Some are hidden deep inside crumbling, abandoned buildings. Some are squalid tent
cities sitting on seas of trash. Others are rooftop redoubts perched high above the
An infant peers from a most un-childlike scenario in one of Phnom Penh's well-established drug zones, where dealers, addicts and their families live in odd arrangement of harm and harmony.
Some are dangerous; some are scary - all are sad.
These are Phnom Penh's harrowing drug haunts: places where addicts and their families
form ad hoc communities forged on the sorrowful cycle of poverty and addiction. They
are inconspicuous enclaves, separated from society by insubstantial walls of cardboard,
cloth and candlelight. Their numbers are legion.
It's a Dickensian underworld peopled with street kids, prostitutes and pushermen
- a nightmarish realm that hope eludes and hygiene has forgotten.
This is a landscape littered with human detritus from the same world that does not
see them. Both shunned and silently accepted, Cambodia's junkie culture is, at times,
unusually undisturbed. Oddly, it often revolves around a family unit.
"Cambodian culture places great importance on upholding rigorously determined
standards of behavior for members of society, yet simultaneously tolerates deviant
behavior by those who violate the social norms without serious consequences,"
wrote Cambodian social psychologist Bit Seanglim, in his book The Warrior Heritage.
For three nights the Post was guided through the depths of this reality. Accompanied
at times by purported policemen, confirmed criminals and eager social workers, the
journey exposed a side to the city few ever see.
This is Phnom Penh: city of lights - city of tragic, tragic things.
Methamphetamine, or ice, is generally smoked on foil strips above a low-lit cigarette lighter and then inhaled through a small water pipe. The discarded foil on the table are "pipes" that have already been smoked past efficiency.
Band of urchins
The first stop required a climb, and a stern warning about the rats waiting on the
other side. Following the lead of a pistol-packing young man, who said he was police,
a 3-meter wall was scaled and the descent cushioned by a carpet of garbage. In the
fetid, abandoned lot - just meters removed from Norodom Boulevard - stood the trash-strewn
campsite of five young orphans, aged 15 and 22. As the guide approached, the boys
emerged from under the tent is various states of undress and curiousity. They said
they've lived at the site together for two years. They recycle plastic to make enough
money to smoke, and generally make about 5,000 riel each day. A meter-high, meter-wide,
overflowing white garbage bag was the scene's centerpiece. They gestured vaguely
towards the undergrowth, and said it concealed the sleeping quarters of other squatters.
It was uncertain how many people were out there. They all laughed about the rats.
Candlelight flickering through torn sheets of their shelter, revealed all the apparatus
for smoking methamphetamine - modified cigarette lighters, thinly cut strips of foil
wrappers and a small water bottle equipped with a long smoking straw. The young men
huddled together and passed the pipe, exhaling long breaths of snow-white smoke.
In the same tent, alongside the smokers was semi-conscious, semi-clothed young man
dozing contentedly amidst the chatter. As the guide gestured to depart, the scene
quietly returned to its narcotic cocoon. The insular aspect of the boy's camp - shockingly
filthy yet eerily peaceful - would be paralleled at other locations this night.
Near a fleet of Cintri dumpsters docked on a dirt alley off a busy city street, a
30-meter stretch of coffin-sized, cardboard smoking cells stretches along the gutter.
Each meter-high booth was occupied, and many were overcrowded. Hivelike, in its compartmentalized
layout, the roughly 45 users were just centimeters from each other, but private enough
to pursue their own activities. Again, candlelit silhouettes exposed the inhabitant's
activities. The process and paraphernalia were the same but the hosts were hardly
as accommodating. Squeezing two to three smokers into the cardboard confines - each
unit leaning against the next - the dwellers covered themselves with tarps, towels
and mosquito netting. Standing above the compartments revealed a skid row of drug
users all exhibiting differing states of sobriety: some had just hunkered down to
huff, some were inhaling already, and others were sprawled unconscious isolated in
their cardboard beds.
Before climbing five grimy stories of a pitch black twisting stairway, the alleged
officer calls up top for an OK. These are "hard-core" dealers, he explained.
Broken tiles, hideous smells and scurrying creatures make for awful ascendance to
an unfamiliar scenario. The blacked-out, moldering apartment building was clearly
unlivable - but murmurs, shadows and shouts suggested otherwise. The action was on
the rooftop. Here, 13 families living in ramshackle shacks with partial walls and
roofs, live alongside dealers who, on this night, have gathered in the shadows, speaking
softly. There are no safety barriers around the edge and peering downward gives an
optimal vantage point to watch the network of alleys far below. It's a strategic,
predatory position to monitor the street trade. There's a different vibe here, territorial
and tense, and the vicious dog doesn't help. Young children play on broken furniture
in the darkness, but the dealers didn't talk.
Grandma's Ice alley
The most deceptive stop lies deep in Daun Penh district. The grandmotherly Vietnamese
women reclining at the gate is a great disguise-until you see that she's slyly scissoring
tinfoil strips, the better to smoke drugs with. Known as "Ice Alley," this
2-meter walkway plunges directly into darkness. This spot is all about brisk business-a
drive-thru for the downtwon drug trade. In the span of a casual iced coffee at a
neighboring café, dozens of clients -including Westerners-slunk into the dank
corridor, only to dart out moments later. Some stay for hours.
"You can put it in your pocket and leave, or you can buy and stay," said
a tattooed 52-year-old Australian drug user outside the alley entrance.
The drug tour yielded information, as well as atmospherics. Interviews conducted
over the three day report suggest that ice has replaced yaba as the most popular
street drug in Phnom Penh. A bag of ice can be purchased for $5, and a pill of yaba
now goes for $2 to $3. A chi, or 4 grams, of heroin can be purchased for $180, and
the same weight of ice for about $200. The best "tin foil" used to smoke
is from paper from Wrigley's Spearmint gum, with the paper side soaked off.
According to the National Authority on Drugs there are les than 7,000 drug addicts
in Cambodia, but a technical expert for the same organization estimates there may
be as many as 70,000.