HERE'S the view from the back corner of a popular yet pricey Phnom Penh nightclub.
Its Tuesday, 2 am, beers are going for six dollars a pop. Imported, if slightly dated
American house music booms over a sparsely-lit dance floor.
Ostentatious ethnic Chinese businessmen and their bodyguard sidekicks sit camped
at the bar, ogling the dozens of mostly Chinese and Vietnamese "taxi girls"
strewn across the room. One hopes that everyone has checked their guns at the door
as noted on the sign out front.
Look closer. There's something preternatural in the way these people are dancing.
Glazy-eyed, their heads twitch almost epileptically from side to side. Their teeth
grind, their bodies perceptibly convulse.
You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled across a freak show of Stevie Wonder
At least half of these revellers are tripping out on the boom drug of the Asian nightclub
scene - ecstasy, the synthetically made methamphetamine derivative designed to enhance
the human sensorium and generate feelings of euphoria and well-being.
A seventeen-year-old boy deals in the illicit drug right outside the entrance to
the club. A collective of armed, military-fatigued bouncers casts a nonchalant glance
as the kid pulls a colorful assortment of pills from a trouser pocket; a readily
visible irony of perhaps the only transparent aspect of Cambodia's narcotics trade.
He quotes his prices. "This [blue] one's five dollars. This one's ten,"
he says, pointing to a packet of orange, aspirin-sized tablets. "These are better
for you ... stronger."
Medically known as MDMA, the physical effects of ecstasy are akin to those of amphetamines;
euphoria, hyperexcitability, accelerated heartbeat, sweating and, somewhat paradoxically,
an overwhelming sense of relaxation.
Pisay (not her real name), a twenty-five year-old Khmer-Chinese prostitute, claims
that ecstasy use remains rife in about four or five other prominent nightclubs around
the capital. "Everybody does it ... It makes me want to dance ... be happy.
I cannot afford drinks all night."
One well-known Phnom Penh bar proprietor, preferring anonymity, believes that ecstasy
use grew markedly with the arrival of thousands of peacekeeping UNTAC troops to Cambodia
in 1993. "UNTAC arrived and many nightclubs began to open around Phnom Penh
... hundreds of prostitutes began arriving from the countryside and from Vietnam,"
"They use it so they can be happy while they are working ... they will be happy
to go home with any man, even if he is ugly or boring, " he adds.
But the ecstasy market is not confined to all-night flesh-trade girls consigned to
losing themselves to time. Foreigners, particularly short-time tourists on the faddish
backpacker trail, have become increasingly savvy to the high accessibility and low-cost
nature of Asian narcotics. Ecstasy being no exception.
Says Darren (not his real name), a twenty-two-year-old Australian at the club, "A
pill like this might set me back forty bucks in Melbourne. ... [Still], you can never
be sure what you're buying."
For users, not "being sure" of the exact chemical components of any powerful,
physically taxing, mind-altering drug is to court risk. Ecstasy in its purest form
comes with a noxious medley of unfavorable side-effects - increased heart rate, higher
blood pressure, dehydration, dizziness, insomnia - that can, and have, hospitalized
persons whose bodily functions and psychological fabric have been unable to cope
with the drug's toxicity.
Some medical experts have suggested that MDMA's temporary depleting effect on neurotransmitters
in the brain can induce depression and anxiety in the mentally unstable.
Dr Gavin Scott, of the Tropical and Travellers Medical Clinic in Phnom Penh, is aware
of the city's "big, underground scene" in ecstasy use. Though he personally
hasn't treated many patients with ecstasy-induced ailments, Scott laments the fact
that ordinary Khmer and Vietnamese night-clubbers are ingesting the drug untutored
as to its harmful repercussions.
"I've heard secondhand reports of people fainting ... these people really don't
want to spend the money it might cost for treatment," he says.
Dr Choi May, an anesthesiologist specializing in intensive care medicine at Phnom
Penh's Calmette Hospital, has seen firsthand the injurious effects of ecstasy on
unprepared users. "I saw a girl recently who had taken two capsules of ecstasy.
She was convulsing wildly. ... We don't have figures but [usage] has definitely increased."
Dr May cautioned that until the Ministry of Health approved funding for a hitherto
planned Poisons Unit at the hospital, Cambodia's pharmaceutical knowledge of ecstasy
would, along with precise user statistics, remain "obscure" at best.
An International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released by the US State Department
in 1999 concluded that Cambodia's geographical location and scarcity of public funds
for drug enforcement agencies had rendered it increasingly vulnerable to drug traffickers
and money launderers operating in Southeast Asia.
The report furthermore suggested that, along with ethnic-Chinese triads - whose numbers
may swell in Cambodia following the recent hand-over of Macau to Beijing - certain
elements within Cambodia's RCAF have colluded in amphetamine and ecstasy smuggling.
Khieu Samon, Deputy Director of the National Police's Anti-Drugs Department, agrees
with the ethnic-Chinese connection. "They are using Cambodia as a transit hub
for shipments to wealthier Asian countries ... Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong
As for local ecstasy use, Samon believes that it "has been blown way out of
The conviction that Thai and Burmese drug-smugglers are also involved in the trafficking
of ecstasy to Cambodia gained momentum recently in the wake of two discoveries, one
on Nov 9, another on Jan 3, of massive quantities of amphetamine pills and tablet-minting
machines in Bangkok.
Many of the pills were stamped with the symbol "cy" on one side, a variety
of pill commonplace in the Phnom Penh ecstasy scene. According to a Dec 26 Bangkok
Post article, the "cy" label is widely recognized as the hallmark of amphetamines
and ecstasy manufactured by the United Wa State Army, a drug warlord-run unit of
former Communist Party of Burma affiliates operating in the "Golden Triangle"
between Thailand, Burma and Laos.
Meanwhile, back inside the nightclub, a delirious, semi-passed out female raver is
dragged to a nearby sofa by two of her friends. Thirsting for fluids and fresh air,
she sits down to battle with the chemicals holding hostage to her body. "She
will be okay," declares Dani (not her real name), a twenty-year-old Vietnamese
taxi-girl. "Last week I [was] also like that ... no problem."