French-Canadian expat Etienne Papillon has finally given up on his shisha bar venture, putting the premises and fittings up for sale earlier this month.
Papillon’s business, Nomad Shisha Bar, was going from strength to strength until police unceremoniously shut it down in February this year.
He was just one of several entrepreneurs forced to give up their businesses as part of a recent nationwide crackdown on shisha bars, because, he said, the government deemed such venues as “a gateway for drugs.”
Nomad opened in late 2011, at a time when there were no other shisha bars in Siem Reap. Over the last couple of years, Papillon said, shisha bars had grown from just being popular with expats and tourists to also attracting a Khmer crowd. But around Valentine’s Day, this all came to a close.
“Suddenly I had a rush of Khmer people going to my bar – because right before the closure most of my customers were Khmer people – and they said maybe I should close for tonight,” he claimed.
His customers told him they’d seen police at a new Khmer-owned shisha bar, but Papillon said initially he was not worried because he already knew other shisha bars in town were selling drugs and he figured that’s what had attracted the police attention.
“We’d started to hear rumours that other shisha bars had visits from the police, that they had trouble with drugs. So when I heard the police were trying to close it I thought, well that’s nothing to do with me,” he said.
He believed that some Khmers did like to mix weed or crystal meth in their pipes. But this was banned in his bar – as was underage smoking.
A month earlier, he said, he’d had a visit from the anti-drugs police.
“They came to our bar to ask questions about shisha, about the customers and to see if we had a warning notice on the wall saying that people under 18 could not smoke,” he said. “They told me not to worry, that they weren’t there to close the business, they just wanted to be sure I respected the law. But this was not the case.”
According to Papillon, the police were actually going round identifying all the shisha bars in town.
“A month later they came back with the whole team and they closed everything,” he said. “It was like a bad action movie. I was about to leave when I saw the first police coming on their motorbikes. They said, ‘You need to stop the business now, you need to close’.”
He alleged that the police confiscated all his shisha pipes and tobacco without showing a warrant.
“I said, ‘Where’s your warrant, where’s your official paperwork that grants you the right to take everything?’ They told me, ‘Oh we don’t care, we are from the police we can do what we want’.”
Papillon claimed he was forced to sign a document authorising the police to take the pipes, and another to confirm he could no longer sell shisha.
“They told me, ‘Maybe you would like to have more trouble, we cannot guarantee the safety of your shishas.’ But that was bullshit anyway because I never saw the shisha pipes again. Maybe they are still at the police station, maybe they sold them, maybe they destroyed them. They took everything that they could see.”
Papillon is understandably frustrated that his once successful and legitimate business has had to close.
“I think that this is a very lame move from the government, and I just think that they’re trying to hide something because they acted pretty quickly,” he said. “Like people are selling drugs all over the place. They have those ‘happy pizza’ places; you can see kids sniffing drugs. And all of a sudden they just said that shisha was like a tool for evil, then the next day they closed everything without any warning.
“The problem is they haven’t tried to make laws or special rules, they just decided to eradicate everything under the pretext that it was bad for the young generation.”
He added, “I heard several rumours – one of them was that there was somebody in the government, some rich family, the kid was going to shisha bars and the family was not happy and so they just put some pressure on so the government would close all the shisha bars.”
On February 27, Phnom Penh Post reported that deputy prime minister Ke Kim Yan, president of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, had advised Hun Sen on the matter saying, “The general public sees that shisha and e-cigarettes are drugs which get youths hooked and make them neglect their studies and work, and may lead to serious problems for the nation,” Kim Yan said, before recommending “ceasing use by seizing and destroying the shisha and e-cigarettes, [implementing] banning measures and stopping imports.”
Papillon said that in Phnom Penh the bars at least got some warning, but in Siem Reap they just carried out raids. He said the job would have been easier in Siem Reap as there were only five or six bars, compared to the 30 odd in Phnom Penh, and a bar was even closed down in Kep.
“The prime minister asked them to take some radical action to remove all the shisha bars as fast as possible,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the governor of Siem Reap said, ‘OK let’s lead by example. Let’s send the police here.’
“It was a direct order from the prime minister. He said that smoking shisha was like smoking opium. They really did a full clean-up of everything everywhere.”
Papillon sees the closure of these bars as a “step back for people’s personal freedom,” particularly when shisha itself is perfectly legal and no less healthy than smoking cigarettes.
“Afterwards I read a document that the governor, officials and police had released, saying that even though shisha is not illegal, and that they cannot take legal actions against it, they still decided to close all the bars because it was a gateway for drugs for young Khmer people.
“It’s very frustrating. Now I don’t even want to see the bar anymore. I’ve put it up for sale and some people are interested so hopefully we’ll sell it pretty quickly. “All this work for nothing – it’s just plain frustrating and unfair.”