Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

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Travelogue

Poipet - In a Galaxy, Far, Far, Away - 25 February 2020

The border crossing between Aranyaprathet in Thailand and Poipet, or Krong Poi Pet, in Cambodia is marked by a dying waterway, the Nam Sai, choked and putrefied with the detritus of modern life. The Nam Sai (which ironically means “clear stock” as in soup, in Thai) roughly marks the border. In some places it is the border, while in others it runs wholly on the Thai side and in yet more places lies entirely within Cambodia. Even when a natural feature provides for a demarcation line on a flat and featureless landscape, the geopolitical entities conspired to ignore its presence. Given everything these two countries have to offer then, it’s a shame the main crossing between the two leaves many a first-time visitor, or anyone else, having their senses assailed by such a fetid eyesore. But then maybe the powers that be probably figure you’re either not there for the scenery or won’t be staying that long; a stamp in your passport and off you go.

 

Poipet may be emerging from just a dusty border town of a country once shattered by war to the fourth-largest city in Cambodia, but it’s not shaken off the Wild West image just yet. Aside from legitimate cross border trade, the town thrives on gambling, prostitution, drugs, and smuggling. Outside the many betting shops barefoot children beg and prostitutes prowl for customers. Moto drivers who act as taxis also offer drugs at knock-down prices. When Obi-Wan Kenobi said to Luke Skywalker “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” he was referring to the Mos Eisley spaceport on Tatooine in a galaxy far, far away, but he could’ve been referring to aspects of this, the main land border crossing between the two Southeast Asian neighbours.

Border crossing at Poipet

 

At the official crossing there’s a road bridge for vehicles, which come in all manner of shape, size and load, usually defying the manufacturers’ guidelines. Then there are the foot sloggers in the heat and dust. There’s the usual paraphernalia of formal entry markers from one state to another: archways, embossed lettering, queues, paperwork, lots of uniforms, and here, all manner of scams. In the daytime, overloaded trucks roll through town, as do an array of vehicles full of foreign tourists on their way to the ancient ruins of Angkor at Siem Reap, Cambodia's largest tourist attraction. By night, touts on motorbikes patrol the main drag offering women and drugs, while children beg. And in the middle is the stinking, rubbish-clogged Nam Sai dissecting the city.

 

Poipet has been described as a post-apocalyptic gambling den stuffed with casinos, illegal betting shops and brothels, and feeling like Las Vegas reimagined by the creators of Mad Max, like Barter Town in the movie Beyond Thunderdome. Poipet is not glitz, it’s Third World grime, with the whole place covered in layers of dust. The roads off the main strip quickly turn to dirt lanes with canvas tarp tents set up amidst the rubble of half-finished bitumen and unpaved streets; dusty in the dry season and muddy in the wet. Drinkers sit bleary-eyed at tables near hole-in-the-wall restaurants at tables covered in dozens of empty beer cans or empty Chivas Regal bottles on rubbish strewn floors covered in cigarette butts. Photos inside or outside casinos aren’t usually welcomed. The casino buildings, like the Grand Diamond City Hotel, dwarf most others in town, and are covered in a sea of lights. At night they look like some inter-galactic spaceship but in daylight the view is much less celestial. Inside they come with the usual casino features, no natural light and no timepieces. Around town there are huge billboards of airbrushed light-skinned Asian models in evening wear looking like visitors from another planet. Other hoardings advertise alcohol with happy smiling people, and shampoo featuring footballer Ronaldo, though I’m sure he’s never heard of Poipet.

 

There are the usual range of annoyances and dangers in Poipet as in other border towns but Poipet seems worse and has been called “Scam Central”. Scams include having people offering to walk you through the immigration process for a fee and filling in your visa application forms, though you can easily do this for yourself. This happens at Cambodian border crossings like Koh Kong and also in Vietnam at Moc Bai inside the immigration hall from guys in blue smocks. Difficult to refuse when they monopolise the immigration form so you’re forced to pay, but this used to only be a dollar and, well, a man’s got to eat. Others offer to carry your bag for whatever tip you can manage, usually from a hanger-on of those perpetrating the visa “assistance”.

 

To be fair, the most notorious visa scams are perpetrated on the Thai side of the border, as visas into Thailand are free. What usually happens is unscrupulous Thai transport operators and assorted touts take visitors to visa offices or restaurants, sometimes one and the same, where unwitting tourists are overcharged for Cambodian visas (tourists in Bangkok’s backpacker meccas are also overcharged for Cambodia visas). I’ve seen groups of tourists in Aranyaprathet charged up to double for a one-month visa with the wrong year stamped on it. The Cambodians turned them away at the point of entry, and why wouldn’t they, but usually explain they can buy another visa with the correct year at the right price if they queue up again.

Golden Galaxy Casino Poipet

 

Then there are the begging scams; small kids of indeterminate age with smaller kids, the fake pharmaceutical scams, laced narcotics—usually yaba known in Cambodia as yama (after the Hindu god of death)—the Filipino blackjack scam, and the police planting drugs scam. Fortunately, physical violence against foreigners is rare. The most common crimes are usually petty; bag and cell phone snatching typically perpetrated by thieves working in tandem on motorbikes and especially prevalent at festival time; such as Phchum Ben (in September) or Chaul Chnam Khmer (in April). If you are robbed, it’s said Cambodian police are the best money can buy and any request for assistance will cost you, the amount depending on the size of the claim. Winding up in a police holding cell is best avoided. The only “special treatment” you’ll receive as a foreigner is to be charged more. Gamblers who’ve run up debts have been known to be held in casino basements pending a bailout from their families. Local vendors report a different story. A Thai man who runs a bar in Poipet said it’s “a lawless place and scary because of that. There aren't many police here, so if you have a problem you can't count on them to solve it.”

 

Once away from the border crossing point, Poipet is described as just like another Cambodian town, though not the sort I’d like to spend time, and at 100,000 now Cambodia’s fourth largest city by population in a country still largely rural and where even the cities seem small. While most people just go about their daily business, the economy of Poipet is largely based on illegal activities. With all the surface cross-border trade occurring daily, there’s plenty of opportunity for officials to make money on duties for goods, whether the goods be legal or illicit, and the duties official and reported, or otherwise.

 

Smuggling is rife. All manner of things are moved illegally across Cambodia's borders each year including: pesticides and fertilisers, timber (exotic hardwoods), endangered wildlife species, gems, weapons, drugs, antiquities, people of all ages (tens of thousands of Cambodians are smuggled into Thailand each year alone), rice, alcohol, motor vehicles – usually stolen to order, and money (laundering). You name it, it can be moved, and probably has.

 

According to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, more than 260,000 of Cambodia’s 16 million people are trapped in modern slavery often in farms, fisheries and construction, many of them children. Thousands more are thought to have been trafficked internationally, including Cambodian women who are forced to marry men in China. The influential Trafficking In Persons a global report published by the US State Department all 500-plus pages of it, cites corruption as impeding law enforcement, prosecutions and provision of services to victims. Cambodia was downgraded again in 2019 from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 Watch List on the Global Slavery Index, one step above the lowest rank of Tier 3. It had previously been on the Watch List from 2013-15.

 

Things have gotten worse since the explosion in the numbers of casinos in Cambodia according to the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights which works with trafficking victims providing legal aid and other support. Even when the Cambodian government appears to take serious action to combat human trafficking and orders are passed down to the implementing agencies, effectiveness is still a problem, “a mixture of corruption and carelessness” according to the Alliance, which says authorities need to stop sharing in the profits with perpetrators. M’Lop Tapang, a child protection charity based in Sihanoukville, reported 13-year-old girls dropping out of school to work in casinos where they are vulnerable and there is a “very, very high risk of exploitation and trafficking.”

 

Cambodia has the most casinos in Southeast Asia, followed by Myanmar, Laos, and the Philippines. There has been an increase of over 50 percent in the number of casinos in Cambodia since 2018—163 up from 91. The casino market is worth a staggering USD51 billion in Asia. Casinos in Cambodia are responsible for a large chunk of that sum. Gaming establishments contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kingdom’s tax revenue every year. Some say it indirectly contributes USD2 billion to Cambodia’ economy. Casinos in Poipet come with grandiose names like; Holiday Palace Casino and Resort, Poipet Resort Casino, and Star Vegas Casino, all designed to make you somehow feel good about losing your money.

 

Welcome to Cambodia

Poipet’s association with gambling goes back to the early 1990s, when Cambodia’s fledgling government allowed casinos to be built there. These immediately attracted thousands of gamblers from Thailand, where all forms of gambling are illegal. Football bookmakers, also illegal in most of Asia, operate inside the casinos and the nearby streets. With Bavet on the border with Vietnam, and more latterly Sihanoukville also known as “Snooky”, the Costa del Cambodia or these days “Macau Two”, Poipet forms part of the main triumvirate of gambling in Cambodia’s border regions. Add to these casinos near Koh Kong at the bottom of the sliver of Thailand that runs along Cambodia’s western border on the gulf of Thailand and Cambodia seems ringed in the west, southwest, and southeast by gambling and everything that comes with that.

 

Save for a few exceptions, gambling is illegal in Cambodia, but the ban only extends to Cambodians. Locals can buy into five privately-operated national lotteries. Up until 2009, Cambodians were allowed to use slot machines, but this was then prohibited by the government citing the levels of gambling-related violence. As is often the case law enforcement in Cambodia can be haphazard, and the ban on gambling, which can bring fines or even jail time, is no exception. Despite the ban, Cambodians gamble on all manner of things including cock-fighting, kickboxing, and even when it will rain.

 

What really sets Poipet apart from other sleazy border towns is football gambling, part of a worldwide ring of match-fixing and corruption. In 2013, Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, highlighted the role of Asian betting syndicates, who collude with corrupt players and officials. It revealed how hundreds of high-profile games, including Champions’ League matches and World Cup qualifiers, are thought to have been rigged over the preceding four years, with nearly USD2.5 million changing hands in bribes. In total, 680 games in 30 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and South America were believed to have been fixed between 2008 and 2011, and it goes on today. Europol believes that many of the bets are placed via unregulated bookmakers in gambling centres like Poipet, who deal with both online and walk-in punters.

 

Like other forms of gambling, betting on football in Cambodia is illegal. Despite this it goes on 24 hours a day inside shiny, glass-fronted parlours adorned with photos of famous European football players. lines of computers displaying odds to place bets with cashiers on matches around the world, from the obscure leagues of Asia and Oceania to the giants of Europe. Some gamblers can't always pronounce the teams they are betting on, but it doesn’t seem to matter, the important thing one Sri Lankan gambler living in Poipet said “is to recognise them”. Indeed.

 

The cash bets placed with the bookies in Poipet and the many more via websites operating out of the town form part of the billion-dollar unregulated industry in Asia that is at the heart of match-fixing. To spend time in Poipet is to see up close the region’s obsession with football gambling, as well as some of the challenges facing those who seek to keep the sport clean. Cambodian authorities turn a blind eye to the bookmakers, even those who operate outside the casinos, which are run by powerful tycoons with links to government officials in Phnom Penh.

 

Football betting began to become popular in Asia after the 1990 World Cup. But it is online gambling that has really enhanced its growth, and that's because it allows for “live” or “spot” betting. The actual rigging of matches is done in advance by agents – often former Eastern European footballers – who approach corrupt players and officials and then act as go-betweens. They then get hundreds of people to place bets online in locations around southeast Asia such as Poipet—sometimes on the result, sometimes just on which players will get yellow cards or how many goals will be scored.

 

In Poipet, much of the spot betting is believed to be done in special “private rooms” available for rent inside the casinos, where access is by fingerprint scanner only. Locals say that inside these rooms workers speaking a variety of Asian languages take wagers on line and on the phone from high rollers around the region. So-called “spot bets”, are where punters wage money not on a result, but on specific incidents happening in a match, such as who will get yellow cards or when a linesman might raise his flag. Spot bets are considered far easier to fix as they require not the bribing of a whole team but just a single player or official—and in South East Asia's unregulated gambling world, they will often attract individual wagers of up to USD65,000 a time.

Poipet foot traffic

 

Many staff are Chinese, as are the customers. The first Chinese came to Poipet in 2008. Some have been followed by more family members. It is not hard to establish the ties between the shop front bookmakers in Poipet and the gambling gangs in Singapore and China. Almost all of the shops are owned by Chinese or ethnic Chinese from Singapore with even small shops making around USD3,000 a day, and those figures are now way out of date. If you want to lay a wager on an English Premier League match, your bet will be laid via a Chinese language website in mainland China. There are also managers from Malaysia and online gambling websites employ Indonesians. Thais and other nationalities work on telephone helplines and in computer chat rooms to assist people setting up accounts in their home countries.

 

Rooms in Poipet’s hotels and casinos are rented out to these operators, giving the town something of a gold rush atmosphere. According to a six-month investigation by Associated Press unlicensed Asian betting sites and bookmakers like those in Poipet function as unofficial agents of the larger Asian betting operators, most of them based in the Philippines. According to an economist specialising in sports gambling, unlike in regulated markets, syndicates can place bets anonymously, with no cash trail to follow or betting patterns to examine if fixing suspicions emerge.

 

Asia is the dominant betting market, even though the sport is European. According to one gambling expert, most criminals, whether they come from Asia or Europe, will place the bets in Asia because of the non-regulated sector of that market. “It’s a huge market, and easy to hide money.” Bookmakers and bettors alike in Poipet are aware that some matches are fixed, but such information is closely held by the syndicates and doesn't reach ordinary gamblers. While the EPL is regarded as fix-proof, the Italian, Russian and smaller Asian leagues are suspect, but gamblers say it doesn't affect their betting.

 

Some of Cambodia’s gambling landscape is about to change. In August 2019, the government issued a directive banning online and arcade gambling in Cambodia. It will mean that all online or arcade gambling should cease in Cambodia by August 2020. Government officials say they “needed to develop the country base on natural and cultural heritage tourisms but not based on an income from online gambling.” As a result, thousands of Chinese are now leaving Poipet and other Cambodia’s gambling hubs like Sihanoukville, in what the South China Morning Post dubbed the “Great Chinese Exodus”.

 

The largest single national visitor group to Cambodia are Chinese, who overtook Koreans, briefly threatened by Russians. In 1993, a mere 118,000 tourists visited Cambodia. In 2018, the latest year figures are available, the number was 6.2 million. Of these 2.1 million came by land, many of them through Poipet. In 2018, two million Chinese visited, up a whopping 67 percent on the previous year; while the number of Thai visitors, the country nearest Poipet, is 380,000. The visitor figures by land probably don’t tell the full story given the often-porous nature of Cambodia’s borders—people without travel documentation simply pay a bribe and avoid the official land crossing points altogether.

Ronaldo lands in Poipet

 

Poipet has a constant flow of through traffic. Most making the crossing do so on foot, having reached there by road, and now can do so from both sides, by rail. I’ve done it by road from both sides, making the journey through the border formalities on foot each time. On my first ever visit to Poipet, I had come from Bangkok by bus on one of those notorious enterprises run out of Khao San Road. Honest to a point, they do get you there, they’re usually operated by a furtive team, their vehicles in a condition of perpetual mechanical wretchedness, and best avoided all-round.

 

Much better public buses are available in Thailand from Mo Chit (Northern) and Ekamai (Eastern) bus stations if travelling from Bangkok. The train runs from Hua Lamphong and takes over four hours on a good day. From in Cambodia, buses and taxis run from Phnom Penh, Battambang, Serey Sisophon, and for most travelers, Siem Reap. The much heralded “rehabilitation” of the Cambodian rail system (Royal Railways Northern Line) has reconnected Phnom Penh to the border for the first time in 45 years, but be warned the going will be slow. Once in Poipet, the visitor is set upon by bus, hotel, taxi and casino touts, all after your dollar. You can be sure much isn’t what it seems, what’s promised may not appear, and if it does, it’s often not what you thought.

 

Shared taxis from Poipet have arrangements with certain hotels in Siem Reap, most peoples’ destination as few choose to stay in Poipet. Being told your bus is delayed is another often-used scam to get you into a taxi. Cambodian taxis, the ubiquitous Toyota Camry, have been known to take a dozen passengers all crammed in. I’ve often seen three people in the driver’s seat of a moving taxi. One time there was the driver and two passengers one of whom was asleep. As they obscured the driver, I thought the vehicle was being driven by someone in a coma.

 

While Cambodia has beauty and the people charm and grace, Poipet, at least on the main entry strip, is in-your-face, brazen, full of noxious smells and curious sights, especially if you were more used to things in Thailand or from where ever you hail. All up the border town is a poor introduction to a beautiful country and its people, but also a bit of an adventure—if you like a rough edge and things less sanitised. While you may not want to spend time in Poipet, it shouldn’t put you off the rest of the country. It didn’t put me off, and I’ve never regretted it.

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