I stood at a busy street corner in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The green light lit up on the signal before me, yet seemingly color-blind drivers kept zipping past me on scooters. I started to imagine the damage a tourist might cause by actually stopping at a red light. A local couple next to me proceeded to cross the intersection one lane at a time like a game of human Frogger. My nerves were starting to fray when an elderly Cambodian woman no taller than Tyrion Lannister took my arm. She apparently wanted my help crossing the street, not because I knew what I was doing, but because I am big guy who could probably absorb a lot of scooter impact. Now or never, I started crossing the street, lane by lane, with the short-striding grandmother in tow. I kept thinking, “Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten the whole cannabis pizza.”
In February 1992, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) sent peacekeepers to deal with Cambodia’s four-party civil war, turning power over to democratically elected officials in late 1993. Three years later, the U.S. of A. added the newly free Cambodia to its naughty list of “major illicit drug producing and drug transit countries,” but according to President Clinton, the country’s “heroin trafficking problem” motivated the addition. Cambodia had to react, but the government focused on opiates, methamphetamines and an Asian upper called yaba. Cannabis use dates back generations in Cambodia, including as herb in traditional Khmer cuisine, but the country had to prohibit the plant largely to alleviate international pressure.
Despite the cannabis ban, a pioneering restaurant in the capital started making cannabis pizzas in the early 1990s, and several more restaurants followed. Happy Herb Pizza, a backpackers’ fave pimped out in Lonely Planet guides, is the original. Like 420 in the U.S., the word “happy” is cannabis code in Cambodia. The police presumably know this, so the real reason for the code might be to trick foreign governments who wish to enforce a cannabis crackdown.
“It is really something of an indigenous classic around here,” said Anthony Bourdain when he visited Cambodia on No Reservations. “It is the pizza that makes you insane in the membrane.”
I came to Cambodia to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, but while in Phnom Penh, I had to experience the infamous Happy Herb pies. Using the address and map provided in a guidebook, I snaked my way through the capital, and I soon saw Happy Herb Pizza places everywhere. A copyright lawyer might describe it as an intentional attempt to create confusion in the marketplace. Knowing I wanted the original, I stopped looking at signage and started looking for address numbers.
In recent years, the government carried out some large-scale busts, and a raid on Happy Special Pizza in 2013 netted three tourists. Such situations, however, are rare. Cannabis is technically illegal, but the police rarely enforce it, and if they do, most merely want a payoff. Apparently for this reason, restaurants throughout the country appear comfortable promoting “happy meals.” Even restaurants that don’t advertise it might make your dish “happy” upon request.
After spending five minutes scouring the street, I found the pizza place and asked the server, “This is the original Happy Herb Pizza?”
“Yes,” said the young Cambodian server. He wore a red apron over a white shirt and stood outside among the plastic tables and chairs. A vertical chalkboard on the wall behind him listed menu items.
“The pizza is made with weed, right?” I asked with all the smoothness of a Mormon narc.
“Yes, come in.”
In these restaurants, patrons usually need to request the “happy” lest grandma unintentionally down a slice and think she’s transitioning into the afterlife. The menu also included non-pizza items—which today include Australian steak, shrimp fried rice and blue cheese burgers—but I wanted the signature dish.
“I’ll take a regular pizza and an Angkor beer,” I said. “By the way, how do you make the pizza with the marijuana?”
“We cut the buds up in a coffee bean grinder and then spread them on top of the tomato sauce,” he explained with the rote precision of a man forced to explain this process a thousand times. “Then we put the cheese on top.”
While simply eating the leaves would not make me high, the fat in the mozzarella cheese can draw out the fat-soluble tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Edible chefs typically cook the buds in oil or butter and strain out the leaves, but the herb stayed in these pizzas.
“Hey, hey, did you want to buy some joints?” asked the server in a hushed tone, channeling every drug dealer stereotype he ever saw on TV. He then pulled on his apron pocket to expose a small bag of joints. “Three for $5.”
“Okay, sure. Give them to me after.”