My holiday in Cambodia was off to a rough start. I was standing in the Holiday Palace, a squat glass-fronted casino rising from the squalor of Poipet—a grungy town on the border of Cambodia and Thailand. My eyes were stinging from the red dust that seemed to coat everything in this town and the thick clouds of cigarette smoke that filled the hotel's lobby.
I had arrived in Poipet only a few moments earlier, successfully dodging a well-known border scam run by the touts who crowd the Thai side of immigration, offering to walk unsuspecting tourists through the relatively easy process of securing a visa to the country. I was almost convinced by one man's kindness to hand over the 1,000 Thai Baht ($30 USD) he asked for to help walk me through the visa process. But then I gave it a second thought and walked into the immigration office myself. There were better ways to lose your money in Poipet, after all.
Poipet is one of Cambodia's casino bordertowns. This run-down, crime-filled town was home to a dozen of Cambodia's 75 or so casinos. Most of them are situated along gambling strips in towns like Poipet, Bavet, and O Smach—all places within eyeshot of wealthier countries like Thailand and Vietnam where casino gambling is illegal but an appetite for the risk-and-reward of table games and slots remains.
The town was full of Chinese tourists and Thai day-trippers in town to try their luck. Gambling, outside the state-run lottery and horse racing, is illegal in Thailand. Many Thais ignore the law and bet on everything from cock fights to buffalo races, but those who are caught engaging in even the smallest bit of illegal betting face hefty fines and even jail time. Those who can afford it make the trip across the border to Cambodia, where gambling is a legal industry that brought in as much as $2 billion USD in 2015—only slightly less than the country's entire Gross Domestic Product in 1995.
Poipet is one of the strangest towns I've ever seen. It's a grimy gambling mecca situated in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Thailand's GDP reached nearly $6,000 USD per-capita last year. But on the other side of the border, in Cambodia, that figure dropped to little more than $1,200 USD per-person.
The gambling dens were far from the glitzy cathedrals of cash that come to mind when you think of the word casino. If Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia, then towns like Poipet are the Asian version of the truck stop slots parlors that crop up along the highways in the United States' vast midwest. They were run-down, smoke-filled gambling halls filled with rows of slots, table games, and gamblers placing their bets with the enthusiasm of a coma patient.
The streets outside were full of begging street children and scrappers pulling wooden carts packed with garbage and recyclables. The roads off the main strip quickly turned to dirt lanes with canvas tarp tents set up amidst the rubble of half-finished asphalt. The scene was bizarre, like some kind of post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-style barter town on the edge of oblivion.
I looked around for a hotel or a hostel, but it didn't take me long to realize that Poipet had none—or, at least, none I could find. Most people pass through the town on their way to the temples of Siem Reap or the backpacker bars of Phnom Penh. Those who choose to remain in Poipet are there for only one reason—gambling. So, of course, the only place to stay in town was inside the casinos themselves.
I chose Holiday Palace because it was conveniently located right on the strip and the rooms were better looking than their competitors online. It also advertised itself as the best hotel in the area, with a deceiving five star rating. In reality, the room was not really worth the 3,000 Thai baht ($100 USD) a night, but who was really visiting Poipet for the nice rooms anyway? I dropped off my bag and wandered back outside. My eyes immediately started to sting again from the ever-present red dust that blew through the place.
I walked a short distance from the hotel, rubbing my eyes the whole way, and found a simple hole-in-the-wall that seemed popular with local Cambodian diners. I can't speak any Khmer, so I ordered by pointing at the food I wanted, picking out some boiled pork with cabbage and some vegetables I honestly couldn't identify at the time. The food was served with an insane amount of rice and a small amount of fish sauce peppered with sliced chilies.
I dug in and then noticed that everyone was looking at me. Four men were totally plastered at the table behind me where there were at least 30 red cans of ABC Stout spread out across the table. Their faces were flushed and everyone was shouting at each other.
On the other side of my table, two men were in the middle of an intense game of chess. I tried to snap a few photos, but my camera immediately attracted the wrong kind of attention. In no time, a man rushed over shouting "No photo! Photo no good!"
A second man confidently walked over to my table and spat out what I could only assume were a list of questions in rapid-fire Khmer. I stared at him confused and responded "I don't speak Cambodian." The man then shifted to perfect English, responding, "OK, that's fine. Most white people normally speak Cambodian. I thought maybe you worked at an NGO or something."
The man told me his name was "Mr Short," explaining that he had worked as a fixer, guide, and taxi driver for just under a decade, mostly in Poipet. We spoke for an hour as Mr Short listed off the details of his city, complete with descriptions of the best places to take photos and warnings to be careful, especially at night.
Poipet has a seemingly deserved reputation for crime. It's the place where a teenaged British backpacker was ambushed and reportedly murdered in a 2004 robbery. Or at least that's what people think happened. The kid just vanished one day and the case remains unsolved. It was only one of numerous high-profile crimes that occur in Poipet in any given year. A Japanese businessman was gunned down outside a casino after winning big. A man beat his brother to death with a metal pipe. Hundreds of internet scammers were arrested in a raid of a boarding house.
It's a town where kidnapping syndicates grab degenerate gamblers off the streets and Thai gamblers end up stranded when they can't pay their casino debts. It's a waypoint for some of Southeast Asia's worst human trafficking and a spot where scammers run counterfeit money schemes. The town is, in short, a strange, shady place.
I asked Mr. Short what kinds of stories he had heard about organized crime in Poipet. There were some people, he explained, who operate without fear of retribution from anyone. "Sometimes there are these men who enter the casinos and simply take money or chips and leave," he said in a hushed voice. "Nobody does anything about it."
Later that night, after I worked up an appropriate buzz, I decided to wander onto the casino floor. I chose the largest casino I could find, the Grand Diamond City Hotel and Casino, a gargantuan building that looked sort of like a space shuttle covered in golden lights. Slot machines lined both sides of the wall. Older men sat stone faced in front of most of them, staring with little emotion as the machines screamed with cartoon sound effects and clunky sounding music.
The blackjack tables were full of more grim-faced gamblers. The tables room was dead quiet. There was no music, no laughter, no roars of excitement or groans of defeat. It was a bizarre scene, the opposite of the kinds of revelry I saw at casinos in the US and Australia. No one seemed to be enjoying themselves. The gambling instead felt fake and automated, like these men were there to place bets and keep the human interaction to the minimum.
I gambled for about an hour, risking the least amount of cash as possible: winning just enough to keep me playing until I lost it all—and more. That's how casinos work, after all. The entire place felt impersonal and mechanical. The casino games were automated. The drink machines too. The first time someone spoke to me was when a crew of five large security guards surrounded me after I tried to take a few photos.
"You must come with us now!" one of the men shouted at me. "You take too many photos! You are not allowed to take any photos inside!"
The security had already confiscated my Canon DSLR at the entrance, but I soldiered-on taking photos with my trusty Huawei phone instead. The casino, apparently, wasn't impressed with my cleverness. The security officers first demanded my phone, and then, after my refusal to give it to them they went through the photo album and deleted the images they decided were "too sensitive."
Exhausted, about $60 USD poorer, and without any of my photos, I decided it was time to call it quits. I headed back to my room and fell asleep. The next day I packed my bag and went downstairs to catch a taxi to Siem Reap. I had enough of Cambodia's casino culture.
Outside, I noticed that the gamblers looked about as unhappy as everyone else on the streets. Poipet was the kind of place that sucks the joy out of gambling. My taxi pulled up. I dropped my cigarette in the red dust, stepped inside, and watched as the town's casinos and corrugated tin shacks thinned out as we drove deeper into Cambodia—out toward better towns and the more-established tourists' path.