anlong veng district, Oddar Meanchey province – Lured by promises of prosperity, entrepreneurs from various parts of the country have established themselves in this remote former Khmer Rouge stronghold, only to find themselves out of money and with no way to go home.
About a year ago, Bin Saravuth moved from Banteay Meanchey province’s Sisophon town to set up a stall, selling sunglasses and sandals at Phsar Choam, a lonely outdoor market on top of the Dangrek mountain range.
Opened in January 2003, next to the Chhong Soangnam international border checkpoint with Thailand, Phsar Choam was supposed to provide Bin Saravuth with throngs of Thai customers, and business opportunities.
Instead, the 35-year-old said: “It’s not better than Sisophon.” On a good day, he said, he can make about $12. On other days, he earns nothing. With little savings, returning to his home town is not an option, he said.
“I’m stuck here, so we can’t go back,” Bin Saravuth said.
These days, nearly 30 percent of Anlong Veng district’s population of more than 20,000 people is composed of newcomers from other parts of the country, who arrive with the notion that the region is on the cusp of becoming a trade and tourism hub, said district Deputy Chief Im Sopheap.
Land that a year ago cost $200 for a 1 meter by 100 meter plot has jumped to more than double that price, he said.
Both fueling and serving the population growth are the establishment of Phsar Choam and the construction of a second large market, Phsar Thmei, which is expected to open in five months near the center of Anlong Veng town.
Construction on Phsar Thmei is already complete, though only a few of the several hundred stalls are currently occupied.
Sok Borin, 35, set up his noodle and porridge business in one of Phsar Thmei’s wooden stalls when he arrived in Anlong Veng from Kompong Cham province about six months ago.
“So far, business is not good,” the 35-year-old said, sitting at his sparse stall, which also doubles as his living quarters. “It’s difficult to make money.”
Before he came to Anlong Veng, Sok Borin grew tobacco and soybean in his home province, but the markets for those crops were poor, he said.
He now pays about $25 each month to rent his stall, but the opportunity to make his fortune has not appeared. Many days, he said, he makes no money at all.
Like most small businessmen here, Sok Borin buys the bulk of his groceries and other wares from Thailand. Items like vegetables can be purchased from local farmers or are trucked in along the jolting road from Siem Reap.
At the mountain-top Phsar Choam, Ny Phavann sells Thai-made watches to the occasional Thai visitors at prices only a few hundred riel cheaper than they would cost in Thailand.
“If Thai people buy in Thailand, it’s more expensive because vendors have to pay tax,” he said, adding that in Cambodia, he has no taxes to pay. “That’s why products here are cheaper.”
Business is far from bustling, the 32-year-old Phnom Penh native said, but it’s better than being unemployed in the capital.
By selling watches here, Ny Phavann said he can make about $100 per month.
“In Phnom Penh, we don’t have much money, so we moved here,” he said. “It’s better.”
Back at Phsar Thmei, however, Sok Borin is unconvinced.
Having left his family in Kompong Cham province to set up shop here, he admits he made a mistake. “I want to go back home,” he said.
Sok Borin said he’s not alone in his sentiments. “Many people move here seeking business,” he said, “but finally they go back home.”