In Sihanoukville’s Jin Bei Casino & Hotel, young Cambodian women wearing tight mini-skirts swerve through the thick cigarette smoke, carrying turquoise cocktails for Chinese gamblers. A dozen croupiers work the room, picking up thick wads of notes from the players and converting them into plastic tokens. “I earn $500 per month,” says one croupier — a small fortune in a country where the minimum wage is just $170 a month. Most players here are betting big, with the smallest token worth $100.
Once a quiet seaside haven for backpackers, Sihanoukville has morphed into a giant construction site in the past three years. Cranes dot the skyline, roads have become muddy potholed lanes and jackhammers resonate late into the night. Many of the new buildings are casinos. The province hosting the city on Cambodia’s south coast now boasts 88 of them, compared to 15 in late 2015.
Most of this activity is due to Chinese developers, says Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a Southeast Asian studies expert from Lund University in Sweden. “An estimated 90% of businesses in Sihanoukville, including hotels, restaurants and entertainment establishments, are now owned by the Chinese,” she says.