The darker side of travel Malcolm Macalister Hall reports from Cambodia, where child prostitution is rife Any thoughtful traveller knows that mass tourism - the world's biggest industry - is not an unmitigated blessing. A few of the negatives: Then there's the truly hellish side-effect of global tourism I witnessed in Svay Pak.
What I saw there will haunt me until I die. It's a scruffy shanty town just off the highway north of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia. Around Svay Pak's dirt streets and alleyways, in wooden shacks, families with up to 10 children struggle to survive on 2, riels 35p a day.
There's nothing to see here; no temples, no Angkor Wat. But, incongruously, a group of about 10 well-fed Westerners was lounging on plastic chairs at a cafe, drinking beer and eating chips and spaghetti. Svay Pak is infamous - by word of mouth and on the internet - as a destination for tourists looking for sex with young girls.
And for sex with children. Even before I had sat down at the cafe, I was surrounded by a scrum of boys - touts for the 22 brothels here.
You want young girl? A floppy-haired boy - maybe 12 or 13 - attached himself to me, and took charge of ordering my Marlboro. Very good boom-boom, very good yum-yum," he murmured, using the local slang for sex and oral sex. Very nice girl, very young. It was full of people - most of them hard-faced teenage boys.
But there were also three little girls. I was pushed into a stifling plywood cubicle, just big enough for the bed. The boys crowded round, pushing the girls forward. In a heartbreaking gesture, one of the girls climbed on to a stool beside me - presumably to increase her chances by making herself look taller.
This was more than enough. It was time to leave - or try to. You have girl now! I escaped this chamber of horrors only by dispensing most of my newly bought cigarettes and a fistful of riels.
But I shall never forget the little "year-old", and the thought of the grotesque things someone had trained her to do in that sweaty cubicle. Whether or not 10 was her real age, she didn't even come up to my waist. She looked more like six. Sex tourism, the dark underbelly of the tourist trade, is rapidly becoming a global issue. Unicef the United Nations Children's Fund reports that 97 countries have identified cases of commercial sexual exploitation of children, and puts the number of children recruited or coerced into the sex trade every year at 1.
At a conference in Tokyo earlier this year, Kul Gautam, Unicef's deputy executive director, described it as the "largest slave trade in history". It spans the globe: In the Philippines, the huge US naval base at Subic Bay spawned a hothouse of prostitution, and is said to have created the country's image as a cheap-sex destination.
Now, though, sex tourists are moving on. Just as legitimate tourists tick off the countries they have been to, so sex tourists tick off the nationalities with whom they have had sex. Thanks to a combination of cheap flights and the internet, paedophiles can quickly find and exploit children around the world.
Highly detailed sex-tourism sites provide all the information the globe-trotting paedophile might want - travel brochures to depravity. Along with Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia is among the latest destinations to be touted. The "glam rock" singer Gary Glitter turned up here - and was deported following allegations of assaults on boys - after his four-month sentence in Britain for downloading child pornography.
Ravaged by the Khmer Rouge and devastated in Pol Pot's killing fields, Cambodia is still a traumatised, impoverished society. It's often a medical bill. Many girls are tricked with tempting offers of work in a "cafe" in the big city; others are shipped in by people-traffickers from Vietnam. The girls will then be forced to work in brothels, unpaid, day and night, often for years. Some are fed methamphetamine pills - "speed" - to keep them awake.
The reluctant are coerced by rape, and sometimes by electric shocks. Many customers refuse to use condoms. Escape is prevented, usually by an armed guard. The girls' only reward is food, medical treatment to keep them working, and make-up to lure more customers. There are about six charities working in Cambodia to rescue child prostitutes, and at their rehabilitation centres you can hear all these brutal stories, and more. Even here, obscenely, a booming sex trade has sprung up to service visitors.
At Afesip's Phnom Penh centre, the chatter of 60 teenage girls fills the courtyard of a former family villa. They receive medical attention and counselling, and have classes in literacy sewing, hairdressing and cookery - things that will enable them to find normal work. Despite Afesip's constant funding crises, the dynamic Legros is now planning to set up a small non-profit clothing factory that will provide long-term employment for the most disturbed girls.
They variously arrive at the centre ill from malnutrition, shaking from methamphetamine withdrawal, with sexually transmitted diseases, pregnant, or HIV-positive. And all this while still in their teens. With the centre's manager, Sophon Phy, a former teacher, acting as translator, one of the girls tells me her story.
Rotha was 16 when her boyfriend persuaded her to leave her country village for Phnom Penh - and then sold her to a brothel. Some of them were Westerners. And if I didn't receive that number the owner would beat me again, or give me no food. I had to keep working. Her forehead is still scarred from beatings. She says that in those five years she was never paid. I was too afraid," she whispers. At another villa across town is the centre run by World Vision, the international Christian humanitarian organisation.
Most of the 36 girls here have been rescued from brothels; the others from sex abuse in the community. A punchbag hangs from a tree in the yard.
It has a purpose. Four of the centre's girls are currently in hospital, with Aids. All are just Gray and his colleagues work tirelessly with Cambodian government ministries, the police, and tourist organisations to try to combat sex tourism, as does Pierre Legros at Afesip.
The causes, they say, are many: But there are at least 50 sex crimes committed here every day by expatriates and tourists. And we convict three people a year! If these people had a kilo of heroin, they'd be in handcuffs in 10 minutes.
But sexual abuse of children? World Vision has run training courses for officials and staff in the ministry of tourism, the police and tourist associations to highlight the issue. Gray points out that awareness among those working in tourism is vital - from motorcycle-taxi drivers who may suggest "You want nice girl, mister? Supported by the British embassy and others, World Vision has helped the ministry produce a "child-safe" guidebook, which includes details of the government's intention to eradicate the sexual exploitation of children, and the penalties for paedophiles: The problem is that such penalties are rarely handed down - though an expatriate British headteacher was jailed in November for making videos of young girls.
And though some 20 countries, including Britain, have enacted so-called "extra-territorial legislation" - whereby sex offences committed abroad can be tried in the suspect's home country - only a handful of prosecutions have succeeded just three to date in Britain, according to Ecpat UK, and only one of those relating to Cambodia. No country wants to highlight this problem, and have its citizens on the front pages of the newspapers," says Pierre Legros.
He alleges that in many cases embassies have used strong-arm tactics to secure the release of suspects. Clearly heavily prodded by charities, the Cambodian government does at least recognise that the problem exists.
Increasing tourism is one of the country's stated development strategies; tourist numbers have been soaring since peace finally came to Cambodia following the death of Pol Pot in That year, there were just , international visitors; this year one million are expected.
Some surveys suggest that as many as 20 per cent of those will be sex tourists. But Dr Thong Khon, secretary of state for tourism, disagrees. We're pleased that tourists come to our country - they bring jobs and revenue to help our poor country develop. But there are also problems, such as prostitution. We have a campaign to educate the people, the tourist industry and even the police, because law enforcement is not so strong at the moment.
Then we must implement stern measures, because we don't want Cambodia to be thought of as a sex tourist destination. More customers; more prostitutes. Annual arrests for sex offences of all kinds have risen from virtually zero in to But if countries such as Cambodia have no help from outside, nothing will happen.
It's a global problem, and Cambodia cannot do this alone. If we don't help them, they will not succeed. No one working in the field says that it is directly responsible, but all insist that it does have a responsibility because it facilitates the exploitation of children. Laurence Gray says that the tourist industry's consumerist packaging presents destinations as commodities. It's a power relationship, too, between tourists and sex workers.