Sleepy Town On VN Border May Be ‘New Poipet’

Koh Thom district, Kandal province – A new casino, a new road, new electricity service and, soon, a new bridge are all promising to transform the sleepy Chrey Thom border checkpoint into what some villagers and investors are saying could be a new Poipet along the Tonle Bassac.

Land values began soaring two years ago as workers started paving Route 21, which runs 70 km from the Vietnam border here to Takhmau district.

Whereas some villagers couldn’t give their land away just a few years ago, a 50 meters by 100 meters piece of land in Chrey Thom now costs between $100,000 and $220,000. “It is unbelievable. Land is now very expensive,” said Luy Eang, a 45-year-old former soldier who has operated the ferry between Chrey Thom and Vietnam for the last decade.

“My boss once tried to give me a piece of land, but I didn’t take it because I thought it was so worthless.”

Engineers recently came to Chrey Thom to scout locations for the bridge, which will span the Bak Dai River near where it joins the Tonle Bassac, linking Chrey Thom with Vietnam’s An Giang province.

The bridge will make trade between Vietnam and Phnom Penh as easy as a two-hour car ride along Route 21.

The increased trade that the new bridge should bring to the area has villagers like Luy Eang feeling confident about their financial future even though, in Luy Eang’s case, the bridge will likely kill his ferry business.

“I’m not worried,” he said. “Now I think this will be like a second Poipet, especially if they make the border an international checkpoint.”

Comparisons to Poipet start with the smuggling that has been going on here for years—teenage boys laughed last week as they casually pushed a teeming cart, full of petroleum containers, up from the bank of the Bak Dai.

But the Poipet talk really gets moving when it turns to the new Golden Crown casino, which recently opened its doors just meters away from the Cambodian customs checkpoint.

Card dealers and other casino workers inside the air-conditioned casino talk of their training at Golden Crown’s sister casino in Poipet and say that the new electricity service from Vietnam will boost development in the area. “Five years ago, this was just a quiet place,” said Tith Thai, chief of security guards at Golden Crown.

A second, much larger casino is under construction on land with a view on one side of the Tonle Bassac and, on another, of Vietnam and the Bak Dai. The 100 hectare site, formerly the headquarters of the checkpoint police, will hold a six-story, $50 million dollar resort hotel and casino run by a Singaporean company.

A golf course is due to be built by the same company on the opposite side of the Tonle Bassac, where rice fields now stand, according to the construction manager, who declined to give his name. Vietnamese businessmen, according to the manager, will be the new Holiday Casino’s biggest customers.

“Once the bridge is linked, the gamblers will come,” he said. For now, all that cross over are three electricity wires, at least two ferry boats and untold numbers of private smugglers.

On the Vietnamese side, dozens of TV antennas poke up over tin and wood shacks. A large, bright-yellow painted market, with the red and yellow flag of Vietnam flying overhead, looks busy at midday with Cambodian and Vietnamese traders shuffling in and out.

Whether the bridge, the improved road and the new casinos will bring jobs for local villagers, or just land conflicts and drug problems, as they have for many in Poipet, remains to be seen.

So Den, an NGO worker in Koh Thom, said development along the border isn’t necessarily good news. He thinks human trafficking and drug smuggling will only increase.

“Our police at the border are not strict,” he said. “In my village, we are already dealing with youth using yama.”

Several Cambodian businessmen are buying up land in the area, placing their own bet on development in the area. Phu Kok An, who operates the Golden Crown casino, said his company is planning to build a zoo, an agro-industrial zone and a taxi park.

And Men Sarun Import-Export Co is working with a Vietnamese counterpart to possibly build a fish-processing factory in Chrey Thom, according to Mey Dararith, a marketing manager for the company.

But agriculture tycoon Mong Reththy is sitting this one out, saying he doesn’t believe the “new Poipet” hype. “The area doesn’t interest me,” he said earlier this week.

(Additional reporting by Matt Reed)

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