Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Cambodia's 'happy pizza' faces chop in drug crackdown

Apr 9, 2008

Phnom Penh - Changing times and politics in South-East Asia may finally spell extinction for one of the most famous (or infamous) fusion cuisines enjoyed by backpackers, Cambodia's 'happy pizza.'

Legendary amongst travelers for more than a decade, this hippy's little helper version of pizza is simply the traditional Italian favourite with a Cambodian twist - the rich tomato base comes heavily laced with marijuana.

Although officially illegal for several years, locals have traditionally used marijuana in soups or medicinally. Pioneering travelers crossing the Lao-Cambodian border previously even reported a small garden of the stuff being lovingly tended by customs officials.

And then foreign inspiration transformed the drug into arguably the world's most talked-about pizza topping. Dozens of happy pizza parlours sprang up around the country as backpack tourism boomed.

But now the Cambodian government's current battle against drugs has given 'pizza wars' a whole new meaning.

This week marijuana was claimed as Cambodia's first 'total victory' in eliminating a drug from both domestic and export markets by Interior Ministry anti-drug chief, Police General Lou Ramin.

'Marijuana is no longer a problem in Cambodia,' he declared. 'We are strengthening our monitoring throughout the country and its borders.'

Massive plantations which once required helicopter airlifts to clear them have been wiped out, he said, leaving the government free to concentrate on the increasingly prevalent evils of heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines.

The government's anti-grass putsch began in 1999, when seven elderly women who had previously openly sold marijuana at traditional medicine stalls in one of the capital's largest markets were arrested in a police raid and 38 kilos of the weed were confiscated.

Back then, a compressed brick of marijuana sold for around 2 dollars, and a packet of 25 ready-rolled cigarettes was just a dollar, according to experts, but inflation and repeated crackdowns quickly pushed the price up to a dollar per cigarette.

Somehow, however, the iconic happy pizza survived, until now.

The spiked pizza's status as a backpacker's rite of passage has earned it mentions even on reputable travel websites such as Lonely Planet. YouTube features videos of it being made, eaten, sold - and its extremely potent side effects.

'This is my journey into Happy Pizzaland Phnom Penh. The obvious happened - paranoia, and missing two paid-for flights back to Bangkok. FOOL!!!' one YouTube poster writes of his video clip.

A former Foreigner Police officer says that tourists ingesting marijuana in pizza form often got dangerously out of hand in culturally conservative Cambodia.

'Many times I saw people take their clothes off after eating this - especially women. Some people laugh, but some cry, and some just jump in the lake,' he said.

Expatriates familiar with the potent pizza grin when they tell the story of one of the capital's most famous happy pizza chefs admitting himself to hospital and spending the night on a drip after sampling a slice of his own cuisine for the first - and last - time.

For most adventurous tourists, however, 'happy pizza' provided no more than a great travel yarn, insists one of the country's dwindling chefs of Cambodia's quasi-clandestine classic, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On his menu, it costs as little as 3 dollars for a small pizza of happiness.

But he agrees that life as a purveyor of happy pizza is becoming increasingly precarious and expensive.

'It is much more expensive to make now because of the ingredients,' he says. 'The special ingredient costs much more now, but our biggest problem is that tourists do not ask for it anymore because they are afraid it is illegal.'

'We still make the happy pizza if the tourists ask directly, but we put less special ingredient now because we don't want any problems with the police if they get crazy.'

So how long can the marijuana pizza last out the law?

'The government goal is that this drug does not exist any more in Cambodia,' says Police General Lou Ramin. 'We will only be satisfied when it is not available at all.'

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