poipet, Banteay Meanchey – Since opening as a permanent international border crossing in February, this town has boomed.
Overloaded trucks rumble down Route 5, dust from new construction chokes passersby and foreign travelers are beginning to trickle through. Streams of Cambodians still enter Thailand every day by foot.
On Sunday, the first major development opened—the $400,000 Neak Meas Hotel.
“I decided to build here because I realized that this is an international crossing point, and many tourists will be coming through,” said Yen Sok Eang, the hotel owner and Poipet’s military police commander. “It will be good business.”
He also said he hopes his 29-room hotel, flanked by an armored personnel carrier, spurs foreign investors to begin other projects in Poipet.
According to Cambodia immigration police, about six or seven Westerners typically cross from Thailand every day. Some days, as many as a dozen travel through.
“If Poipet can be developed, many people will wish to come to Cambodia through here and stay here, and go to Angkor Wat and other places,” said Colonel Chey Son, chief of the Cambodian-Thai Border Coordination Office.
Chey Son said the Anco Brothers Co plans to construct a hotel and casino on 90 hectares north of town. The development would get water and electricity from Thailand, he said.
But tourism officials have heard of no such plans, and an Anco spokesman said the casino was only an idea suggested by others. He confirmed the company—owned by prominent Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce member Phu Kok An—owns land in Poipet, but has not decided on a project.
Poipet, with a population of roughly 20,000, was previously a temporary transit crossing, and served as an entry point into Thailand for thousands of refugees fleeing factional fighting. But the crossing was upgraded in late February to a permanent international border post, allowing tourists in from Thailand and boosting trade.
“Now, many Cambodians go to Thailand,” said construction company owner Pov Nhan. “And many of them own shops in Thailand.”
Cambodians still can get pink day stamps to cross the border, according to Chey Son. Some can stay on business for a week.
The larger Thai town of Aranyaprathet is only a few kilometers from the border.
Thais typically export vegetables, cement, steel, medicine and TV sets, while Cambodians send fish and second-hand clothes to Thailand, Chey Son said.
“It seems that business is better than before,” said Sean Hour, a shop owner. “I sell many goods, but at less profit because there’s a lot of competition.”
Sean Hour said business initially dropped off after factional fighting in July, as many vendors went home to see their families. But residents of Poipet said they have largely been unaffected by persistent fighting farther north along the Thai border.
“The time of insecurity for Poipet is over, after Malai and the other southern part of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold defected to the government under General Sok Pheap,” Yen Sok Eang said.
Still, there have been hurdles. A major fire two months ago leveled the Poipet market, and vendors who set up shop nearby said this week they lost anywhere from $3,850 to $10,256 each.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment since July, from the government’s point of view, is the jump in taxes collected. Previously, Chey Son claimed many of the funds were pocketed by authorities working for former Division 12 commander Lay Virak, who fled to fight with the resistance in July.
But since then, he said, government income has doubled. Chhay Than, undersecretary of state for Finance, confirmed the increase, saying the government now collects about 1.8 billion to 1.9 billion riel ($540,000) a month, compared with about 1 billion riel a month last year.
The figures have dropped off in the last month because of an increase in illegal border crossings outside Poipet, Chey Son said. But the border official said Thai and Cambodian authorities are working on ways to crack down on the illegal passage points.