The Lure of the Thai Side: Cambodians Stay Awhile

cham yeam, Koh Kong province – The Cham Yeam region seems to be sucking up outside influences and casting a conglomerate identity. The baht pays for anything and everything on the Cambodian side of the border; the US dollar plays a close second, and the riel trails far behind.

Most people on this edge of Cambodia speak two languages—Khmer and Thai. Many speak English as well. But 10 steps across the border, finding a Thai person who speaks Khmer or English is difficult.

You’ll find a host of Cam­bo­dians though, most in Thailand illegally, trying to make more than they say they can in their homeland.

Heng is one such man, who comes from Phnom Penh. “Thailand has work and money,” he says in Khmer. “Cambodia doesn’t have. Phnom Penh doesn’t have.”

You can buy most any jade, wooden or ivory trinket from his curio stall directly across from a linga shrine in Hat Lek, the Thai border village. Four logs, 2 meters long with bright red tips, and a fifth, smaller phallus surround a lucky golden female Buddha. Heng sells 2-cm wooden lingas for $1.

His ivory is real, and he’ll demonstrate it: He dangles a strand of beads between his fingers and takes a lighter to them. No melting, no burning. “See, no plastic,” he says in fractured English. The whole string goes for 300 baht or $16—more than double the going exchange rate for US dollars.

This is not a “dollarized” economy.

But Heng’s biggest business, involves a motor boat. For 500 baht, or $12.50 apiece, he ushers people back and forth across the border, circumventing the authorities. “I take 10, maybe 20 people a day,” he says. He doesn’t have a passport, either. A small but new-looking bright blue fiberglass boat, the kind that im­bues Koh Kong’s river with a constant motorized hum, bobs in the water. Four other Cambodians gather around. They confer among themselves about passports, visas, and why a couple of Westerners are curious about crossing the border surreptitiously.

Deeper inside Thailand, 17 km from the border in the small village of Khlong Yai, more of the same emerges. No English spoken. No dollars accepted. And a few Cambodian guys living on the fishing docks.

Rotha has spent the last five years of his 25-year life fishing the waters off Khlong Yai. “I love Cambodia, but the Khmer Rouge cause violence,” he says, repeatedly miming a gunshot and death. He says he’s scared to go home. He says he can’t find work at home in Phnom Penh, anyway.

So he works in Thailand for a Thai fishing boss with at least three other Cambo­dians, a Viet­namese man and some Chinese. He’s picked up a bit of Vietnamese, Chinese and English.

And he seems to know more Thai than he recalls Khmer.

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