DRINKS AND DRUGS IN CAMBODIA

ALCOHOLIC DRINKS IN CAMBODIA

Local people drink beer or strong local alcoholic drinks (similar to Mekong whiskey sold in Thailand) made from sugar cane or rice. Cambodian beer is often flat and watery. Angkor beer is the most popular local brand. Anchor, Thai-produced Singha beer, Singapore-produced Tiger beer, and some Vietnamese and Chinese brands of beer are available as are European brands such as Heineken and Carlsburg. Some local bars offer cheap, local-style of draft beer. Imported beers, wines from well as whiskey and imported liquor are available but expensive. Some upscale hotels have a surprisingly god selection of French wines.

Annual beer consumption in Cambodia stands at a lowly seven liters a person (compared with 30 or so in Vietnam and Thailand). According to Tourism of Cambodia: The local beers are Angkor, Phnom Penh, Kingdom and Cambodia. Other brands include Heineken, Tiger, San Miguel, Asahi and Anchor. Beer sells for around US$1 to US$1.50 a can in restaurants. In Phnom Penh, foreign wines and spirits are sold at reasonable prices. The local spirits are best avoided, though some expats say that Sra Special, a local whisky-like concoction, is not bad. At around 1000r a bottle it's a cheap route to oblivion. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Recently Cambodia began producing grape wine with export standard, called Prasat Phnom Banon Grape Wine, the first ever wine locally produced in Cambodia in which breeds of grape are imported from various conuntries such as, USA, Australia and French. Khmer’s Red Wine is made from grape fruits and is a new product in Cambodia. Cambodia’s grape wine was recognized by OVOP National Committee as a product of One Village One Product—Red Wine Prasat Phnom Banon: # 72, Bott Sala village, Cheur Teal Commune, Banon District, Battambang Province

Moonshines and Homemade Wines in Cambodia

A wide variety of moonshines and homemade wines are available in Cambodia. On the Khmer new year in 1997, 17 people died from drinking unlabeled wine. Samples of the wine contained high levels of insecticide and six times more than normal levels of methanol.

Some men drink wines with names like Hercules, Red Toro Special, Wrestler and Great Strength that claim to improve their sex life. The drinks are basically palm wine with things like roots, bark and herbs, Malaysia medicinal plants, protein from two chickens and "real red grape extract." One traveling road show in November featured a special wine that was consumed by a monkey that at the end of the show demonstrated his sexual skill.

One store owner who suffered two broken bones when he was beat up by two unsatisfied customers who drank Black Chicken wine. "It worked really well for two or three months...then nothing," one user told the Phnom Penh Post. "I don't drink any of this stuff any more."

Karaoke Crackdown

Drinking is a popular social activity in Cambodia. One man said, “I can’t stop drinking because it’s social. If friends ask me out. I can’t refuse.”

In an effort to crackdown on drug use and prostitution and organized crime, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered all bars, karaokes and nightclubs to close down and prohibited dancing. Some bars got around the ban by taking down their bar signs and putting up new ones that said restaurant or movie cinema. Hun Sen was reportedly prompted to make the move when he heard that his drunken nephew was involved in bar shooting after being told by his parents that he was too young to marry his girlfriend.

The owner of Phnom Penh’s Heart of Darkness bar told AFP, “If we remain open the the police said: ‘No drugs, no prostitution, all windows and doors must remain open. All lights must remain on so we can see inside, and no dancing, absolutely no dancing.”

In August 2010 Singapore-based Leopard Capital said it planned to raise $50 million in capital to invest in Cambodia and Laos. It invested in things like Kingdom Breweries, Cambodia’s first microbrewery, and Acleda Bank Plc.

Phnom Penh's Beer Scene

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Gemma Price wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Cambodia might not rank among the world's brewery or beer garden capitals, but change is coming. From its setting on the banks of the Tonle Sap river, Kingdom Breweries, Phnom Penh's newest boutique producer, opened in October 2010, is gearing up to give local brands Anchor and Angkor a run for their riel, using only the best German and Czech hops, premium German malt and top-quality water to produce the brand's flagship pilsner. [Source: Gemma Price, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2011 ><]

"Fancy one?" Chief Executive Peter Brongers asked me, offering a bottle of the brewery's first batch from his office mini-fridge. "The locals think it's a little bitter, but I think it's perfect." I had to agree. Crisp, light and refreshing, the authentic Czech-style taste was the ideal antidote to Cambodia's sultry summer heat. Although the taste is distinctly European, Kingdom's branding is unmistakably Khmer: a mystical, protective naga serpent coils around every bottle neck, and four of the country's more elusive and endangered fauna — the clouded leopard, impressed tortoise, pangolin and rarely seen kouprey, Cambodia's national animal — have been adopted as its brand ambassadors. ><

“Kingdom's bearded German braumeister Peter Haupenthal is charged with being faithful to his proud fermenting and filtering heritage while catering to Khmer tastes. "We're now working toward the final recipe, and we think we're almost there. Unfortunately, making a good beer takes time and we can't speed up the process," he said....Brongers, from the Netherlands, said that means there's money to be made. He plans to gradually expand Kingdom's output from 150,000 bottles to about 1 million a month, and his grand vision is to raise the standard for Phnom Penh's already buzzing beer scene. ><

“Although Phnom Penh's newest beer is making its way into bars, the small city already has two microbreweries with beer gardens that are growing in popularity. Man Han Lou's brews are palatable, and customers don't seem to be put off that one of them is acid-green in color. The waistcoated staff swarms the brew-house-themed restaurant, delivering pints pulled from plastic keg-like containers while metal fermentation tanks against the back wall silently do their job. Man Han Lou produces four types of beer: Gold, Red, Green and Black stout, from 5 percent to 6 percent alcohol per volume, for $3 a mug. The Green, very light and easy to drink, tastes like the Gold (despite its alarming color), the Red has a delicate fruity flavor, and the aromatic Black gets the thumbs-up all round. ><

“At the Munich Beer Restaurant on Sothearous Boulevard, self-proclaimed purveyors of "authentic German brew," the beer is less flavorful. Both the Gold and the Stout — the only varieties offered — lack body and a decent head, but the Munich's garden setting makes the experience. A striped awning provides shelter from sudden monsoon showers, and the terra-cotta patio tile, verdant greenery and potted plant hedgerow make the Munich a beer and barbecue oasis. The modest beer menu is accompanied by a heavy tome listing hundreds of delicious dishes, including beef with sesame for $4.95 and goat with Khmer cheese for $6.95. ><

“Sovanna is a local favorite, where the grub is good and the fifth beer is free if you buy four. Another popular spot is the vibrant 54 Langeach Sros, which is always crammed to its blue-and-white-striped rafters with customers chugging beers as they grill their own seafood, meats and veggies. Here Angkor beer sells for just $1.75 and Anchor beer for $2.25, and you can order the usual international suspects by the can, bottle or bucket of ice.” ><

Non-Alcoholic Drinks in Cambodia

Fruit drinks are plentiful and delicious but often risky from a health point of view. Sometimes they are served in plastic bags. Squeezed sugar cane and fresh coconut water are also widely available and good. Fresh coconuts are refreshing and hygienic. Don't let the vendor pour it into a glass, which may be unclean. Soft drinks such as Coke, Pepsi, Orange Crush and Fanta are also available. Locally produced mineral water is available at 500r to 700r per bottle. Coffee is sold in most restaurants. It is either served black or with generous dollops of condensed milk, which makes it very sweet.

You can find excellent fruit smoothies all over the country, known locally as a tikalok. Just look out for a stall with fruit and a blender and point to the flavors you want. Keep an eye on the preparatory stages or you may end up with heaps of sugar and a frothy egg. On a hot day you may be tempted by the stuff in Fanta bottles on the side of the road. Think again, as it is actually petrol (gas). Chinese-style tea is popular and in many Khmer and Chinese restaurants a pot of it will automatically appear as soon as you sit down.

Palm Juice is a traditional Cambodian drink. Research show that’s the fresh palm juice contains Vitamins B, C, D and full of minerals. To protect palm trees as a Cambodian symbol, Confirel Co., Ltd processed palm juice into many products such as palm wine, sour palm juice and palm sugar. The products were well organized and packed especially was very popular for local and international buyers.

Illegal Drugs in Cambodia

Even though marijuana, ecstacy, opium, heroin, amphetamines and other drugs are widely available in Cambodia that doesn't mean there aren't stiff penalties for possessing or selling them. Be careful. You don't want to end up in a Cambodia prison. Amphetamines are currently the biggest drug problem in Cambodia.

Cambodia is believed to be a major transhipment center for drugs. Ecstacy is found in Phnom Penh. Many gangster types like yaba (metamphetamines) . According to the CIA World Factbook: “Narcotics-related corruption reportedly involving some in the government, military, and police; limited methamphetamine production; vulnerable to money laundering due to its cash-based economy and porous borders.”

Marijuana in Cambodia

Marijuana is technically illegal but is commonly used as a spice in Cambodian cooking. In the 1990s it was sold openly in markets for $2.25 for 240 grams.

Backpackers openly smoke marijuana at some guest houses, bars and restaurants. One French woman smoking a cigar-size joint at the No. 9 guest house in Phnom Penh told AP, she came to Cambodia because she “heard smoking marijuana was OK and that you could do it on the street with no problem.” Clamping down on drug-using backpackers is considered a low priority in Cambodia. Police are more concerned with fighting between gangs over market share of the drug trade.

Many farmers have switched from food crops to marijuana because the later is more profitable. One farmer on an island in the Mekong River told the AFP, he makes about $3 a kilo growing marijuana compared to 80 cents raising tobacco. "We sow the ganja alongside chilies or tomatoes and nobody knows what's going on,” he said. “And it is much easier to grow because there is very little work involved, we just plant the seeds and wait." He and his brother grow about 300 kilograms a year and ships it to Phnom Penh in rice sacks labeled as a variety of products.

Amphetamines

Methamphetamines are widely abused in Cambodia. A kind of stimulant like cocaine, they can be smoked, inhaled, swallowed or injected. They increase the heart rate and blood pressure and make people feel alert, energetic and talkative. If injected or smoked they can produce an intense, euphoric rush, sometimes described as orgasmic.

Methamphetamines are known in Cambodia as yaba, their Thai name, which means “crazy medicine,” Pills sell for about $1 to $2 a piece. Many people smoke it by burning a tablet on a piece of foil and inhaling the smoke through a straw. Others smoke it in water pipes. When consumed this way the high is a crack-like rush that lasts for a couple of minutes. A quarter of a table is consumed at a time and users stay for up hours or even days smoking it at regular intervals.

Methamphetamine use is particularly high in Banteay Meanchey and Pailin, near the Thai border, where some villagers buy it under the impression it is a powerful vitamin. Most of the drugs come from Thailand, and are smuggled in on routes through Battambang, the last refuge of the Khmer Rouge. Many police and government workers reportedly use drugs and some are dealers. There are few drug rehab centers to help addicts. Some are run by Buddhist monks who put former addicts to work making Buddhist sculptures.

Workers on Amphetamines

Some laborers in Cambodia are fed amphetamines to keep them working 18 to 20 hour days. The practice is particularly common in northwestern Cambodia, along the Thai border, where in some areas 80 percent of the field workers, both adults and children, smoke amphetamines. One youth at a drug rehab center told the Times, methamphetamines “helped me to work long hours. I felt very strong, not sleepy. But my body became thinner.” [Source: The Times]

Describing amphetamines use among teenage workers along the Thai border, William Shaw wrote in the Times, “The 14-year-old boy tipped the powder into the bottom of an empty plastic water bottle with a straw protruding from its neck. Another child held a cigarette lighter beneath the bottle and...drew the milky-colored smoke into his lungs. Then his friend did the same. The hit gave them a sense of euphoric confidence and a rush of physical energy that helped them to labor through the day.”

One 26-year-old worker told the Times, “After I take the drug I feel stronger and I want to work. I don’t know about the advantages or disadvantages, but its my custom. If we knew the ingredients we would make it ourselves...I know some addicts who become crazy or have problems with mental health, or steal from other villagers. For myself I don’t commit crimes.”

Some children who left home to work on industrial farms and logging operations returned home addicts. Many of the farms they worked at are corn farms owned by former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. They lack machinery and try to make up for it with drug-fueled young people.

Cambodia's Nasty Drug Rehab System

According to Human Rights Watch Cambodia Report 2013: In December 2011, revisions to Cambodia's drug law enabled drug users to be detained for compulsory "treatment" for up to two years. Despite a March 2012 call by 12 UN agencies to close drug detention centers, various government agencies—including security forces—continued to operate 10 centers across the country. Former detainees reported that they had been held without due process, subjected to exhausting military exercises, and ill-treated and even tortured by staff. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Brendan Brady and Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He meanders through a city park with friends, sniffing glue out of a plastic bag. Many nights he passes out on the sidewalk nearby. It's a bleak routine, but this 17-year-old prefers it to his stints at Choam Chao, one of the Cambodian government's controversial drug rehabilitation centers, where he was twice detained. "At night, when they got drunk, sometimes they'd beat me," he said, referring to older detainees deputized by the guards to enforce discipline. His tormentors were rewarded, he said, with occasional trips out of the center's compound, when they could buy their liquor. "When I stopped doing the [enforced physical] exercises, they'd kick me in the stomach," said the teenager, who, along with other former detainees, requested anonymity because he feared official retribution. [Source: Brendan Brady and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2010]

Although his account could not be independently verified, it is consistent with what human rights groups and other detainees say is a widespread pattern of unlawful detention in Cambodia that masquerades as rehabilitation. Those unfortunate enough to be unwillingly caught inside this harsh system are often subject to physical and emotional abuse and deprivation. The teenager said he started using drugs at age 8, soon after his father died. He lived for a few years with his mother, who scraped by scavenging garbage, then struck out on his own, earning money watching parked cars for tips.

His first "rehabilitation" detention, at age 11, lasted six months after he was picked up in a police sweep of his neighborhood. That was followed, at age 13, by 21/2 years of incarceration, during which guards and their stooges attacked him with braided electrical wire and belt buckles. He said he was never officially charged with any crime or allowed to see a lawyer. The teen, who said he has lost touch with his mother, said the only pretense of therapy while in detention was an occasional medical checkup, by officials from a visiting charity, and three hours of daily military drills designed to "sweat out" the drugs. New arrivals suffering severe withdrawal symptoms were lashed down to their beds at night, he added.

"Human rights abuses are intrinsic to how these centers operate," said Joe Amon, a New York-based director of Human Rights Watch, which has released a report on the issue. "Arduous physical exercise and military drills appeared to be happening everywhere, as were beatings and whippings by center staff or detainees … for disciplinary purposes." The watchdog group characterized this approach to supposed rehabilitation as "sadistic," adding that wholesale detention of drug users, homeless people, sex workers and beggars in holding centers out of public view is common, with street sweeps occurring especially before holidays and visits by foreign dignitaries. "This practice takes its roots from [Cambodian] history," said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with Licadho, a Cambodian human rights group that has campaigned against forced detentions. "It's very deep in their DNA. To this day, the government denies that it's unlawful detention."

The so-called rehabilitation system's real aims appear to be social control, profit and retribution for perceived moral failure, watchdog groups said. More than 2,000 people were detained in 11 Cambodian facilities nationwide in 2008, the vast majority involuntarily. For drug users put through the state rehabilitation system, the relapse rate was nearly 100 percent, according to one World Health Organization report. Pellerin blames the Cambodian government for the alleged abuses, but he also points a finger at United Nations agencies and countries that donate aid but don't use their money or leverage to force change. "Donors seem unwilling to draw conclusions that should be drawn after two decades," he said. "Maybe they don't want to admit their own failure."

Cambodian authorities have denied the charges of abuse. At an anti-narcotics conference in March, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged that the centers were not "medically appropriate," but he accused human rights groups of "blindly attack[ing] without seeing the government's charity." Drug users should appreciate the food, shelter and training they receive, Cambodian officials say. Although some facilities may be substandard, they add, that only reflects the limited resources of a nation still recovering from decades of war.

Some former detainees in Cambodia note glimmers of humanity in the system. The 17-year-old glue sniffer was instructed in traditional drums and hair cutting. And a recently released 15-year-old said his term was "easy" and included English lessons, although he was forcibly detained without charges and saw others beaten.

The basic problem, say critics and detainees, is that Cambodia's system focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation. "Those places will harden you," said a 22-year-old former detainee, sipping moonshine in a vacant lot where he was preparing to spend the night. Rights groups and former detainees say it's rife with unlawful detention and physical abuse that masquerades as rehabilitation. The government denies the charges.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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