Frontline Poipet: Casinos take over a grim checkpoint

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IT IS HARDLY Las Vegas but the no-man's land between the Thai and Cambodian checkpoints is casino country for thousands of gamblers from across Asia.

Poipet is the last place any international business would want to set up shop. The town is a hole and the countryside around it is littered with mines, the legacy of decades of fighting between Khmer Rouge rebels and government forces.

Poipet's border zone is gambling country for one reason: casinos are banned in Thailand and frowned upon in Cambodia, both Buddhist nations. So the nifty solution is to allow gambling-crazy Thais to cross the border to enjoy their vice in peace and to ban Cambodians from entering them altogether. The compromise seems to work; as soon as the Thai border gate opens at 8.30am hundreds of enthusiasts race for Poipet's two new luxury casinos. They have until 5pm to work the tables offering baccarat, black jack, roulette or the dice game, ti sai, before it closes again.

The Golden Crown's casino operations manager, K T Yeoh, is cagey about who the investors are behind the project. Daily takings and the cost of the investment are also a mystery to him. "Whatever happens above me I do not get to hear," he says. "We are not like Westerners. Publicity is not what a casino is about." But the lack of publicity does not seem to have done the casino business any harm. Cheers erupt as another winner gathers his chips. Just outside the restaurant a group of Thais are pumping the one-armed bandits with a vengeance.

Several hundred gamblers crowd the tables, with hundreds more coming atweekends. Things are so good that the Golden Crown is now building an 80-room hotel next door. Soon there will be no need to throw the gamblers out at 5pm. Across the road the rival Holiday Palace has just opened its plush casino hall with 33 tables. Here the maximum bet is 500,000 baht (pounds 8,300). Punters padding across the carpet drip with diamond rings and gold necklaces.

Soft lighting, free drinks and East European croupiers with flashy waistcoats give the casino an international feel, starkly out of place for a town so desperately poor.

Thomas Teh, the Casino manager, is also careful not to reveal too much about the casino's backers. It is a joint venture; an Indonesian owns it. "He is difficult to get hold of," he says. But the Malay-sian manager is frank about Poipet's charm. "It is heaven and hell. Just over the border it very clean, nice. Here it is muddy and poor." Teh lives on the wrong side in a hotel. In the neighbouring karaoke bar customers are politely asked: "Do you have a gun?"

With the evening exodus of gamblers leaving Poipet for Thailand go the hardened foreign aid workers who run projects for the town's street children and work with beggars sent back by immigration authorities in Bangkok. They say the town is too dangerous to stay in at night. A Finnish mine clearance expert, Timo Laihorinne, travels the other way to Sisophon, an hour into Cambodia. "I lived in Poipet for a few weeks. There was so much shooting at night."

Still the casinos are bringing money into Poipet. Hundreds of Cambodians are employed and have block-booked so many of Poipet's cheap hotels that there is little room for anyone else. Builders are working furiously to put up more. After decades of internal strife, Khmer Rouge rebel fighting and civil war, Poipet has something to hope for. Hundreds of landless peasants are flooding the town to look for work. Thai investors are eyeing up Poipet's potential.

Singha Nikornpun, an investment expert, is among them. He and his friends are in Poipet looking at the casino business but are worried by the deals that might need to be done to gain permission from Hun Sen's Cambodian government. "If anything happens the authorities could terminate the licence, as they have done before," he said.