open a small hotel with the goal of not making a profit but just giving back, improving education, and of course, providing a decent living wage. As admirable as I thought these goals were, I was forced to recognize that not all westerners believed or wanted the same as me. There was so much history, beginning before the Khmer Rouge, when Cambodia was a colony of France, then the bombing during the Vietnam War, leading to the genocide by the Khmer Rouge. One would think that now, fifty years later, there would be a difference, but sadly that isn’t the case. The education system today is much like it was over fifty years ago. There are still not enough teachers, and the majority of these teachers lack sufficient training. Due to this teacher shortage, it is quite common to have teachers that only have their high school diplomas. I remember taking a microscope to an intermediate school and the biology teacher was so happy because this was his first time using a microscope. This is 2022 and to see educators starving for additional knowledge and adequate tools was and is gut-wrenching. With lack of education and lack of knowledge, there breeds a lack of hope.
It is this lack of hope that preys on me like the ex-pat predators preying on human flesh. The lack of hope leads many youths to quit school, hoping and wanting to find a better life in the city, and opportunities to make more money to provide for themselves and their families. It is this drive to provide more for their families and the lack of education that makes them vulnerable to the predators that exist. There are so many stories that I could share but one, in particular, is very close as it is the one that involves me directly.
Shortly after moving to Siem Reap, I met a very nice man in his mid-30s, a strong, good-looking, hard-working man. He shared with me his dreams, a dream of having his own house, and a place for his family. All indications were that he was an honorable soul, though troubled. Most young people there suffer from generational PTSD and I believe such was the case for this man. We became very close friends, best friends even. After a year of knowing him, he came to work for me in my hotel. He worked extremely hard, was bright, and willing to learn and I had no doubt that he would become a shining star. I believed in him and according to him was the first person that did. This was his second job and in all the time he worked for me he never gave me a reason to doubt him or who he was. It wasn’t until Covid struck and I lost the hotel that the truth would begin to show itself and the lies unravel.
I learned that this young man had another life, one that was much darker, in the clutches and control of an ex-pat predator. The more I learned the truth, the more I cared, not only for his well-being but for the well-being of his brother too. This perverted predator had been raping the brother for over eight years. The young man who worked for me would later indicate that this ex-pat owned him. The ex-pat was the pimp, and my friend his prostitute; the ex-pat was using him for the sex trade, making videos, and extortion. I would later be told this ex-pat and others within his circle believed the Khmer were just pieces of shit to be used for sex, they didn’t have the intelligence to do anything else or to think for themselves. Knowing all this made me livid and I confronted my friend, my confidant, and he broke down and started crying, telling me that he should have told me the truth. I thought I could save him, but he went back and shared what I knew with “his owner” and it would be me who would need saving. Hundreds of years have gone by and those who have suffered at the hands of the foreigners are still shackled after independence, still looked down upon, still used, still treated with no respect, and still treated as property, like a piece of machinery to be owned and used.
Once aware that I knew what was happening he schemed and forced my Khmer friend to lie and have me arrested for blackmail and sex trafficking. I was arrested for what he was doing. I learned that innocence doesn’t mean anything in some countries; Cambodia is one of them.
Money is the driving force and when you have no money, the things you will do to get money are sickening. I have heard the stories from those in prison of selling drugs, selling themselves, and even parents selling their children. All is done in the belief that money will give them a better life. Those in prison all shared a very similar story, “when all hope has been lost what is there left to do.”
When I shared my friend’s story with a couple of fellow inmates, they all said the same thing, “Nothing good ever comes from a sixteen-year-old moving to Phnom Penh.'' This is true. I learned that my friend left his homeland at the age of sixteen with a sixth-grade education to make a better life in the big city. Being sixteen he found a job in a boy bar, and it was there he met the ex-pat predator. My friend had a dream of becoming a model and the ex-pat told him he was a photographer and could take photos of him, and help him start a modeling career. Yes, he did become a model for a short period, but the ex-pat knew there was no money in it for him so he set up a business where my friend would have sex with tourists, make videos and then extort money from them or sell them via pay-per-view. One would think that one of the 3600 NGOs operating in Cambodia would be on to this scheme and be looking to rid the country of the trash but unfortunately, that isn’t the case.
Of all those NGOs operating only a handful are legitimate. The rest have their fingers in that pie full of money, some even running their schemes. Now I am back in the States to try and figure out what is next for me. I sit here gazing out the window on this warm, blustery pre-spring morning and wonder what has happened to my friend and all the others like him. I am resolved to keep fighting for justice and change, to help bring education to those who desperately want it and deserve it. To stop the injustice that exists, the predators from preying on unsuspecting youth and young people, and to provide some hope where none exists. This is what keeps me alive and provides the will to go on each day. Perhaps I can achieve here in the USA what I couldn’t achieve there, a better life for the Khmer.
After 31 years in banking, John Ganshaw retired to follow his dream of owning a hotel in Southeast Asia. This led to many new experiences enabling John to see the world through a different lens, leading him to write his story through essays, poetry, and a yet unpublished memoir. John’s work has appeared in Native Skin, Runamok Books/Growerly, Post Roe Alternatives, Fleas on the Dog, OMQ, Open Door Magazine, SCARS poems and short stories, and others. Nothing is as it seems, and experiences are meant to shape us not define us. Life has hope, truth, and adventure, all leading to stories that need to be written and told. John recommends Cambodian Community Dream Organization.