A group of farmers living on the outskirts of Battambang say a tradition of growing
and smoking marijuana together is the perfect start to grueling days in the fields
Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN
A farmer in Battambang's Tatok 2 village smokes marijuana in a traditional bamboo pipe.
Mong Russei, Battambang
IN Tatok 2 village, a sleepy backwater some 50 kilometres outside Battambang town, a group of rice farmers sit in a circle underneath a wooden stilt house. With their kramas and their work-worn hands, they look like salt-of-the-earth paddy workers, but the thick, smoky haze hovering above them betrays their illicit secret.
"I cannot stop smoking [marijuana]. If I don't smoke, I won't have the energy to farm," said Soun Sopheak, 28, who claimed he learned to smoke when he was just 12 years old.
Soun Sopheak and all the farmers interviewed for this story requested that their names be changed.
In Tatok 2, a small group of men meet twice a day to smoke marijuana, a much-loved collective ritual that all of them say makes life more enjoyable. Using a traditional long bamboo pipe, a small cuttingboard and a knife, the men get high before heading off to their paddy fields to plant rice.
But in 1996, Cambodia made growing, selling and smoking marijuana illegal. In Tatok 2, however, growers say the police have turned a blind eye to small-scale cultivation of marijuana, as long as the weed is only grown for personal use.
"We do not plant it in order to sell. We keep it for ourselves, so the authorities close their eyes and allow us this crop," said Soun Sopheak, adding that most houses in the area have between 20 and 30 marijuana plants.
If I don't smoke [marijuana], I won't have the energy to farm.
"We know the authorities have made it illegal, but we smoke it secretly, and we plant it behind our houses and put up a bamboo fence to hide it from prying eyes," Soun Sopheak said.
Khuon Samnang, 52, who said he maintains between 50 and 60 plants, said that periodically people will visit the village and try to purchase the drug, but that despite their poverty, they refuse to sell it.
"Sometimes, a few people from Battambang town come to buy from us, and they offer to give us US$25 for 1 kilogram, but we do not sell for them because ... I am afraid the police will arrest me."
In Tatok 2, smoking marijuana has become a secret bonding activity for the men.
"I could not smoke alone. I must have partners because we need partners to talk with. In the morning and at night at about 7pm, we get together to smoke, and we share with our friends if they do not have marijuana," Soun Sopheak added.
The community has even developed a code so they can communicate to each other in public without arousing too much suspicion.
"We have a phrase for inviting our friends to smoke marijuana with us: ‘Let's go to see the cloud eddies in the sky.' If they hear this, we will go meet at a friend's house together," Khuon Samnang said.
Pot better than booze
The men are hardly rebels, but they say that despite knowing the drug is illegal, they have no desire to quit.
"Smoking marijuana makes me happy. When I get high, I always smile ... but I still feel like I have power," said Chhoum Chouk, 58.
Khuon Samnang agreed, adding he felt that getting stoned was better for Cambodian society than getting drunk.
"Smoking marijuana is better than drinking wine, which can sometimes cause violence. But smoking only causes smiling and sleeping," he said.
The police, he said, used to warn the villagers that they could face a 5 million riel (US$1,200) fine and a one-year prison term, and during that time, the men had to smoke in secret "like thieves".
Even then, he said despite the dangers, the men could not stop smoking.
"We wanted to stop, but we could not. When the time that we normally smoked arrived, it caused a feeling in me that said I must go smoke," he said.
Gnou Sothy, head of the provincial health department, said that for many people who smoke marijuana regularly, stopping can be very difficult. Though he said marijuana was safer than some other illegal drugs, he warned that long-term use posed serious threats.
"Smoking marijuana brings on mental health problems. If people smoke habitually for a long time, it can impact people's lungs and nerves," he said.
The Mong Russei district police chief, Kith Hean, said that large-scale cultivation and use of marijuana in his district had been eradicated through a policy of burning marijuana fields.
"Before they planted a lot, but we went directly to their fields and burned them," he said.
Long Som, governor of Mong Russie district, credited an extensive education campaign for stamping out marijuana use in his district.
"We have been educating our people for a long time.... Now in my district, nobody is smoking," he said.