Happy Balloons in Phnom Penh

Top Banana and Blue Dog guesthouses in Phnom Penh now sell “happy balloons” at the enterprising price of $2 each. The balloons are full of Nitrous Oxide – classically known as laughing gas and colloquially dubbed “hippy crack” because of the short, moreish high produced upon inhaling.

What I can’t fathom is how it took so long for the Phnom Penh party joints to take advantage of the city’s lax policing and make the drug available when cannabis-encrusted pizzas have long been a mainstay of Riverside restaurants. But what is clear is that happy balloons are here for the foreseeable – so I deemed it a public service to try them out.

Balloons are available at Top Banana and Blue Dog, two bars catering to mix of backpackers and expats. They each have a large tank full of gas which they release into balloons. In Top Banana, staffers disappear into a backroom and return carrying fistfuls of bobbing balloons. Down the road at Blue Dog, the tank is behind the bar and the loud hiss of pressurised gas is audible above the hubbub of drinkers like a powerful espresso machine.

Nitrous Oxide was first discovered in 1799 by British chemist and inventor Humphrey Davy. Today, it is used in rocket and racing engines, as a dental anesthetic and to make whipped cream. When added to the human brain it works as a disassociative – a drug that interferes with the brain’s capacity to interpret and organise sensory data resulting in short powerful trips. When inhaled from a balloon, effects last around 2 minutes with little or no negative consequences apart from a vague desire to do more… and then one more, just one.

Psychologist and philosopher William James used the drug to induce religious experiences back in the 1890s. He would attach a rubber tube to his tank, put the other end in his gob and inhale. In the midst of the trip he became convinced he had broken through the “veil of the flesh” into the perfect realm of the spirit and accessed a profound knowledge while there. But when he came down he found he had forgotten it. So he took a pencil and paper, another blast of gas and tried to record the message in the midst of his splintering reality. But his hand appeared to belong to some unknown creature and he couldn’t manage it. He kept trying and then eventually he succeeded. He came down and found that he had managed to scrawl a message from the other side. It read: “the smell of petroleum prevails throughout”.

Despite having a vastly inferior mind to James, I had a similarly baffling experience in Top Banana. There was a sense of gaining a profound insight instantly lost when coming down. It is to do with the dropping of ordinary thought constructs like heavy weights you didn’t realise you were holding. You can experience what consciousness researcher Stanislav Groff calls a “non-ordinary state of consciousness”.

Trouble is, it’s impossible to transfer knowledge from the transcendent state to the normal. That’s why, these days, I prefer to practice meditation in order to move to the transcendent in slow, deliberate steps and allow myself to the chance to incorporate any small insight I gain into my life.

But let’s not forget the fun. You suck down the odorless, cool gas and feel pleasant pins and needles run up your spine, into your neck and into your brain. Time is distorted. Intense sensations of déjà vu prevail. Conversations with friends end and then the exact same ones begin again. You finish your drink and find you’re still drinking it. Amidst the confusion there is a bubbling of laughter. The sheer strangeness of everything causes the brain to just throw up its hands and exit leaving you full of giggles.

And then it’s over. Did it last a second or an hour? Back in mundane reality, the brain slaps the tag “high” on the whole confusing mess and files it away so you can on with your life. But despite the confusing and messy place Nitrous takes you to, there is a rightness to it. It’s unexplainable in normal consciousness but there was a sense of relief in the midst of my chemical-blasted brain. And so you order another one, driven by the nostalgia left by the last.

Nitrous addiction is rare and you can do a fair amount of without harming yourself. Nitrous is one of the more harmless drugs which is why it’s not illegal. You’d have to do a great deal of it to cause harm and even then it will be because of industrial residues left in the gas rather than the gas itself.

Nitrous Oxide has long been a popular way of smashing through normal reality into a place that is confusing, comforting and hilarious. I’m surprised it has taken Phnom Penh bar owners so long to cotton on. But for now, I suggest you add it to Happy Pizza on your list of “weird things to do in Phnom Penh”. Me, I’m going to stick to meditation.

Nathan Thompson

Top image courtesy of Darren Wilch. More of Darren’s work can be seen at Cambodia Images.

4 thoughts on “Happy Balloons in Phnom Penh

  1. Frank Richter Reply

    “There was a sense of gaining a profound insight instantly lost when coming down.”
    LOL, exactlly! I felt like i had cracked the meaning of life.
    Unfortunately i couldnt piece it together after that brief flah.

  2. Geoff Lorimer Reply

    Must try it in June when I return, tried happy pizza few times.

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