Despite periodic police raids, the sex industry in Svay Pak commune - also known
infamously as K-11 for its 11-kilometer distance outside Phnom Penh's city
limits - flourished during the 1990s.
A heavily mascaraed statue of Jesus inside the Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Svay Pak.
Although clean-up attempts were
frequent, brothels were closed and reopened regularly. The occasional NGO-led
foray to "rescue" sex workers was countered by brothel owners merely ordering
new girls to feed Phnom Penh's sexual appetites. Early in 2005, however, the
government shut down Svay Pak for a film production and used the opportunity to
uproot the existing brothels.
Today, prostitutes no longer operate with
impunity. Visitors now may find their attention drawn instead to a small
Catholic church sitting quietly at the end of Svay Pak's unpaved main street.
The Mary Magdalene Church was established in 1998 and has played a key role for
the predominantly Vietnamese community in Svay Pak, providing both spiritual
guidance and practical assistance to the immigrant population.
Vietnamese living in Svay Pak occupy an unusual space apart in Cambodian
society. Some have obtained Cambodian ID cards and nominal legitimacy; others
have no papers at all. This community adrift - fully part of neither the
Vietnamese diaspora nor Cambodian state - has found an unlikely savior in the
form of a church willing to pursue highly unconventional tactics to help its
Sister Simone, a nun in charge of Mary Magdalene -who is
sometimes regarded as the patron saint of repentant prostitutes - explained that
initially the church helped new immigrants establish small businesses like
coffee shops or vegetable stalls. During the time when the brothel industry
thrived, these small enterprises proved lucrative. The shops, while not selling
sex directly, were dependent upon the flow of customers to the neighboring
The conjunction of church and brothel-based business, though
incongruous, was successful: To operate under the auspices of Catholicism was a
means of guaranteeing oneself a certain degree of protection. But following the
closure of the brothels, business opportunities have waned and the Mary
Magdalene church now focuses its attention on running a small school for the
second generation of Vietnamese immigrants.
Sop Chanthou works at the
school that adjoins the small but vibrant church in Svay Pak. The school, which
caters for children under the age of eight, was established in 2001. It prepares
Cambodian-born Vietnamese children for primary school by teaching basic
However, dislocated children - second generation immigrants on the
cusp of two societies - understandably prove difficult pupils. Incessant chatter
and infinitesimal attention spans are the bane of any good teacher's life and
Sop Chanthou is no exception. Yet in Svay Pak the children's boundless energy is
channelled into productivity: Clapping hands and chanting voices bounce over the
tiled walls. The church helps negotiate the morass of bureaucratic complications
and finds available places in local schools, enabling some of the school's
pupils to continue their education.
The unique brand of Svay Pak
Catholicism bears little resemblance to orthodox European conceptions of
adherence to the Holy See. Services are held in Khmer and Vietnamese every
Sunday and become more frequent in the run-up to Chinese New Year. The
syncretism of the church manifests in an exceptional aesthetic: Jesus wears
mascara under a crown of fairy light thorns, and the Virgin Mary, wrapped in a
rosary, has a colorful dignity as she accepts offerings of bananas from
well-dressed Vietnamese women.