“Why won’t it end?” I said with a nervous laugh.
“Because brother,” Sam said, suddenly the realist. “We split a large Super-Happy Cheese Pizza.” His voice sounding much too loud for the quiet bar on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia.
We ate the cannabis-infused “Happy Pizza” 10 hours ago, and the effects were still evidenced by our oddly timed giggles and the fuzzy euphoric feeling of a strong body high as we wandered around the dusty streets getting into odd conversations with street sweepers.
The pizza was relatively small by American standards, but it was tasty. And after scarfing it down and wondering whether we should order another one, an angel appeared in the guise of a dark-skinned Cambodian teenager. “Wait,” he said with a beatific smile. “It might take an hour.”
It was sound advice not to be taken lightly when eating a pizza infused with copious amounts of shredded cannabis. Famous in backpacker circles, the “Happy” pizza was popularized in the early 1990s by Happy Herb Pizza in the capital Phnom Penh, a chain that has since spread throughout Cambodia and spawned a slew of imitators. Cannabis pizza became so popular in Cambodia that Anthony Bourdain visited one of these shops on No Reservations and said, “It is really something of an indigenous classic around here. It is the pizza that makes you insane in the membrane.”
Hours after eating the pizza, we decided to get a massage. The thought was this: Cannabis would sharpen our senses and thus take the pleasure of the therapeutic kneading of flesh to another level.
Cannabis pizza became so popular in Cambodia that Anthony Bourdain visited one of these shops on No Reservations
A foolish idea, as it turned out for us, leading to the most uncomfortable massage we’ve ever had. Our minds weren’t ready for it; our bodies unprepared. Each press of the fingers felt like an alien examination, each bend of the leg releasing a mind-numbing sensation as our senses, hijacked by the powerful pizza, sent wave after wave of overwhelming sensory information jamming relays and making our brains unable to process whether it was pain or pleasure. The ladies standing on our backs seemed tireless, and it went on for what seemed hours.
But it did mercifully end and by evening we found ourselves wandering aimlessly, shaken but laughing, until we found a quiet bar to rest and pull ourselves together as the super-happy pizza continued to course its way through our bodies.
Cannabis use in Cambodia is as old as the Kingdom itself, and beyond recreational use, many locals have utilized the herb’s therapeutic benefits for generations by adding it to soups, teas, tinctures and herbal remedies.
Cannabis is technically illegal in Cambodia due to international pressure from the United Nations and the United States after a 1992 United Nations Transitional Authority peacekeeping mission (UNTAC) that took control of the Cambodian government after decades of civil war involving the Khmer Rouge, a regime that murdered 2 million Cambodians setting the nation back generations. It marked the first time a country’s government was taken over by the UN, and after setting up elections and disarming local militias, they handed over the reigns of power to a democratically elected royalist coalition party in 1993.
The first truly prohibitive anti-drug law was passed in 1996 after the U.S. added Cambodia to its list of “major illicit drug producing and drug transit countries,” starting an escalation of drug enforcement that continues to increase even as various U.S. states continue to legalize cannabis. Still, in Cambodia, the hammer falls heaviest on “hard” drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and yaba (a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine).
In practice, cannabis is widely tolerated by government officials around the country, evidenced by the number of “Happy Pizza” joints that can be found in cities like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kampot, Battambang (home to the Smokin’ Pot restaurant) and even Vang Vieng in neighboring Laos that openly sells cannabis infused pizzas, shakes, soups and other edibles. If you ask for it, anything can be “happy.” Sellers freely roam most of the major tourist areas asking passersby if they’d like some “marijuana,” and for the most part no one seems to be bothered about it.
According to a street-level seller in Phnom-Penh, the government is pretty lax when it comes to cannabis. “It’s heroin and ice that they look for,” he said. “Weed, OK. Makes you relax, you know?”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been growing pressure on these operations from the government.
Still, in Cambodia, the hammer falls heaviest on “hard” drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin and yaba (a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine).
In the past year, at least four busts of large-scale growing operations took place in Cambodia, putting a serious dent in the supply chain. The secretary-general of Cambodia’s National Authority for Combating Drugs, Meas Vyrith, has said cannabis is right alongside methamphetamine and heroin in the “most harmful drugs” category, making it clear that at any time, for any reason, the government has the right to clamp down on the industry.
“If people use it, it causes brain problems, mental problems and physical problems,” Vyrith said. “[Cannabis use] is a negative part of Khmer culture.” A claim that illustrates their hardline stance on drugs more than a well-researched truth.
Vyrith went on to include “Happy” restaurants as being under the watchful gaze of the government. “We are doing an investigation to punish the owners,” Vyrith said. “But we need to find more evidence to take action.”
An action they took in 2013—a police raid on Happy Special Pizza Restaurant in Siem Reap—led to the arrest of 21 people, 17 being tourists from New Zealand, U.S., France, Canada, Germany and Australia. Most were just smoking a joint when the raid commenced.
According to Siem Reap police chief Mok Aun, “They are now being questioned about their drug-distributing activities by the provincial anti-drugs police in Siem Reap province. If enough evidence is found, they will be sent to court for charges.”
Cambodia’s sentencing for drug charges are among the harshest in the world. While they don’t normally sentence offenders to death, long sentences, even for life, are not out of the question.
These actions lead to an unclear policy for cannabis in Cambodia. While those using it traditionally or for therapeutic reasons are most often ignored, those who use it recreationally could be faced with prison time if caught. But according to an expat living in Cambodia named Halvor, the risk of getting arrested for pot possession is “practically zero if you’re not socially inept and/or unlucky.”
And as my brother and I wandered around Siem Reap in a giggling fog provided by the happiest pizza we’d ever eaten, smiling, chatting and waving to some of the friendliest people we’d ever met, I figured I’d do it again. Except for the massage.
Main photo by Lisa-Lisa/Shutterstock