The Big Mirror

The Big Mirror

“You like war?” One of our moto taxi drivers asks this after my sister and I negotiate 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 a 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 seem to understand.

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 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. We won’t have to pick out a numbered girl, she says.

Why we don’t simply bolt remains an unanswered, unsettled question. Were we scared? Trying to be polite? Curious? Somehow, 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.

This story “The Big Mirror” won the 2012 Travel Story Contest by Leap Local Magazine (sadly no longer around), published with the comments: “Lana tried to be a responsible tourist while in Cambodia. She really tried. This story has such an unexpected outcome that we won’t spoil a moment of it with a teaser.”