WAT SVAY ISLAND, KEAN SVAY - Hun Li, 17, was busy helping her father and sisters
cultivate the ganga crop they're growing with their chili.
A number of rainfalls over the past weeks have caused the young leaves to flourish,
but that didn't make Li happy. Her chance to put a good price on her product has
been ruined by the rain.
"When it rains, the leaves grow faster but the buds do not yield. The merchants
buy ganga because of the buds and a good price also depends on them," Li said.
The 1.5 hectares of land her family leases is fully covered by the weed. At 4,000
riel per kilo, Li's father Hun Larn, 59, has collected about 500,000 riel ($200)
from selling his first ganga harvest last month.
"Growing ganga is easier than growing tobacco, which you have to nurture a lot.
You can just drop the seed onto the ground after clearing the vegetation and ploughing
the soil," Li said.
There is a drawback of sorts, however. Li added: "I always feel drunk whenever
I work on the farm."
Marijuana - declared illegal in many countries around the world - is a booming industry
on this tiny island which sits in Mekong river about 15 km southeast of Phnom Penh.
It is cash-crop farming which does not require much investment but can offer a good
turnover compared to other plants, according to farmers and local authorities.
Police Commissioner Maing Pech said that 16.8 hectares of farm land in this district
of Kean Svay alone, in Kandal province, had been planted in marijuana plants.
"A few years ago, there was little attention on people growing ganga. They used
to grow in small amounts - unlike this year. Maybe behind them there are merchants
who encourage them to do that," Commissioner Pech said.
For Nou Soeung, a 44-year-old farmer, tobacco used to be his prime source of income.
But since its market price dropped from 5,000 to 1,600 riels per kilo, he does not
grow it any longer.
The reason, he said, was the increase in imports of cigarettes from outside the country.
From last year's harvest, he said he still had about 300 kilos of tobacco unsold
even at the current low price of 1,600 riels per kilo.
"Before, people used to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes but now even tobacco farmers
themselves smoke the packed ones. Before, a family used to produce two to three tons
of tobacco a year but some farmers have stopped growing it for good," Soeung
On the two hectares of land he leases, Soeung grows other plants such as corn, papaya,
pumpkin and castor bean. But he said that revenues collected from these products
were enough just to cover the cost of his labor and leasing fees.
With 11 people in his extended family, seven of whom are his children, Soeung is
sweating not just to feed them but to fulfill his dream about saving extra cash.
To achieve the dream, he pins his hope on the ganga he is now growing.
"If I don't grow ganga, I wouldn't have money to save. I hope 100 percent on
it this year. If I can sell it along with other products, I can save about one million
riels in profit," he said.
Though it's unclear exactly why the ganga farming industry has boomed so much this
year, the locals put it down to one thing: word of mouth. The idea spread quickly
through the subsistence communities, and one after another farmer diversified from
growing traditional crops.
Soeung said: "People panicked one after another to grow [ganga] because they
were told they could sell it for a good price.
"Ganga is the most important plant for this year," Soeung said.
Among foreign tourists, Cambodia has a reputation as a marijuana "haven".
In Vietnam and Thailand the weed is generally readily available, but there are legal
penalties involved and it is generally considered inadvisable to smoke marijuana
in public in those countries.
In Cambodia however, it is commonplace and accepted that many foreigners smoke marijuana
- despite laws prohibiting its use and possession, which are not enforced.
And for most Westerners who have become used to paying around $US130 to $200 an ounce
in their home countries - or around $16,000 a kilo - the Cambodian retail price at
around $2-$5 a kilo (depending on the quality) is ridiculously cheap.
Some Cambodian noodle shops use ganga in soup, but the general feeling among all
levels of the Kingdom's society about smoking ganga is one of indifference.
Soeung said he did not smoke it and did not know what ganga tasted like. But his
wife Hel Cheng did.
Cheng recalled her first experience of marijuana when she was 12 years old. She said
she ate chicken-grass soup cooked by her aunt.
"I did not know she put ganga in the soup. It was very tasty. I was drunk and
my mother cried as she fearfully thought that I already died," Cheng, 43, said.
Alerted by the new wave of ganga business, authorities have launched several campaigns
to curb the source of demand. They believed cracking down on the buyers would in
turn suffocate supply.
Commissioner Pech said that about 900 kilos of dried marijuana were seized from house-hold
stocks in the district during a number of police raids early this month.
Although no muscle-flexing measures were being taken yet against growers, the commissioner
said his men had warned them to stop growing the crop.
"We have collected signatures from the farmers promising not to grow ganga anymore
next year. If they remain stubborn in doing so we will destroy their farms,"
"People don't understand that ganga is listed among addictive things. What's
important for them is it [ganga] is easy to grow and make money," he added.
"That's tragic, it's outrageous," said one Western artist, well-known among
the foreign community as a ganga connoisseur. "This is a plant of nature. How
can you ban nature?"
That may destroy Soeung's dreams about bigger bucks.
He predicted next year's farming season would be the worst ever for his family if
he could grow no more ganga.
However, he said: "I don't mind if they stop me from growing ganga but they
should instead advice us what else to grow to alleviate our living conditions. Whatever
we can make money from keeps us happy."