Phnom Penh Governor on Crusade to Shut Down Shisha Cafes

Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong said Tuesday he would shut down the shisha bars—where customers smoke flavored tobacco through large Middle-Eastern style water pipes—that have recently sprung up around the city.

While the governor noted there was nothing illegal about the pipes or tobacco, he told the 400 officials at City Hall’s annual conference that they caused long-term health problems and so he was requesting permission from the government to close them down.

“Today, I will write to the government and request approval to shut down all shisha-smoking shops,” he said, adding that in the past year, youth have increasingly been smoking the pipes, known as hookahs.

“It would be impossible to take legal action against shisha bars, because it is not a drug,” Mr. Socheatvong said. “But we must shut the shops down because it will have bad effects on our youth.”

In the past year, shisha bars have popped up in large numbers around Phnom Penh, with users and proprietors saying that while there was once just a handful of shisha bars at most, there are now about 30 citywide.

At Hookah Bar on Street 110 Tuesday, the owner, who would only be identified as Da, said that he had poured too much money into his bar, which opened about 10 months ago, to see it shut down.

“I have spent more than $100,000 on this place, and I have done everything by the law, so how can they shut me down?” he asked.

Hookah Bar, like three other shisha bars visited Tuesday, has signs outside declaring that students and those aged younger than 18 are not welcome inside.

Phon Sokhea, manager at Harem, a long-established shisha bar on the riverfront, said that young people had become increasingly interested in shisha but that they were not permitted in her bar.

“In 2013, there are more and more customers who want to smoke shisha,” she said. “The customers are also getting younger and younger but if they look like students or wear uniforms, they cannot come inside,” she said, adding that Harem did not check I.D. cards.

At Hookah, Da said that if the municipality attempted to shut his bar down, the shisha bars would unite to fight against the government.

“If they close [my bar], I can’t stop that,” he said. “But there are about 30 shisha bars in Phnom Penh now and I will get them all to join together to create a union [to fight against] the order because everything we do is legal.”

Kong Sokhon, however, a 19-year-old who was sitting with two friends at Harem on Tuesday, seemed unperturbed by the governor’s threat.

“We come here often, but if the government thinks it’s a problem and closes it down it’s not so bad. I can go shopping or go for a walk,” he said. “It’s just a place to hang out.”

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

© 2014, All rights reserved.