In the cramped attic of an upmarket Phnom Penh restaurant a handful of men gathered to discuss their alcoholism. All except one were foreign, middle-aged and had been clean of alcohol for a number of years. A Cambodian youth leant back on his chair, smiling nervously and sipping on a can of Red Bull as Paul, the de-facto organiser of this group, picked up a laminated copy of ‘How It Works’, a chapter of the Big Book, and got things going.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves…”
The other men bowed their heads and joined in as Paul started to read the 12 Steps. They knew it by heart. He put down the piece of paper and looked at the group. “My name’s Paul. And I’m an alcoholic”. ‘Hi Paul’, was whispered by the others. Paul started by explaining his past. His alcoholic days in the U.S; his separation from his first wife; his relocation to Hawaii where he attended AA meetings each morning and afternoon. He cut a sizeable figure sat on a small stool, speaking openly about his problems and defects, about how he had come to terms with himself and had forgiven himself for his past mistakes. Over a decade clean of alcohol, he said that attending AA meetings was not only about remaining sober, but also to give him a place to vent his spleen – a kind of free therapy, where he could talk about all the things that had pissed him off that week, and then hear how stupid his complaints sounded.
Next to speak was a tentative man with a thick Midwestern accent. He said he had just arrived in Phnom Penh on business but wanted to attend as many sessions as he could whilst he was in Cambodia – to keep up his abstinence. Afterwards, a small Australian man, with arms that showed no pale flesh underneath an assortment of tattoos, told us about his life as a heroin and ‘meth’ addict, as well as an alcoholic, and his time spent in prisons back home. “I just keep on following the Lords way and the Lord keeps on delivering,” he said.
“I’ve been in Cambodia for almost a month. I’ve met so many beautiful and amazing people. It’s been truly a blessing,” he continued, adding that he had to go back in one week’s time to Australia for his son’s birthday.
His constant mentioning of God began to grate on my Atheistic ears after a while, but then I remembered the words of a friend of mine who attended AA back home in Britain. “Find God. Find Buddha. Find a bloody UFO cult if you have to. Just find anything that works.” God obviously helped for this individual, as he has been sober for almost a decade.
After half an hour of soul-searching and casual therapy, a short break was called. As the others stumbled down a steep flight of stairs to use the bathroom or grab another Coca-Cola at the bar, I killed a few seconds by flicking through the pages of the restaurant’s menu. Beside $10 Western dishes were 35 types of cocktails, 16 different wines, 5 beers and 7 different spirits. From the window that looked out onto the street, I could see eight advertisements for Anchor, four parasols with Cambodia beer insignia across them, and on the other side of the street a couple of men were sharing a plastic bottle of palm-wine.
Phnom Penh is a city where booze is cheap and readily available. Alcohol is so omnipresent you’re never from from an advertisement for one of the numerous Cambodian beers. It is also a city where alcohol has become a tourist attraction, welcoming visitors each year with all-night bars and as much decadence as one desires.
When I first arrived in Cambodia I had many early-morning barstool conversations with strangers who recounted their best and worse excesses in the capital; rattling off stories of excess and two-week benders that would make Edgar Allen Poe wince. But if all the stories told about excess in this city were true, it would make the goings-on in Sodom and Gomorrah seem like a picnic at a Quaker gathering. But they’re not. That is, talk to kinds of people who like recounting old drinking stories and you’ll soon learn half of the stories are embellished, whilst probably another quarter are a rehashing of other peoples’ tales.
“I don’t want to give a sop story,” explained Toby, a self-described alcoholic I spoke to the following day. “But you know, it’s really difficult to stay sober here. When I first moved to Cambodia a mate called and said all the guys were going to some bar, ‘so come along’. I went and ordered a Coca-Cola. The bartender refused to serve me. He asked me questions for five minutes about why I didn’t want a beer. I said I was an alcoholic. He asked what that word meant. Everyone else was drinking. They all looked at me strangely. I ended up drinking palm-wine by the end of the night.”
This was Toby’s experience, a Briton who has been living in Phnom Penh for six years. He had been to AA back home, but since moving to Cambodia he has swung back and forth between sobriety and addiction.
It is not known how many alcoholics there are in Cambodia, particularly amongst the legions of expats. But a good indication is that there is an AA meeting in Phnom Penh every day, while in Siam Reap and other smaller cities there are one or two meetings each week. According to those who regularly attend these meetings, the average attendance is seven or eight per meeting, and these are not the same faces.
Yet, this is just those who identify they have a problem with alcohol and attend AA to solve it. A larger number of people living in Cambodia will be dependent on the drink and never admit it. Furthermore, AA meetings across Cambodia are attended almost exclusively by non-Cambodians. “We have tried to make efforts to reach the Khmer community, because, heck, they need all the help they can get,” Paul told me after the meeting. As well as printing copies of the Big Book in Khmer, they also meet at government detention centres on weekends to talk with alcohol and drug addicts. “The conditions there are really bad. There’s no help. Real help. Most of the people there are drug addicts who were forced in against their will.”
A survey of alcohol abuse amongst Cambodians carried out in 2013 found that 90% of those surveyed said parental drinking was the main reason for violence within the family. 96% said alcohol was the cause of all problems within their communities, especially rural communities.
According to the World Health Organization 7.6% of Cambodian males have ‘alcohol use disorders’, which is defined as a dependence on alcohol or harmful use of the drink, compared to the regional average of 4.6%. Furthermore, statistics show that alcohol use and dependency is increasing in Cambodia.
Many reasons for this increase have been put forward: poverty, high levels of untreated mental illness, no minimum age restrictions and the low cost of alcohol. But whatever the reason, it is clear that consumption of alcohol is a common part of Cambodian culture yet Cambodia has very little to offer those with alcohol dependency.
There are a number of rehabilitation centres run by the government and by NGOs but the quality of their treatment is regularly called into question. AlcoholRehab, an international organisation that provides information about rehabilitation, stated on their website, “if there are any legitimate and helpful places for rehab in Cambodia, you can rest assured they would be extremely limited in quantity and most likely any quality.”
It added: “Cambodia is not a place for alcohol or drug rehab.”
As the men regrouped, it was the young Cambodian’s turn to speak. “My name is a Youk and I am a drug addict,” he said slowly, making sure that his English was correct and properly understood.
Youk explained that two weeks beforehand he had been released from a detention centre that he entered to battle his drug addiction. Sacked from a respected job after being found high whilst working, he said he hit rock bottom and had to do something to change his life. “It was hard in there. No discussion like this. It was very brutal. And violent.”
He sat back and smiled at the group, jittery with nervous energy. “I want to make it up to my friends and family. I want to show them I changed. I want to show that I am sorry. But Paul says that I should not hurry. That I should show myself that I changed first, because what I think about myself, that is the most important thing. To be happy with myself.”
He picked up a copy of the Big Book Paul had given him. “I’ve read this. But it is very hard to understand. Old words. I don’t understand many.”
Paul joked that many native English speakers don’t always understand the writing also; due to the fact it was written more than a century ago. He then explained to the group that they had printed some Khmer language editions of the Big Book to attract Cambodians to join.
As the meeting ended, I took the opportunity of asking Paul about Cambodians attending. “That is what we really want. I think it would be a good thing for them. An alternative to what they’re currently offered. But Youk’s the first that’s come along.”
As I went away from the meeting I couldn’t help thinking about a handful of Cambodians meeting in a small room to discuss their alcoholism. Why not? As my friend back home said, ‘find anything that helps’. There might be a few problems at first. Confidence in a Western styled therapy might not sit so easily with many. And then in a predominately Buddhist society, the central Christian message of AA may not cross over so easily. Whilst it is true that for many Westerns who attend AA the Christian element is not important, it is hard to miss the fact that Christianity dominates much of AA teachings. But given time, it is possible AA can adapt to Cambodian culture.
Leaving the restaurant I noticed the two men who were drinking the bottle of palm-wine were now asleep on the pavement. Behind them, sat outside a bar, six or seven Westerns were gulping down two towers of Angkor beer. I took a mug of beer myself and sat down to read an article in the Phnom Penh Post about the goings-on in a rehab detention centre: torture, beatings, people being chained to bed with handcuffs. And I thought anything must be better than that.