“How much is it?”
We are trying to figure out the price of renting a private karaoke room – known as KTV in Cambodia – but so far, we’re not having much luck.
“So… six dollars each or total?”
“Which one? Each or total.”
“Six dollars total?”
Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Soyeon, Akiko, and I are in a KTV behind the fancy Champs-Elysées. Oh, not the Parisian boulevard, but the curiously pretentious hotel / restaurant that caters to Phnom Penh’s elite. We parked our bicycles out front, squeezing them in front of two BMWs and a row of shiny black Rolls Royce motorcycles.
Soyeon, in charge of all things karaoke this evening, leads the way. Two uniform-clad Cambodian men open the doors for us and we enter a massive, dimly-lit foyer. A white reception desk faces us, and we are escorted to it by another set of uniformed employees. To our right, a group of young Cambodian women, in mini-skirts and low-cut red shirts sit, laughing and talking loudly on a circular plush couch. Where the hell are we?
After we manage to get the price out of the receptionist, we are told our room number and another employee pops out of the darkness to lead us there. We pass dozens of karaoke rooms, and we see young Cambodian women, dressed like those in the reception area, going in and out. They all stare openly at the three sweaty foreign girls who pass by them. We are clearly not the usual clientele for this place.
Finally, we arrive at our room. Our escort pulls out a key and unlocks the door.
“Here. Small room,” he says proudly and ushers us in.
The room is the size of a small palace. A massive LED TV screen is propped up onto the front wall, and there’s a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, several couches and chairs, a table laden with ice buckets and glasses, and some contraption in the corner that presumably makes the karaoke happen. The walls are cream-coloured and padded with a soft, pillowy material. This room is like an insane asylum for wealthy singers.
“Small room?” Soyeon asks. “This is a room for fifty people.”
“Yes.” Our escort says, looking confused. “Small room. Nice room.”
As we stare aghast at our palatial surroundings, several more staff members come in. They are holding menus, more glasses, and food. One carries in several clusters of grapes and another has a block of Gouda.
“Oh, we don’t want to eat or drink,” I clarify. “We’re just here to sing!”
The staff members drop their loads onto the table and stare at us.
“Oh, well then there is duk,” our escort tells us.
“You know… duk.”
“No… what is duk?”
“Duk!” he says louder, as if it’s the volume preventing comprehension.
“Duck? Like the food?”
“Duk! Duk! For no food.”
Soyeon, whose Khmer is the best out of the three of us, frowns, thinking.
“Oh… you mean a tax? Like a tax for not buying food?”
“Okay… why, though? We just want to sing, we should be allowed to just sing.”
“Yes, yes, singing okay, but also duk. No food, no drink, so duk.”
The three of us confer. It’s late and we decide we’re too tired to argue.
“Ok, we’ll pay duk. Now how do we work this thing?”
We look at the weird machine in the corner of the room. It looks like something used in heart bypass surgery.
“Ok! It is for your songs,” our escort tells us. He presses a few buttons and shows us the lit-up screen. It is all in Khmer and makes no sense to us.
“Yes… but how do we work it? How do we load songs to play?”
He shows us the touch screen, where we can input song numbers, and hands us the song books. We had asked for books in English, Korean, and Japanese. He brings over ones in English, Vietnamese, and Chinese.
I glance through the English book. The songs are mostly from the sixties and don’t have artist names, just song titles. There are 19 songs called “Love” and the newest song I can find is Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er boi.”
Soyeon inputs a song number into the machine and a Korean pop melody fills the room.
“Ok, this is good,” I tell him, “but how do we reserve the next song?”
“Reserve?” Our escort looks blankly at us.
“Yes… reserve. Like, put in the next song. To play after.”
A look of panic crosses his face as crazy foreign words come out of my mouth. He leaves the room and comes back with another employee. We repeat our request to her, and the same panic-stricken look comes over her. Covering her mouth and laughing, she runs out of the room and brings in another girl. The three of us try different ways of explaining our request.
“Make next song…”
“Song after this song…”
The employees stare at each other, confer, and then bring in more employees. At one point, there are eight Cambodian staff members in the room. We can’t speak Khmer. They can’t speak English. And no one seems to know how to work the surgical song-loading karaoke machine.
Finally, a manager walks in.
“Hello, may I help you?”
“Yes! We want to go to the English menu and we want to know how to reserve a song!”
He walks over to the machine, pushes aside the eight staff members who are gathered around, and presses a button. The machine loads the English-language menu a few seconds later.
The manager then shows us how to reserve songs on the playlist. We try a few times and everything seems to be working properly. However, the nine people in the room do not seem to be leaving any time soon.
Soyeon, who is the calmest person I have ever met, loses it.
“Ok, everyone out, please!” She opens the door and points outside. The staff members look at each other and then back at her in confusion.
“Out, out, out!” She pushes out the stragglers who remain in the room. The women look offended at this screaming Korean girl evicting them from the premises.
“But… but… I am attendant!” one of them says.
Soyeon manages to get everyone out of the room and shuts the door.
“FINALLY! Ok, let’s sing!” Soyeon turns off the chandelier and the other blinding white lights until the room is comfortably dim.
We peruse the books, and I am just loading the first song into the machine when the door is abruptly opened again.
“Uh… sorry,” an employee who looks like he would rather be anywhere else enters. He flicks on all the lights so our room is back to the brightness of an ER.
“These are your lady attendants,” he indicates two miniskirt-clad, heavily made-up women behind him. “They will input the songs for you and assist you in any way you like.”
“NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!” Soyeon loses her shit. “We don’t need any lady attendants, we can input the songs ourselves, you already showed us how to do it.”
The man smiles patiently, the same way one would smile at a stubborn child refusing to go to school because his teacher smells like cabbage.
“I’m sorry, but it is our company policy. You can choose between one or two lady attendants, but there must be at least one attendant in your room.”
“We don’t want lady attendants, we just want to sing!” Soyeon pleads. “I feel uncomfortable when there are other people in the room. I can’t sing or dance or enjoy myself when there are strangers watching me!”
“I’m sorry…” says the very much un-sorry employee, “but you must have them in the room. It’s our policy.”
He glances down at the glasses on the table and the bottle of wine that we had snuck in. We were hoping to drink it once we had some privacy.
“Also, we must charge you if you drink your own wine. It’s our policy.”
I look at Akiko and Soyeon and we have a group huddle. After a few minutes of discussion, we decide that this is not going to work out. Between the lady slaves forced upon us, the duk for not eating, the crappy song selection, the padded walls, and the lack of privacy and appropriate mood lighting, we have had about enough of this weird place.
The man looks shocked. We are probably the first group ever to come to KTV, yell at the staff, kick out the lady attendants, drink our own wine, and then leave without paying.
We pour our unfinished wine back into the bottle – we’re classy like that – pack up all our stuff, and head out the door. The man and the lady attendants stay in the room. They’re probably still in there now, trying to piece together what the hell just happened.