cham yeam, Koh Kong province – Two nations converge here along a curious border. Thailand’s asphalt river of sparkling Volvos, Hondas, Mercedes and BMWs stops abruptly, the land becomes Cambodia and ramshackle huts, mudslides and one-legged beggars begin.
Better known as Koh Kong, the second official international border crossing between Thailand and Cambodia opened April 17—a new year’s gift to the two nations, one could say. The first, Poipet, opened in late February.
This border zone gives Cambodia a small blotch of land surrounded by sea to the southwest, dense forest to the north and the Kaoh Pao River to the east. Sixteen km of rutted mud leads from the Cham Yeam gate to the river, with Koh Kong town—the only town around—directly across.
On the Thai side, a mere sliver of land wedges snugly between the Gulf of Thailand and the Cardamom mountains. The border worms around, making everything north of that sliver part of Cambodia. Thailand gets about 30 km of seaboard and a smooth blacktop shot to Bangkok. Cambodia gets the impenetrable, malarial forest towering in the nearby hills.
But Cham Yeam changes as quickly as you can slap a 500-baht note on the table.
Enter the Koh Kong International Casino, opened four months ago by Cambodian-born Thai businessman Ly Yung Phat. It’s a monstrous concoction of pastel-painted cement, knot-free solid wood, red carpets, chandeliers, flush toilets and soap dispensers, brass railings and dealers dressed in bright red and yellow silk vests and bow ties. The complex includes a main chamber with blackjack, roulette and six baccarat tables; a downstairs room with traditional Thai and Khmer card games; a luxury hotel; bungalows; a restaurant; a duty-free shop; a housing complex; and myriad earthmovers, cranes and graders readying the land—and spurring landslides—for more buildings.
Border officials, casino workers and residents alike estimate 300 to 400 Thais cross the border each weekday; as many as 1,000 make the trek on weekends. But the small trickle of Cambodians heading to Thailand rarely tops 50, they say.
The numbers speak for themselves. For Thais, the open border makes for a quick and easy day trip to the casino. For Cambodians, the open border changes little—some even say the new required border pass makes it more difficult and more expensive for poor Cambodians to cross.
Flocks of Thais now enter Cambodia to test their luck at the tables for a day. And then they leave. Meanwhile, like before, small numbers of Cambodians head west to test their luck at making a living in Thailand. And they stay for years.
Cham Yeam: the Monte Carlo of Cambodia?
Perhaps. But not for Cambodians.
The Casino Zone
Cham Yeam resembles a Thai playground—a remote little haven all their own, remarkably easier to get to from Thailand than Cambodia.
Gambling is illegal in Thailand. Gambling in Cambodia is illegal for Cambodians.
Indeed, a sign at the casino entrance, hanging beside the metal detectors and uniformed guards, reads: “No entry of those under 18 years of age. No entry of those of Cambodian nationals. No entry of improper attire.”
Officials from both sides insist the border opening had everyone’s best interests in mind.
“We opened it just for the person-to-person contact,” says Pisanu Suvanajata, first secretary of the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh. It’s meant to stimulate trade and goad the economy on both sides, which he says it has—and not just through the casino. “We have thousands of people crossing the border to do business in Koh Kong,” he says.
The two governments signed an agreement that, Pisanu says, gives Thais and Cambodians equal chances to prosper.
For $20—which fluctuates slightly with exchange rates—Thais and Cambodians alike can apply to their governments for a border pass, Pisanu says. No passport or visa is necessary. The border pass allows Thais to travel throughout Mondul Seyma district in Koh Kong province and Cambodians to travel throughout Thailand’s Soi Dao district in Chanthaburi province as well as Borai, Muang and Khlong districts in Trat province.
Koh Kong Governor Rong Plamkesan says “Before opening, the people could pass the border, but not officially.” There were no immigration officials at Cham Yeam, but locals could apply to the provincial government for permission to cross into Thailand.
Now, he says, $20 buys a border pass good for two years and renewable for two more. It buys Cambodians a week at a time in Thailand, which they can extend to two weeks if the Thai government grants them permission. “We have to pay because it is the decision of the Ministry of the Interior,” the governor says. That money goes straight to the Ministry in Phnom Penh, he says, which distributes it throughout the nation.
Rong Plamkesan chuckles when asked, Why open the border now?
“It’s for the daily life of the people,” he says. Simple as that.
But reality digs deeper.
Tun Mean Bun, Koh Kong director for the Ministry of Economics and Finance, says the $20 fees go to governor Rong Plamkesan’s office. And Prach Chan, deputy director of administration for the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh, when asked where the $20 fee goes, flatly denies that people pay anything for a border pass. He says it’s free.
Keo Sokha, who works in the Koh Kong Social Affairs department, adamantly disagrees. And he says Cambodians get the brunt of the deal. Before the border officially opened, he says, Cambodians paid about 10 baht, or 25 cents, for provincial permission to cross. Now they must pay $20 in one lump sum. “I think it is not good because it is bad for the poor people. The poor people, they cannot afford to make this book,” he says, referring to the border pass. “This is a problem with the government I cannot explain to you.”
But most officials say the border opening symbolizes a burgeoning relationship between neighbors. In fact, last month, the two countries signed an agreement through which Koh Kong will buy electricity from Trat, the first contract of its kind.
“I am very happy because if the two countries have a relationship, legally, I think peace will be very good,” says Tun Mean Bun, who collects all the taxes from Koh Kong province and monitors the area’s economy.
But legality is another issue. Cambodian government officials have said the Naga and Holiday Hotel casinos in Phnom Penh are the only legal international casinos in the country. An Interior Ministry spokesman said in late April, “We have a law to crack down on casinos. If there is a casino operating [in Koh Kong], it is illegal. Call Khieu Sopheak this week. He’s been out of town.
But the casino is still going strong, with more than 150 customers on a sleepy Monday afternoon. Yet few officials—at the provincial and national levels—say they know much about the place.
Was it difficult for the casino to get permission to open here? Thai Assistant Manager Towee Saweth replies: “Not quite easy, but not quite difficult.” He says no more.
Interior Ministry Director-General of Administration Prum Sokha, in Phnom Penh says he’s only heard talk of a casino in Koh Kong. “I have heard there is a casino, but I do not know much about it. You should talk to my deputy. He will know about it.”
Prach Cham, the deputy, says, “I have heard the casino has a license, but I am not sure.” He also has heard the casino pays taxes to the Cambodian government—but he is not sure.
Even Tun Mean Bun, the tax collector in Koh Kong town, says he doesn’t know too much about the complex. “People don’t come through here for the casino,” he says. Does the casino pay taxes to Koh Kong? He just chuckles and says the company has promised to pave a road to the river next year.
But Tun Mean Bun has never been to the casino. “Cambodian people cannot play the games.”
As with Cambodia’s other “international” casinos, only foreigners can legally enter. And workers at the main Koh Kong casino room say they uphold that rule. Many people speculate about the reasoning, but no one seems to know for sure.
Governor Rong Plamkesan says the law “comes down from Phnom Penh.” He doesn’t know why. “How can I tell? But it is very good because the Cambodian people are very poor,” he says as his driver shines his Mercedes with a feather duster.
Towee Saweth, the Thai assistant casino manager, says he only knows what he’s told: Cambodians aren’t allowed. “I think because they are very poor, and maybe the government doesn’t want them to bet.” However, no one seems to mind too much if Cambodians squeeze into the downstairs casino room, where gamblers play pie-poh, a traditional Thai-style game similar to baccarat, and kla-kloh, a traditional Khmer game. The only bet here—300 baht, or $7.50—pales compared with the 500 baht ($12.50) minimum bet upstairs and a 100,000 baht ($2,500) maximum bet on baccarat.
Towee Saweth moved here four months ago from Bangkok to work at the casino. “The money here is very good,” he says, though declines to specify how much.
His superior, wandering about with a construction crew, refuses to be interviewed.
A Cambodian who works in the duty-free shop says he came here on a whim after living in Thailand for some time and in the US before that. “Something new and adventurous for me. Definitely not for the money,” he says, asking not to be named.
The place won’t hold his interest for long. It’s hard to make ends meet on the little he’s paid, he says, and he wants more excitement. “There’s not much going on here. I’m Cambodian so I like to go out, go to parties. It’s not like Bangkok.”
He hits on the border’s recurring theme: “It’s not really designed for Cambodians.”
The Day’s End
It’s just before the border’s 5pm closing time, and the Koh Kong International Casino van pulls up to the Cambodian immigration building. A Thai man hops out, slaps a little green laminated card on the counter and drives 30 meters to Thailand.
It’s an efficient solution to the flocks of Thais coming into Cambodia for nothing more than a day of gambling. Thais show their registration to Cambodian immigration officials, pick up a green card, gamble, then plunk the card down before leaving—no questions asked.
Thai border guards shoo the last handful of pedestrains through the gate, then lock it until 7am.
A red BMW sets out on the road to Khlong Yai. Birth, a Thai economics student at Chulalongkom University in central Bangkok and her father, who runs a logging operation in Trat, 80 km northwest of Cham Yeam, spent the day tooling about southeastern Thailand and checking out the casino. They took the bus from Bangkok to Trat, got the car from storage, and had themselves a mini-holiday. “When it rains, we have nothing to do, so we go to the casino,” Birth says.
Her father says he wants to do more business—legally—in Cambodia, but he tires of the bribes and corruption.
Both ask numerous questions about Cambodian life. Is it safe in Phnom Penh? Are there constant coups and gun battles? What’s it like living in a war zone? What are Cambodia’s roads like? Does Phnom Penh look like Bangkok? What about the elections?
Indeed, they know very little about the world beyond the border—except for the new development sandwiched in limbo between Thailand and the real Cambodia.
And that’s about as far as most Thais seem to get.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)