Buying Valium in Cambodia
One of the first things you hear about Cambodia—other than that several million of its people were murdered in a genocide just 40 years ago, or that parts of the country are still heavily covered in land mines, or that Cambodians generally seem very friendly and happy despite their country’s tragic recent past (aggressive scamming touts at the land border crossings notwithstanding)—is that it’s easy to buy drugs there. Very easy. Heck, the bartender at the restaurant Allison and I stopped at in Toronto before our flight to Thailand told us he’d spent a month living in Cambodia in some previous life and that you can literally walk into any pharmacy and buy whatever you want.
Guidebook entries and blog posts about this abound. I read accounts of Valium being available over-the-counter, no-questions asked, for as little as $1 for 60 pills. But it's not just prescription drugs. Heroin is also reportedly widely available, especially in large cities like Phnom Penh, although confusingly it’s sold as “coke,” making the risk of a fatal overdose extremely real. Marijuana is so common it’s even sprinkled on food, billed as “happy pizza” or “happiness shake” or things like that.
Obviously, as we prepared to enter the Heart of Darkness, this was all very tantalizing. (OK, maybe not the heroin part.)
Here I should confess that I am already familiar with buying Valium without a prescription. Several years ago, when I was living in New York, I used to order Valium online, I think from some company based in India—or maybe it was just manufactured there. It wasn’t cheap, about $3 per pill, but the online ordering system was actually very reliable. It seemed easier than dealing with the actual U.S. health-care system, although I did obtain Valium that way occasionally too, seeking out a doctor for whatever hypochondriacal anxiety I was having at the time—debilitating fear of ALS, HIV, cancer, whatever felt deadliest in my mind at the time. The doc would shake his head ruefully, say, “I really don’t think you have ALS or HIV,” write me a scrip for 10 or 20 pills and send me reeling out onto the sweltering, freezing NYC streets. Ordering online was easier, and to be honest, I resented the fact that I needed a doctor’s “permission” to relax enough to not be constantly consumed by the thought of death. (Anyway, I was very methodical about the dosage; limiting myself to one pill at a time, not more than a few times a month, etc. I’m probably more careful than a lot of doctors out there, actually.)
The only reason I stopped doing this (which I didn’t do that often, maybe three or four times total) was that some U.S. drug schedule law changed (thanks, Obama) and these foreign companies were no longer able to accept credit card payments for Valium (plenty of other drugs were still available to buy with a credit card online though). Payment for the last order I ever made was arranged via a Western Union in Times Square. I actually wired a woman money for the pills, sure I was being scammed, since this is like No. 1 in the Getting Scammed on the Internet 101 handbook, but on the other hand, I kind of trusted this particular lady because she worked for the same company I’d ordered pills from successfully in the past (and actually we’d exchanged many pleasant emails; her name was Victoria). Also, I’d checked out her story about the drug laws having changed recently, and it seemed legit.
Indeed, an envelope full of pills arrived at my apartment soon thereafter, as promised, and they worked just fine at taking the edge off after a day spent wasting away in an office copyediting a women’s fashion magazine or whatever I was doing at the time. But that was the last order I placed, as the whole Western Union wrinkle was too complicated to make it feel worth it anymore. I probably started buying marijuana again instead (those guys will come right to your apartment, or at least meet you in some empty aisle of a comic book store on your lunch break). Or maybe I joined a gym.
In any case, the potential for 60 pills of Cambodian Valium for a dollar was obviously something I had to investigate. Our first night in Phnom Penh, Allison and I were content to just get drunk at the fabulous Sundance Inn & Saloon on 75 cent mugs of beer and $1.50 Jim Beams—with a 50 cent pack of cigarettes thrown in to help us feel like truly decadent lowlifes—but by the second night in Phnom Penh we realized we were really going to have to take something stronger than ibuprofen to cushion those barbed-wire Cambodian hangovers.
We stopped at the first pharmacy we saw, about two blocks from our hotel, and, with a bit of trepidation, I said, “Valium? You have for sale?”
The pharmacy, as I just called it, was really just a storefront with a glass counter that opened up onto a busy, trash-and-rubble-strewn street in Phnom Penh. There was probably somebody selling whole roasted ducks with the heads still attached in the darkness to my right, but I was too focused on my mission to notice. The glass counter itself was filled with boxes of drugs, as were the shelves behind the “pharmacist.”
“Diazepam,” she said sweetly. “Five milligram or 10 milligram?” She was a short, pretty woman with glasses, and despite the dusty, traffic-choked road behind us and the murky legality of what we were doing—although this is apparently very normal in Cambodia—I felt like I was in good hands. This lady looked proud, professional even, as she spread the boxes of pills out before us. She may have been wearing a white coat.
“Five dollar for 10 milligram pack. Two dollar 50 cent for 5 milligram pack. Forty pill each.”
It wasn’t quite the 60-for-a-dollar bonanza I’d read about online (maybe that was a couple of years ago) but still, Allison and I gave each other kid-in-a-candy-store glances, and I nearly broke out in a giddy guffaw as I said, “Yes, we take the 10 milligram pack.”
I walked away feeling like I’d stolen something.
Later that night, as we exited the Sundance Saloon again, a young tuk tuk driver, perhaps still a teenager, offered to sell me marijuana. Allison was across the street retrieving her scarf, which she’d left in the bar for the second night in a row, so I entertained the conversation. He wanted $20 for a bag, which I told him was outrageous—Did he know what country we were in?—and he laughed and said he had smaller amounts, I should just take a look. To be honest, some weed did sound good, better than those god-awful 50 cent cigarettes we’d been smoking, but at this point Allison returned and began trying to pull me away from what, yes, she was probably right, would have been an ill-advised transaction.
During the ensuing conversation with the kid, as Allison pulled me in one direction and he in the other, he revealed that he was high himself—on “ice” as he called it, which is basically crystal meth or some derivation of it. Likely his marijuana contained some kind of stimulant too, which he presented as a selling point, until I told him I wasn’t interested in that, at which point he said the complete opposite, that it was very calming weed, “Good for sleeping, relaxing.”
As Allison finally dragged me away, down the dark, empty street, back toward our hotel, the boy called out plaintively, “Sir, open your heart. Open your heart …”
It seemed an odd thing to say, and I turned it over in my mind quite a bit that night and the next day. My heart is open, in my opinion, although I am not necessarily easily moved by emotional pleas or even distress. Perhaps it’s actually my mind that’s open, not my heart. I hardly ever see something and think, “THAT UPSETS ME!” in an emotional sense—because too much of the world is that way; it should be better, but it isn’t. It’s deeply, tragically flawed. Usually I just think, “Ah, so that's another predictably broken piece of the world.”
In other words, I asked myself, do I think it’s “wrong” to buy drugs from a kid in Cambodia so that he can go buy more drugs to support his meth habit? Not really. My heart is “open” enough, so to speak, to understand that he feels he needs those drugs, or at least wants them very badly, and that his life is unimaginably harder than mine could possibly be. I’m a white guy from America with a solid savings account and a peer group that complains righteously on Facebook day in and day out about the latest manufactured political drama and what a “fascist” Donald Trump is. A quarter of this kid’s country’s population was murdered by an actual dictator in the name of some kind of crazy communist purity not long before he was born, and even though he was too young to have experienced it directly, his family surely did. Beyond that, poverty and corruption are rampant in Cambodia, and day-to-day life in Phnom Penh is so hectic and stress-inducing I wonder how anyone can manage it. Cambodian life expectancy rates are among the lowest in Asia (and in the bottom half worldwide), just 66 or 67 years for men.
The next day, as Allison and I swerved through traffic in the back of a tuk tuk on the way to the Killing Fields, that tourist attraction where you can see the exact spot thousands of Cambodians were killed in the late 1970s, including the tree the Khmer Rouge soldiers bashed babies to death on, Allison said, “How many people in this city do you think are high right now, on Valium or meth or who knows what?”
A good question. What about just getting drunk on beer? Any time of day is a good time for that in Cambodia. Fifty cents each in a local store, an ice cold—or even just mildly cold—Cambodian- or Angkor-brand beer is perfect in the 90 degree heat, even with breakfast. People do it all the time, locals and foreigners both. It’s not even noon as I’m writing this, and I think I’m going to have one right now. I’m sitting on the roof of the Royal Hotel in Battambang, a breeze is blowing, and it sounds like the perfect thing ...
(Full disclosure: I took a Valium before sitting down to write this. It wouldn’t be authentic to write a blog post about buying Valium in Cambodia without ingesting a bit of the product first, right? It’s research! Also, I forgot to mention earlier, I did a little comparison-shopping in the beach town of Kep, south of Phnom Penh, just to see how consistent prices are and whether I “overpaid” at $5 for 40. At the pharmacy there, a pack of 10 brand-name Valiums made in Europe was a whopping $7, but a pack of 10 Cambodian-made diazepam was just 80 cents. So yeah, I could have saved $1.80 on 40. That’s a pack of smokes and two beers. Or a meal. Whichever is more important to you.)