Cambodia is a major exporter of quality cannabis, and is a wonderful place for tourists to enjoy an “extra happy” stay.
The market is a huge covered area with stalls organized neatly in long rows. After passing through the motorcycle spare-part section, the electronic-goods section, the raw-cloth section and the hardware section, you come to the few stalls that make up the traditional-medicine section.
Your eye is caught by a stall with an exhibit of animal skins splayed onto crossed twigs hanging from a rafter. Looking down at the main display, you see a variety of jars and packets containing various twigs, woods, barks, and a wide array of medicinal or flavour-enhancing herbs.
Seeing that you are a foreigner, the proprietress, a bent old woman with a bright face and a wide, half-toothless smile, hands you a plastic bag full of what she calls “gaan-chah” and offers it to you for $2us.
While you are sniffing this 100-gram packet to assess the quality, she pulls down a large parcel from the shelf above her. This packet contains 1 kilo of marijuana, and it can be yours ? no bargaining necessary ? for $20. Welcome to Cambodia
A stellar reputation for marijuana
Since Cambodia began opening up to tourists and foreign residents in 1992, this unique country has earned a stellar reputation for the availability, affordability and tolerance of marijuana. Grass is enjoyed openly in bars, restaurants and guesthouses all over Phnom Penh.
At a typical guesthouse you will almost always find community marijuana lying on the porch table. Scott, an English teacher living at a guesthouse, explains: “Marijuana is so cheap that it doesn’t make sense to be possessive. We just leave some on the table to save people the trouble of going to their rooms to get their stash.”
Scott waves the cigar-like joint he is smoking as a point of evidence. “There are two components to this spliff here, the rolling paper and the marijuana; the rolling paper is by far the more expensive ingredient.”
Craig, an English teacher living in the same guesthouse, brings me to his room to show me a huge sack containing at least 5 kilos of weed. “One of my students gave this to me,” he says casually. “His uncle has a field, and my student requested a bit as a present for me.”
Over meals in the backpacker restaurants in the city, there are sometimes so many huge joints being passed around the dinner table that there are simply not enough lungs to smoke them all. The sight of them burning unused in the ashtrays would bring a cash-strapped high schooler saving up for an eighth bag to tears. With grass so cheap, enforcement so negligible and responsibilities so few, lighting up a joint is about as noteworthy as opening a can of soda.
Extra happy pizza
Phnom Penh has developed a few institutions more or less devoted to the enjoyment of grass. Merry Jane’s Pizza* is a Phnom Penh landmark which has spawned a number of imitators. On the surface, it is like thousands of other unpretentious pizza joints around the world. The menu offers a wide selection of pizzas with various toppings.
However, one topping that is not on the menu but easily available is marijuana. You simply smile to the waiter and ask that your pizza be made “mildly happy” or “extra happy.” Mick, a resident English teacher, wams me against ordering the extra happy. Paul, another English teacher, reports that even the mildly happy pizza “hit me like a ton of bricks.”
The pizza, as pizza, is lackluster. As a vehicle for marijuana, though, it serves its purpose well. Finely chopped pieces of choice marijuana form a layer between the tomato sauce and the cheese. The tomato sauce is uninspiring, the crust is thin, and the marijuana adds its own unique flavor. But even if the pizza doesn’t make your taste buds “extra happy,” it still lives up to its name. I am full with an entire quarter of the pizza left uneaten. I want to continue on principle ? it is shocking to waste so much marijuana. After all, there are high school kids in Calgary dying for a toke.
Heaven on the lake
A perfect place to enjoy the effects of the happy pizza is another Phnom Penh institution: Seventh Heaven* on “the lake.” Beng Kok (Lake Kok) is on the northern side of the city, a ten-minute moto (motorcycle taxi) ride from the centre of town. The lake hosts a collection of guesthouses, situated on a dirt road which barely deserves the name. If we were outside Phnom Penh, I would call it a wide jungle trail.
The guesthouses have restaurants which look out onto the large, peaceful lake. There are hammocks set up so you can just lie there and watch the day go by. Travelers and residents are sitting alone or in small groups, talking and smoking ganja. There is an almost reverential silence, as if it was some sort of temple to utter passivity.
The rooms are cheap, as is the food. With the price of grass so low, an individual with $250 to spare can comfortably spend a month on the lake doing nothing but smoking ganja all day.
The food is adequate, but not great, and the lake makes it a nice place to eat. I chat with some of my fellow diners, sharing my stash with them although they have plenty of their own. This is an easy place to spend a few hours or days or months: a cool breeze from the lake, the open waters with quaint visions of Cambodian life on the far banks, fishermen occasionally gliding by in small boats, cheap food, and an inexhaustible supply of marijuana.
As the afternoon wears on and the sun heads down, it all starts to make perfect sense. My marijuana-enlightened brain realizes the idiocy of a career in journalism. The only sensible thing to do is to spend the rest of my life here on the lakeside, smoking Cambodian buds.
Grass or hay, cheap and easy
Cambodia is not a totally perfect smoker’s paradise, however. The most frequent complaint is the sketchy quality of much of the grass. “It’s hay,” complains one local connoisseur. “The cultivation techniques are really primitive. They haven’t yet learned to cure it properly, so it arrives in the market dry and harsh.
“But,” he concedes, “you can find some amazing buds. And hey, at a dollar a pound, it’s still an excellent value.”
The best stuff is reportedly reserved for export, and is most easily available in the port cities of Sihanoukville (locally referred to as Kompong Som), and Koh Kong, bordering Thailand. Getting access to the export-quality stuff is just a bit harder than strolling through the market. This takes contacts with the people who handle it, and who are willing to redirect part of an order for the domestic market.
These contacts, though, are easy to make. Within a day of poking around, I was able to find someone with access to the superior export ganja ? slightly more expensive than the market ganja ? but of much higher quality.
Whether it’s the dollar-a-pound “hay” in the market or the high quality grass diverted from the world market, you can find it and enjoy it easily and cheaply in Cambodia.
The (US) War on Drugs
Predictably, this atmosphere of tolerance and freedom is decried by certain officials as evidence of Cambodia’s “drug problem.” In fact, this problem exists mainly in Washington, DC. Marijuana use among Khmers is not a major concern.
Mr Rith, a Khmer journalist, explains that “marijuana grows very easily on the fields by the river. The farmers can just scatter the seeds and let it grow; they don’t need to take care of it. Old men smoke it, and young people see it as an ‘old man’s habit.’ Also, some people have the custom of eating it in chicken soup in the morning. But this is a very small amount, and the Ministry of Health does not see any problem with this.”
With its stigma as an old-fashioned, old men’s drug, Cambodians looking for a high are much more likely to drink alcohol, or to get involved in such glamorous imported drugs like amphetamines or Ecstasy. These drugs are the focus of police crackdowns and enforcement, because it is these drugs, not marijuana, which are perceived as a threat to Cambodian youth.
While there are instances of young Khmers getting stoned on marijuana, any attempt to portray Cambodia as having a “marijuana problem” among the local population is pure fiction.
The hypocrisy of US drug policy is shown by what is truly the biggest “drug problem” for Cambodia. Spending millions of dollars in this small, poor country, tobacco companies use advertising, concert promotions, lotteries, and direct sales in an all-out effort to hook Cambodians on their various brands of cigarettes.
Besides tobacco, the only drug concern among the general population is that Khmers are pill-happy: The slightest head cold is cause for a trip to the pharmacy and the purchase of a full cocktail of various pills. Marijuana use among Khmers is not an issue.
Cambodia bans pot
With a marijuana “problem”, confined to a few over-indulgent foreigners, what could have prompted the Cambodian Government to criminalize marijuana in December 1996? The answer lies in US pressure on Cambodia. Dependent on foreign aid for roughly 40% of its budget, Cambodia is vulnerable to threats of aid cutoff.
An article about the new law in the English-language Phnom Penh Post quoted numerous sources within and without the Cambodian government, confirming the heavy US prohibitionist pressure.
The anti-marijuana law was rammed through the Cambodian parliament much faster than usual, ahead of other laws which many Cambodians felt had a higher priority. In response to American protestations that the law was not forced through under US pressure, a lawyer quoted in the article asked “do they think we’re all stupid?”
Police powers, field burnings
The new anti-pot law expands the powers of the police in a country which has a deplorable record of police abuses. According to an unofficial translation provided to me, the new law authorizes searches in any instance “when there is an indication which may bring forth to a suspicion that there is a commission of crime?”
The law also gives expanded powers to the courts, famous for their corruption and their subservience to the ruling political party. The law allows for the acquittal from charges if the crime involved some unspecified “very small quantity.” In a judicial system where justice is routinely for sale, this leeway has predictable results. Mr Veasna, a soldier who works at the Ministry of Defense, explains that a low-ranking officer in his regiment has been arrested on drug charges. “They will let him go for $20,000. But his wife has only come up with $1,500 so far.”
For the most part, according to a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous, “the drug law has had absolutely no effect on the average Western consumer of marijuana.” Chris Fontaine, another journalist, explains that “?mostly, we’ve seen an increase in the burnings of small or medium size marijuana fields.” This hurts the small farmers that depend on the crop for their livelihood, while leaving the high-level exporters untouched.
Raiding the Heart of Darkness
The Heart of Darkness is a popular bar for expats living in Phnom Penh. While customers have to pay for beer and soda, the bar used to provide free grass for anyone wishing to light up. “It’s cheaper than beer nuts,” noted a patron.
Last September, in a scene familiar to North America but previously unknown in Cambodia, police swooped onto the popular nightspot. In effect, they kidnapped the Khmer bartender, and held him for 12 hours until the bar owners could come up with the necessary ransom. Various sources put the amount paid to the police at between $300 and $1,000us.
An anonymous journalist explains that “the raid had nothing to do with drugs. The police decided that the bar wasn’t paying enough protection money. It was just after the coup, and nobody was getting paid. The whole economy had hit rock bottom, and the police needed some extra cash. The drugs were just an excuse. Usually they use illegal weapons as the excuse.”
Another journalist noted that “the raid was more of a shakedown than a crackdown.” Mike, an occasional Heart of Darkness patron, remarks that “we can still light up in the Heart whenever we want. But it’s different now. Cambodia lost something very special on the night of the raid, and I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get it back.”
Admittedly, the US pushed through the criminalization of marijuana not just to ruin the vacations of pot-smoking backpackers, frighten journalists from speaking on the record, or create more opportunities for police corruption. Rather, the goal of US drug policy is to stop the wholesale smuggling of drugs out of Cambodia. An October 1997 anti-drug workshop in Japan named Cambodia as the second biggest source (behind Columbia) for seized marijuana in Europe.
Predictably, drug policy has not worked as intended. It is naive to expect the Cambodian government will act effectively against drug smuggling when top Cambodian politicians are the ones protecting the smugglers.
A recent US State Department report gave Cambodia less-than-full certification, citing that “little has been done by the Royal Government of Cambodia? about allegations of high-level government corruption.”
Hun Sen: strongman leader
In Cambodia’s 1993 election, Prince Norodom Ranaridh’s FUNCINPEC Party received a plurality of the votes, but military strongman Hun Sen used his financial and military power to force a compromise which made him and Ranaridh co-Prime Ministers.
That arrangement lasted until the July 1997 coup when Hun Sen seized power. His forces removed Ranaridh and FUNCINPEC “chose” Ung Huot as a replacement co-Prime Minister. Ung Huot has no credibility as anything other than a Hun Sen puppet.
Before his ouster in the coup, Prince Ranaridh warned in a letter to US Senators that unless some international action is taken “Cambodia will be run by drug dealers.” The evidence suggests that Ranaridh’s warnings have been borne out since Hun Sen’s consolidation of power.
Boon Ma: businessman trafficker
The most notorious example of trafficker involvement in the government is the case of Theng Boon Ma. This colourful businessman is the president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, holds a diplomatic passport as an adviser to Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and among other properties and interests, owns a 70% stake in Phnom Penh’s premier hotel, The Intercontinental. Boon Ma is also on US DEA and State Department blacklists for heroin trafficking, a charge which he has unconvincingly denied for years.
Although Boon Ma’s involvement in drug trafficking has never been publicly proven, his ties to top Cambodian government officials are beyond doubt. Boon Ma finances Hun Sen’s “bodyguard”, in reality a 1,500-man private army.
Boon Ma also financed the July 1997 coup where Hun Sen seized power, with an emergency shipment of one million US dollars in gold.
Incidentally, Boon Ma shot out the tire of a Royal Air Cambodia airplane last year. “They give such bad service. If they were my employees, I would have shot them in the head,” he said after the incident. Despite the fact that Boon Ma openly took a weapon past customs and immigration and fired on the airplane with people still on board, no criminal proceedings resulted from the event.
Mong Ret Thy: protected pot-smuggler
Another documented case of high-level involvement in marijuana smuggling is the case of Mong Ret Thy, a close associate of Hun Sen who gets the contracts to build Hun Sen schools all over the country.
In April of 1997, police allied with the rival political faction found six tons of marijuana inside a rubber shipment bound for Sri Lanka. The rubber allegedly belonged to Mong Ret Thy.
In true Cambodian logic, Hun Sen-allied police arrested the police official responsible for the first bust, on charges of “falsifying documents” concerning the marijuana. Hun Sen then warned that anyone who wanted to arrest Mong Ret Thy “had better wear a steel helmet.”
Military raid on top pot-cop
A final example of Cambodia’s pro-pot corruption came on March 6, 1998, when 100 soldiers of the Military Police (MP) launched a full-scale assault on the home of Heng Peo, head of Cambodia’s anti-drug squad.
The attack was made because Heng Peo had been successful in charging marijuana traffickers associated with the head of the Military Police, Kieng Savuth, who also sits on the Central Committee of Cambodia’s ruling political party. The attack was a clear message to local anti-drug police that marijuana protected by MP officials is off-limits to them.
Similar incidents occurred in January 1996, when an anti-drug policeman was killed by MP officers and another was left paralyzed by a beating.
Anti-drug police are left to harassing only the small-time independent marijuana farmers, who cannot muster such violent protection. Police are literally powerless to go after the more powerful traffickers.
A happy home in Cambodia
Despite the new pot law and the hypocrisy and corruption at the government’s top levels, Cambodia is still undoubtedly an excellent place to enjoy low priced grass in a casual atmosphere.
Cambodian society has been shattered by years of violent civil war. While this takes a heavy toll on the development of the country and the well-being of its people, there is one unintended side effect: from the marijuana stalls at the market to the stoned backpackers at the guesthouses, Cambodia offers unparalleled opportunities to enjoy cheap and abundant “gaan-chah.”
Anyone looking for a place to indulge in the pleasures of marijuana without the usual hassles of expense and enforcement will find an “extra happy” home in Cambodia.
* These are not the actual names of the restaurant and guesthouse. Even though enforcement is negligible, marijuana is still illegal, and so many in the expat community requested that the actual names not be used. If you would like to find either locale, ten minutes of inquiry at any of the backpacker guesthouses should suffice.
Amit Gilboa is the author of the recent book “Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja”, available through barnesandnoble.com. You can contact Amit directly at [email protected].