As well as investigating foreign paedophiles in Cambodia, a key focus of NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE) in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, is investigating the virgin trade, a thriving illicit industry that is rife in the city’s poor Vietnamese-immigrant communities.

With the paedophile-hunters on the streets of Phnom Penh

According to APLE’s Tim Huon, mamasans identify and groom girls aged 13 to 18 in poverty-stricken areas on the fringes of the city, such as Svay Pak, then sell their virginity to the highest bidder. Men pay anywhere between US$1,200 and US$2,500 for a week with a virgin; the girl generally gets between 30 per cent and 60 per cent of this fee, with the rest going to the mamasan.

The virgin trade is especially popular among rich Asian men, including Cambodians, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, with some believing that having sex with a virgin will bring good health or even cure diseases. Most offenders make contact, Huon says, through one of a string of Vietnamese-run beauty salons close to Phnom Penh’s Central Market.

As we drive past the nondescript storefronts, all of which have a shabby garishness about them, Huon shows me pictures of a woman who is under investigation for grooming and supplying 14- and 15-year-old virgin girls through one of the salons. The Vietnamese prostitution rings are particularly well organised and hard to investigate, he says.

Once a deal has been arranged, the mamasan takes the girl to a doctor to confirm that her hymen is intact and obtain documentation to that effect. Huon says he has identified three doctors in Phnom Penh who provide this service, which in itself is not illegal – unless it is knowingly undertaken to facilitate sex trafficking.

After this grim examination, the girl is escorted directly to the buyer’s hotel room, where she will spend the next seven days in sexual servitude.