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THE WINNING TRAVEL STORY 2012 - The Big Mirror - Cambodia - by Lana Willocks

The Big Mirror

By Lana Willocks

“You like war?”

One of our moto taxi drivers asks this after my sister and I had negotiated a price for their service for the day.

In a country with a history as tragic as Cambodia you get some macabre choices to add to your tour itinerary. Hmm, shall we check out the killing fields or wander around Toul Sleng, the school-turned-prison and torture chamber? 

The drivers suggest a trip to the shooting range where you can release your inner warrior with a round or two off an AK-47. 

But we’re keen to indulge in something more politically correct—a massage at the centre for the blind. Here was our chance to help a disadvantaged person earn a living while enjoying a rubdown. The perfect do-goody “I’m not an asshole tourist” experience.

Our taxi drivers are not familiar with the name of the place but after a farcical exchange involving us giving an exaggerated miming performance of unseeing masseuses they seemed to understand.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Lana Willocks, Cultural Travel, Adventure Travel With high expectations we zoom through the dusty pot-holed streets of Phnom Penh and are dropped off at a nondescript concrete building. We go inside.

Oh, the horror. The horror. 

It’s a scene I’ve read about but never seen before. We’re in front of a large window looking into a room where about two dozen girls are lounging in lingerie, each with a number pinned to her chest. No blind masseuses here! Oh, these women can see all right. Some look as if they’ve seen an awful lot. 


We start backing away, heading for the door, ready to strangle our moto drivers, and just wanting to get the hell out, but before we reach the exit a fully-clothed woman approaches. Our alarm at finding ourselves here must be obvious to her, but she’s clearly not about to let this chance for some afternoon business slip away.

“Just massage, just massage,” she reassures us. She says we won’t have to pick out a numbered girl.

Why we don’t simply bolt remains an unanswered, unsettled question. Scared? Trying to be polite? Curious? Despite our strong desire to flee, we follow her up a dark, narrow staircase and we’re shuttled separately into private rooms.

The room looks like a simple hotel suite with a single bed, no sounds or signs of degenerate activity. Clean. 

A few moments later the massage lady arrives. Her face reveals nothing. No smile, no surprise at seeing me. An expressionless face, a stoic mask commonly seen among those working at the grittier edges of the hospitality business. Whatever she’s thinking is hidden deep inside.

“You take shower?” 

“No. No thanks.”

“You take off shirt and shorts? 

“Err ... okay.” 

Then we get down to it. I lie on my stomach on the bed and she starts kneading my back and shoulders. It’s a pretty good massage actually, and she doesn’t try any “funny stuff”. She tells me she’s Vietnamese. 

When she finishes my back, she asks me to turn over so she can work on my legs. I flip over.

Oh, the horror. 

There’s a huge mirror on the ceiling, reflecting a nightmarish image back to me. Here I am, sprawled out on the bed in my sweaty bra and panties, with a long-haired vixen in a pink satin and black-lace teddy straddling me, massaging my temples. 

As I look, while trying to look away, from this sight in the mirror, I’m confronted by a strange new angle of reflection.

I’ve stumbled into the worst kind of tourist trap. The attempt to delve inside a different culture and to have a new exotic experience has turned into a series of uncomfortable transactions. The masseuse and I are intertwined in something that doesn’t feel right, something a little grotesque. 

It’s a new kind of shame. Shame in this weird situation, and also the shame of seeing myself through the eyes of someone else. What am I to her, this Vietnamese masseuse? 

I can only guess what her thoughts are, but the ceiling mirror beams back a hint. 

A perspiring pleasure seeker. 

A girl-by-number client.

Yes, an asshole tourist.

We should have gone to the shooting range.

Lana Willocks, Travel Story Winner, 2012 Bio: Lana Willocks is a freelance writer living in Thailand. After growing up on a farm in Western Canada, she got her first taste of Asia in 1995 on a university exchange programme to Bangkok. After three years of slogging in the finance field in Vancouver, she sold all her stuff and moved to Phuket in 1999, where she still lives with her husband and two children. Lana’s travel, property and feature writing has taken her across Thailand, to Indonesia and the gorgeous Palawan region of the Philippines. Her garden full of critters and the occasional cobra keep life exciting when she’s not out island-hopping.

Find more samples of Lana’s writing at:


Lana recommended Khun Kritchaya who operates Phuket Heritage Trails, cultural tours in Thailand onto Leap's website.

Cambodian cooking classes with Vannak Robie at The Smoking Pot, or pre-booking a tuk tuk driver might save you from looking up at yourself in a mirror: