Feb 09 2011

Why taking drugs in Cambodia is a bad idea

Published by at 5:22 am under Health & safety


Late night cyclo drivers in Phnom Penh

Late night cyclo drivers in Phnom Penh

A few weeks ago an American working for one of the Phnom Penh English-language newspapers died of what is widely believed to have been a drug overdose. Another three of the newspaper’s employees also overdosed, but luckily survived. Each year at least a few foreigners are found dead in Phnom Penh guesthouses of an accidental overdose. The main reason? Buying cocaine that is actually heroin.

Cocaine in Cambodia is expensive — more expensive than heroin. Because heroin is produced in Southeast Asia, it’s cheap and far more pure than what’s available in the West. Often dealers in Phnom Penh will agree to sell cocaine but will actually deliver heroin — whether it’s due to stupidity or a gruesome cost-saving method is unknown. In 2009 this tragic trend made the headlines when David Hunt and Mark Ganley, two Britons on holiday in Cambodia, died after taking heroin that they thought was cocaine. Although this case is well known, many more die each year in cases that do not make the headlines.

“Do ‘cocaine’ in Phnom Penh with extreme caution and always have somebody on hand should things go wrong,” Dr Nick Walsh, who works at one of the international clinics in Phnom Penh, told me via email. He’s aware of six accidental overdoses and one death in the last month alone.

Because both drugs can be white powders, users often unknowingly ingest heroin in quantities larger than even a seasoned heroin user would. When one has no tolerance to opiates, this is a recipe for an overdose and overdoses in Cambodia more often result in deaths than in the West due to inadequate medical care. “Medical services in Cambodia are not of the same standard as in the developed world and overdose antidotes like naloxone for heroin will not be available,” Dr Walsh said. “Ambulance services will not be able to treat on the scene as their main role is transportation, and their training is inadequate.”

I spoke with one man who barely survived such an incident in Cambodia. Already inebriated, he assumed a white powder in front of him was cocaine and took what most people would describe as a whole lot. He was evacuated to Bangkok. “They did an MRI scan and my brain was fried, the doctors wanted to pull the plug,” he told me, asking that I not use his name. “They had never seen so much smack in someone’s system before.” He was on life support for weeks in the Thai capital before being stable enough to be transferred to his home country.

There are a lot of reasons to not take drugs in Cambodia: drug laws are growing increasingly draconian and taking drugs puts one at greater risk for muggings and assaults. Of more immediate concern is the lack of a reliable source. Suppliers of various nationalities have sold heroin disguised as cocaine.

If you decide to ignore my advice and take drugs anyway, try and reduce your risk. Caitlin Padgett, a harm reduction and public health consultant who has worked extensively in Cambodia, advises users to taste the drugs that they purchase. “Put a teeny bit in your mouth and gums and see what it feels like,” she said. Cocaine has a numbing effect on the gums while heroin has a more bitter taste to it. “Only ever do a small bump first; never line up a big fat rail if you haven’t tasted and tried a little, or seen someone else use the exact same stuff.” If it tastes wrong, don’t do it.

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19 responses so far

19 Responses to “Why taking drugs in Cambodia is a bad idea”

  1. Scotton 09 Feb 2011 at 7:53 am

    Interesting thoughts, but can’t say I feel sorry for anyone that buys drugs of someone they don’t know and then overdoses.

  2. Simonon 09 Feb 2011 at 8:48 am

    It’s a tragic story for sure.

    A lot of people come here and want to follow in the footsteps of the book ‘Off The Rails in Phnom Penh’ by Amit Gilboa.

    Call me an old bore but hard drugs are a very dangerous game if you take them here, in London, Sydney, New York or wherever.

    It is the mild users or ‘weekend warriors’ that generally get themselves into the most trouble as they don’t know what they are taking, how to differentiate between one drug and another and their tolerance levels.

    Personally I’d rather have a nice cup of tea these days.

  3. Aoifeon 09 Feb 2011 at 10:33 am

    Very interesting read. Scary to think how easily you can be caught out like that.
    Always adhere to the taste test!

  4. simonon 09 Feb 2011 at 11:45 am

    good article. noticed a lot of proactive cyclos in pp with offers of drugs. can be easy to catch some excited kids on first trips.

    also happened a lot in vietnam – is there a similar situation there on this issue of coke/junk?

  5. Pamelaon 09 Feb 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Woah – that is some scary stuff!

  6. Jeff McNeillon 10 Feb 2011 at 1:26 am

    Sounds a bit like Darwin at work here.

  7. Stephanieon 10 Feb 2011 at 2:20 am

    Great quotes from your interviews. Passing on drugs in Southeast Asia might seem like a no-brainer, but apparently not. It’s awful to think about taking “a good time” to the next level while on vacation and death being the end result, but it’s the sad truth.

  8. Linaon 10 Feb 2011 at 2:45 am

    Scott, I think the implication that anyone who takes drugs deserves to die is a bit harsh, don’t you?

    Simon #1, I’m more a fan of kar fe tuk ta ko te goc, amazing buzz.

    Simon #2, I haven’t heard of this happening in Vietnam, but I am not sure.

  9. Scotton 10 Feb 2011 at 6:16 am

    @Lina Not implying that everyone who takes herion/coke “deserves” to die, just saying that I am not going to lose sleep over it. I personally find taking that kind of risk asinine in any situation, and find this kind of story just re-affirming to my position. As a follower of news and current events, I also found the article fascinating from that perspective.

    @Jeff Darwin award nominees for sure!

  10. wendyon 10 Feb 2011 at 8:44 am

    Thank you Travel Fish for bringing this into the open…a pity both our English newspapers were so reticent to print anything in regard to the recent tragic overdoses. Obviously this occurs regularly here, both 2009 and 2010 were tragic years for overdoses, these were covered up as ‘heart attacks’ or ‘overdose of malaria tablets’! White powder is white powder…the customer wants cocaine…’sure it’s cocaine’ says the eager seller after his cash. The networks for the drug trade are devious and well protected…er Mok Dara NACD is a good indicator!
    Everyone is entitled to their opinions on drug taking, it is up to the individual. Just be extremely careful and heed the words of Doctor Nick and Caitlin.

  11. thomas wanhoffon 10 Feb 2011 at 10:37 am

    I can’t believe that a doctor said “do cocaine…” You should’nt take any illegal drugs there.

  12. jasonon 03 Jun 2011 at 11:11 am

    after visitng cambodia for 10yrs and living here for 6 i find young travellers takeing any kind of drug here disrespectful to the struggle fot his country,its been through enough without a drug probelm!and if anyone buys a illegal substance then they take there own risks and shouldnt be awarded sympathy because cambodians arent eductaed in supplying the right drugs or they choose to trick to make money,this si the way they have become through there struggle and any forerigner visiting shouyld be aware of cambodias struggle from its history,also the doctor who gave advice on takeing the drugs should be struck off his profession,surely the only davice is not to do it,its not a simple joint its a class A destructive use which as a foolish youngssster i had first hand expirence of and all the unhappiness it causes,luckily now ive learnt that lifes buzzes are alot more simple like admiring nature,i can only hope the traveller looking for cocaine in phnom penh can find this one day!

  13. steveon 18 Aug 2011 at 2:07 pm

    @jason whats the cambodians struggle got to do with a foreigner buying drugs? what disrespect? i have also lived in phnom penh numerous years and as an active drug user i say to all you ” let em die” types go get an education. as for the doctors comments its called harm minmisation stupid and good on them for being compassionate enough to point things out to unsuspecting people.

    to all the people saying get high on life well good luck to ya. some of us havent been able to survive life without problems or drugs and we dont look down on you for whatever ur shortcomings are so get a life and stop putting down drug users, go do something constructive like the doctor has done. as for me, yeh i use heroin and will continue to until it probably kills me and thats because its the only way i can survive without putting a bullet in my brain. now, off to baeong trabek for an arvo $2.50 shot.

  14. Brookalaon 27 Jan 2012 at 8:30 am

    #Lina: What is ” Kar fe tuk ta ko te goc”?

    I am traveling to these regions in month and any little bit of information about every situation is great knowledge! Sometimes people get caught up in the moment so I applaud Dr. Walsh for speaking about these issues, whether you personally would do or not do certain things is up to you, but I say THANKS for sharing, knowledge is power!

  15. Lina Goldbergon 27 Jan 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Brookala — it means iced coffee with milk (usually sweetened condensed). More here: http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/phnompenh/2011/05/ordering-an-iced-coffee-in-phnom-penh/

  16. Dave Mon 02 Mar 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Harm minimisation it is. If when you taste it,it doesnt have a petrol(gasoline) taste, then its not coke.Petrol is uesd in the refinment process.If it is coke and doesnt have a petrol taste- then you are wasting your money buying it.Its been cut to the shithouse

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