KTV, or karaoke club, establishments doting the city’s landscape might seem to be innocent places to unwind after a hard day’s work in the office – places to hang out, have a couple of drinks and sing some popular tunes with friends. But behind this veneer of innocence and fun is a dark side with drug addiction rife among hostesses, girls selling their bodies to pay for their drug habits, and criminal gangs trafficking designer drugs in KTV joints. Ven Rathavong investigates.
It was just another night for *Srey Oun in the KTV entertainment center. She knew what her job was – to welcome guests and to entertain those who wanted her service. That was all what her job entailed; or so she thought.
“One guest called me to go to another club. I thought it was just like a normal club, but it was actually an entertainment center where people were shaking their heads to loud music and sniffing some strange coloured powder through straws. Some were taking pills,” Srey Oun narrated, a krama covering her face.
“My guest gave me one pill and let me take it with soda. I thought it was candy.”
She saw the people in club trembling, as if they were in a trance. Scared of the appalling sight she was forced to witness, Srey Oun rushed home.
“But I started to feel the effects of the pill, which I later found out was ecstasy. I started to shiver uncontrollably. I told my friends what was happening so they gave me a headset and let me listen to loud music. It made me feel calm and relaxed.”
It’s been four months now since the day Srey Oun first took that one blue pill, and she hasn’t stopped. Not a day goes by without her taking ecstasy, claiming it gives her a different sense of happiness.
“It gave me a feeling of total freedom – something I never dreamed I could ever feel. It gives me relief from worries and pressure of providing for my family.”
Born in Pursat province, Srey Oun is the eldest of five children. She carries on her shoulder the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings after their father died two years ago.
She stopped studying at 14 and took odd jobs to make both ends meet and put food on the table. She went to Thailand to earn a living in the construction industry for six years.
When she turned 23, she came back to Cambodia and worked at a garment factory in Phnom Penh. But she lost her job after a dispute with her superiors. Desperate to find a job to support the people who rely on her, she found her way to an entertainment club.
At present, she is not merely addicted to ecstasy, she has become an active dealer of it as well.
Many entertainment clubs and KTVs in Phnom Penh – including some major entertainment outlets – have been reported to be venues of drug trafficking. Most of them offer the use of ketamine and ecstasy, which users call “shaken” drugs.
But while drug users claim that taking ketamine and ecstasy has given them euphoria albeit for a short time, these drugs are also taking the little money they have.
Srey Oun rents a small room that costs $70 per month. She used to save $100 for her rent and utilities and send at least $300 to her family in Pursat.
But things changed, including her financial priorities, when drug addiction set in.
“When I did not know about the drug, I always had money in my wallet. But when I got addicted to it, all the spare cash I have is spent on it that at times I do not even have money to eat rice,” she shared, adding that she spends at least $20 a day on drugs which she shares with five of her friends.
She now juggles two jobs – at a restaurant during the day and at the KTV during the night – to supplement her income and fuel her increasing drug habit, and selling drugs at a club after leaving the KTV at midnight.
She revealed that she resorted to becoming a dealer when she was enticed by suppliers who promised her of more income. She obtains drugs from a regular dealer who frequents the club. She sells them to patrons in the entertainment establishment.
“I earn a minimum of $30 per night, and on a good day, I can earn up to $50,”she said.
Srey Oun claimed that she can sell up to five ecstasy pills, 10 Louis Vuitton (LV) pills and 10 packs of ketamine every night; she gets $2.50 for each pill and pack.
“I have to take from the ‘boss’ one set of pills at a time and when it’s all sold, I go back for more. However, if it’s not sold, whatever remains is returned to the ‘boss’. If I come later than midnight, I could only sell 10 packs a night.”
She brought Good Times2 with her to the club where she sells illegal drugs. The guards restricted entry to the club after some entertainment centers have been raided by police. But Srey Oun is known in the place, so we were allowed to go in.
The club consists of many rooms designed like a normal club, with sofas and a DJ in front.
Srey Oun claimed that she built close relationship with a regular dealer, whom she calls “brother”, and together, they could earn up to $700 from selling drugs in two of the club’s rooms. $450 is given to their “boss”.
“My ‘brother’ also instructed me to not use the drugs to destroy myself. He told me that I need to understand the impact of the drugs. But even if we know the danger, we decided to keep doing it because this career gives us income.
“I want my family to have a better life like others, so I have to do it. I lied to my mom and other people by telling them that I work in restaurant to earn more money.”
She has never invited her mother or any of her siblings to visit her in Phnom Penh.“[My mother] would probably kill me,” Srey Oun said.
Most of those who buy drugs from her are male guests, while her brother’s clients are mostly women.
With her face still fully covered with krama, Srey Oun showed Good Times2 how the drug business transpires.
She explained that the packs of ecstasy and ketamine are categorised in three colours. The white and orange packs are used to neutralise the effects of ecstasy and ketamine. The red pill is taken by users who want to feel intense happiness.
The LV pills, meanwhile, are grouped in four – taro, white, blue and red. The blue pill is reported to be the strongest kind and the most expensive, priced at $17.50 for each pill.
For ketamines, a 25-gram sachet may vary in price – $70 and $120 – depending on the effects of the pills customers want to take.
“The men who use this drug would have enhanced craving for sexual intimacy, but some ladies who take the drugs do not get the same sensation.”
Most of her customers are high school students who are even younger than 18 years old, she revealed.
Srey Oun once tried to abandon the illegal business she’s into, but she said it has been a huge help to her family. She admitted that she also has a four-year-old son who is being cared for by her mother in Pursat.
“I am so ashamed of myself for doing this. I know it’s dangerous and that it’s bad for my health. I’m really disappointed and upset with the life that I have now – from becoming a hostess to a drug addict then to a dealer.
“Sometimes when I’m drunk, I cry thinking about my life.”
But Srey Oun said that when she started dealing drugs to the club’s patrons, she no longer had to sleep with customers for additional income. “I can earn good money if I go to the club and sell drugs.”
She further revealed that most of the female drug users are working in the entertainment industry themselves – hostesses, waitresses and promoters. She claimed that some police officers, medical doctors and actors have also been buying illegal drugs from them.
These drugs, they say, help reduce their stress, sadness and pressure. A pill of ketamine or ecstasy or LV gives them the happiness they rarely feel when they’re sober.
This is also why *Kanha, a 23-year-old university student, became involved in illegal drugs. She has been using narcotics, ketamine and ecstasy for a year and a half now, claiming that it was her cousin and friends who persuaded her to try.
The youngest daughter in the family, Kanha grew up with a comfortable life as her father works as a military officer. But when she started getting addicted to drugs, she began spending more than $100 per night in entertainment centers where she gets her pills.
Unable to ask money from her family to finance her vice, she forced herself into prostitution. But she rarely goes out with her customers, scared that her identity as a university student might get exposed.
Kanha painfully revealed that she tried committing suicide while she was high on drugs. She was, as she shared, suffering from depression over a broken relationship.
“I watched videos which showed how people commit suicide, like slashing the wrist. I did it without realising that I was under the influence of drugs. I was saved by my friends. After the cut had healed, I had a tattoo done on the scar to hide it.”
Kanha’s friends and their suppliers renamed ketamine and ecstasy as “rice” and “candy” for easier transactions. She claimed that most of the dealers distribute the illegal drugs inside entertainment centers. And most of them bring guns.
Inside rented rooms at one club in Phnom Penh, Kanha and three other friends gathered for four hours. There were over five dealers in each room, mostly former criminals.
A dealer can make a profit of between $2.50 and $5.00 from the sale of a pack of pills. Some dealers can earn over $200 a night.
Kanha can buy all kinds of drugs at cheaper rates because the dealers were already familiar of her and even treat her as their “sister”.
“It depends on the traffickers. If they supply their items to dealers at $10 per pack, the dealers can sell it at $12.50 or $15,” she explained, also noting that some women get drugs in exchange for sex with dealers or traffickers.
For young drug addicts like Kanha who do not have jobs to support themselves and their vice, they sometimes agree to sleep with customers for money. Sometimes, they steal money from their own parents.
“I feel so stupid and hopeless with my own behaviour, which I cannot control even though I know it’s wrong,” said Kanha.
*Chantha, another ketamine user, brought Good Times2 to another entertainment center where the illegal business has become a regular scenario. Inside, sofas and tables were neatly arranged, with a remix of techno and trance music blasting through the speakers installed around. Cups, straws and cans of soda were placed on the tables. Those who sat on the sofas specially reserved for drug transactions were charged $25 for the space.
A man, clad in t-shirt and jeans, came to our table and asked how much ketamine we wanted to get. He was a notorious dealer, Chantha told Good Times2.
A small package, which he claimed contained 12.5 grams of ketamine and one LV pill, cost $52.50. Another small package, good for two to three people for over two hours, cost $15.
Some of those settled in the tables took ecstasy pills, others took a combination of pills and powder. And as if they weren’t feeling high enough, they put the ketamine powder on their hand and snorted directly or used a straw.
Despite using drugs for over a year now, Chantha still couldn’t identify which is ketamine and which is ecstasy. All powder and pills, she said, are collectively called as “K”.
In times when she couldn’t control herself, Chantha can spend up to $100 for drugs and take them until the room closes at 5 am.
Inside another club, Good Times2 saw about 50 young men and women, barely out of their teens, shaking their heads and hands, in a trance-like state, after snorting drugs.
Good Times2 saw another drug trafficker. He had hundreds of small sachets in a pouch strapped around his waist. Some men, whom we suspected were working for the ringleader, walked around non-stop, keeping an eagle eye on everyone inside the room and handing out packs of “K” to anyone who wanted more of it.
The club’s staff and guards were clearly aware of what was happening inside. Taking drugs seemed to not bother anyone inside the establishment. It was done so openly as if it was normal and legal and ethical.
“When I hear the music, I want to shake my head. I don’t know why. When we don’t hear any music, we tremble like baby animals,” said Chantha.
One of the employees of the club, who declined to be identified, said drug trafficking does happen inside the premises. In fact, KTV or club owners provide rooms for those who come in to take drugs.
“Ringleaders rent rooms at the KTV for three to seven hours per day and open them up to addicts to use drugs. The rent per room is approximately $300 per day, depending on the size.”
He explained that the illegal drug trades in clubs and bars are not run by only one group. Various groups operate around Phnom Penh and Cambodia, keeping the business alive and high. Each group has one or more ringleaders, and several people work for them.
“Other entertainment centers allow such practices. They condone open drug usage However, some clubs don’t rent out rooms,” the club staff added.
A security guard in the same club revealed that at least 10 rooms are rented out per day to become venues of drug trafficking; each room usually accommodate 50 to 100 people.
A mamasan at a big KTV in Phnom Penh *Svay Salin said that there are about 100 hostesses at her work place and that almost half of them were involved with drug usage.
Salin said that she has known many ladies and young girls who use drugs and mostly they used ecstasy.
She noted that her work place allowed only two groups of guests who always come twice or three times per month to use drugs. They opened only one room – designed like a club for them. If other guests used drug besides these two groups, the general manager would immediately close that room.
“We just open only one club room for them and then they call the hostesses inside. They tip the hostess $50 each,” she said, adding that mostly they use ketamine and ecstasy.
At each KTV, there are several mamasans, depending on the establishment, while each mamasan has her own group of girls under her direct charge.
Salin explained that there are two kind of hostesses, one are girls who are staff and get a salary from the KTV, the other are ‘freelancers’ from outside – students, salon workers, and factory girls who can accompany guests and get tips when they are summoned to do so by the mamasan, at the request of the patrons who want their company. Salin controls more than 10 hostesses, including freelancers.
“They [hostesses] said that they are sad with their boyfriends, so they go to clubs and KTV where drugs are trafficked to forget their problems,” Salin said.
“Some of these girls admit to having sex with the guests because they need money to support their drug habit. If the girls are nice-looking they can get at least $100 for sleeping with a guest.”
Salin said drug usage among the girls was infectious.
“Once a hostess starts using drugs, she will get other girls to use it, too. First, she gives them the drugs for free. Once they’re hooked, she becomes a pusher and sells them the drugs to get high.”
In an interview with Meas Sovann, director of Drug Addict Relief Association of Cambodia, Good Times2 found out that drugs in powder forms are stronger than pills. Sovann added that most of the women working in entertainment centers are the most vulnerable to drug trafficking.
“It is difficult to treat people who are addicted to ketamine because when they stop using it, it will cause them fever, diarrhea, running nose, nausea. These are worse than the effects of other drugs,” Sovann said.
“And if the addict has HIV, they may die when they stop or abandon ketamine because HIV will cause them more serious problems.”
Deputy National Police Chief General Mak Chito, who is in charge of anti-drug trafficking, said that police already gave out strict instructions to all guest houses, KTVs, clubs and hotels across the Kingdom to not allow any kind of drug trafficking inside their premises.
But Gen. Chito admitted that authorities know about the rampant usage of ketamine and ecstasy in entertainment centers. He added that most of the drugs come from as far as Belgium and Germany via mail order. He pointed out that drugs are hidden inside other items to prevent scanners from detecting them.
“When we find a suspicious package, we would check the items and see if drugs were hidden in them.” He added that the usage of ketamine and ecstasy in Cambodia has increased as drug trafficking abroad has also increased and expanded.
“These kinds of drugs are for people who have money, because they’re more expensive than other drugs,” the police officer said.
Gen. Chito declined to reveal details of the anti-drug operations they have done so far, but he noted that he got an order to eliminate all kinds or forms of illegal drugs in clubs in Phnom Penh and all other provinces in the country.
“We received an order from higher authorities to execute crackdowns on drug trafficking in clubs and other places. We will work on this in three provinces first – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk.
“We already organised the procedure of the operations.”
He vowed that clubs, entertainment centers and all places found to be doing illegal business transactions will be punished by law and will face closure.
*All names of the women who admitted to taking illegal drugs have been changed for protection of their identities.