Phnom Penh’s Happy Pizza Left Me High and Dry
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2014.
Over the course of a trip to Southeast Asia, I’d already encountered quite a few unique dishes—but Phnom Penh’s Happy Pizza topped them all.
To recover from the exertion of my travels, I had allowed myself two weeks of vacation in Kampot, a city in southern Cambodia. I was staying in a small bungalow directly by the river, with a restaurant over the water. In such a romantic atmosphere, I was hardly surprised to run into a gigantic horde of hippies and stoners. They were the ones who recommended “Happy Pizza,” a Phnom Penh specialty.
And sure enough, upon my arrival in Phnom Penh, I quickly caught sight of several restaurants with names like “Happy Herb’s Pizza” and “Happiness Pizza.”
Luckily, one of these was quite close to my hotel. When I first got there, I was absolutely dumbfounded by where Google Maps had led me. I had expected a sort of tiny bar waiting for me in the dim light of a twisted alleyway. To my astonishment, the magnificent Royal Palace was a mere 50 meters away, and the restaurant had river views.
As is often the case in Southeast Asia, a young man stood at the entrance, beckoning me to come in. I ordered a vegetarian pizza “extra happy.” The base was thin and crispy, and they had spared no expense on the toppings. The “extra happiness” portion was difficult to identify at first; the herbs looked a bit like oregano. Even though I was unsure of what it was, I was satisfied after finishing—happy just to have consumed a delicious pizza for around $7.50, and the two beers I had washed it down for only $.50 each. Fair price. At that point, however, I had no idea what was to come in about two hours’ time, and no clue just how much this small investment would pay off.
Back in my hotel, I continued to drink. After who-knows-how-many beers, I began to feel a horrible dryness in my mouth. Since I’d scarfed down the pizza a few hours before, I couldn’t explain this feeling at first. Then, it all crashed down on me at once: My eyes turned ruby red, like the eyes of Falcor the luckdragon from The Neverending Story.
High like never before, I took to the streets of Phnom Penh, overjoyed at everything I saw. I remember, for example, a small group of dogs that “adopted” me into their pack. I can’t say with any certainty whether it was ten minutes or an hour that I stood in the middle of a busy street, overtaken by fits of laughter to see the dogs at play.
When I was finally hit by an insatiable bout of hunger, I went off in search of something edible. After consuming an enormous portion of noodles, I decided it was time to find my hotel again—apparently easier said than done. After hours of searching, I found it at last. I lay down in bed along with two packages of cookies and a bag of chips, and ate and ate and ate. The next day, after 14 hours of sleep, when I found myself relating the events of the previous evening to a few people, the reaction was relatively consistent: “ARE YOU SERIOUS? YOU ATE ONE WHOLE FUCKING HAPPY PIZZA?!”
We make happy food because if you eat it, you will be happy. Everyone likes to be happy.
In putting together this article, I realized that I never answered an important question: just why would someone open a “Happy Restaurant” in the first place? I tried to have a conversation with one restaurant owner after another, but as soon I asked this particular question, their grasp of English miraculously turned poor. To bring you the answer, I had to sacrifice myself once again: I had to try a “Happy Shake” – a delicious coconut milkshake, which could be made “happy” for just one dollar extra. I hoped it would ease the conversation.
The answer: “We make happy food, because if you eat it, you will be happy. Everyone likes to be happy.” So simple, so true. Everyone likes to be happy. After two bags of chips, two packages of cookies, and a portion of noodles, I put myself back to bed for another 14 hours.
Whether my reaction was particularly strong because I don’t smoke pot regularly or this simply happens to everyone, I can’t be sure. But one thing I know: I can only recommend Happy Shakes and Happy Pizza, whether you’re a pothead or not.
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I wasn't planning on getting stoned out of my mind when when I stopped by Phnom Penh's Happy Pizza, one of many such restaurants in the Cambodian city. But what should I have expected when I ordered my pie "extra happy"?
Why Phnom Penh, Cambodia is The New Marijuana Hotspot
Over the years Phnom Penh, Cambodia has evolved into an unlikely hotspot for marijuana enthusiasts. Catering to a thriving backpacker scene, the bustling city has turned what was once an ancient, medicinal herb into the star of many a Southeast Asia bucket list. Nowadays, backpacker hubs all over Cambodia are dotted with (aptly named) ‘happy’ pizza restaurants, offering the doughy dish with an extra side of greens.
Thanks to Cambodia’s ‘happy pizza‘ phenomenon, you’ll be hard-pressed to miss the tables of travellers giggling into cheese-laden margheritas. The sheer range of restaurants cooking with this special ingredient is surprising, with the herb manifesting itself into tantalising food varieties (re: ‘happy’ milkshakes).
At the end of the day, however, pizza has become Phnom Penh’s stoner mainstay – turning this corner of Southeast Asia into a strange, hazy imitation of Southern Italy.
While the pizza itself may not be the best around, (let’s be honest) it’s the topping that counts. Store owners sprinkle their pies with lashings of marijuana, creating the illusion that what you’re biting into is spinach, kale or far too much oregano.
Is it legal?
Phnom Penh’s rising number of ‘happy pizza’ restaurants can, incorrectly, lead visitors to believe the drug is legal in Cambodia – when, in fact, it isn’t. So, when the tuk-tuk drivers on the capital’s riverside ask if you want ‘ganja’ as you pass them by, remember you can find yourself in trouble with the law, with some hefty police pay-offs needed to avoid spending the night in jail.
Traditionally, marijuana was used as a herb in some Khmer dishes to complement the flavour. In the provinces, it’s also used by some for medicinal purposes.
When the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia landed in 1992 for its peacekeeping mission, it nominally banned the drug, but enforcement was lacking.
In 1996, the country passed its first law on drugs, which declares marijuana illegal, although Cambodians are allowed to grow a small number of plants for medicinal or cooking purposes. This law is not applicable to non-Cambodians.
Since the introduction of the statute, the government has been cracking down on drugs, but the focus tends to be thrust upon harder drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, which are common in Cambodia.
While ‘happy’ pizza parlours appear to sit in a grey area, visitors tend to be able to enjoy their high in peace, because the police aren’t typically going to come knocking at these establishments.
Why are visitors so ‘happy’ to visit these pizza parlours in Cambodia? Here's a brief history of cannabis in the country.