Inside the Dangerous World of Homemade Rocket Gambling

Cambodian rocket gambling is one of the world's most bizarre gambling schemes. But for the poor locals who live below the launch zone, it's also life-threatening.

by Charles Rollet
Feb 1 2016, 5:00am

A man in Cambodia's Anlong Veng district stands with a homemade rocket. Photo by Beth Ann Lopez

It was on an overcast January day in Cambodia when I saw what must be one of the world's most bizarre and dangerous gambling events: betting on homemade rocket launches.

The gamblers' site was a large clearing on top of the thickly-forested Dangrek Mountains in northern Cambodia, just a five-minute drive from the Thai border.

Unfortunately for the Cambodians living in the valley below, the cloudy sky did little to dampen the spirits of the hundreds of Thai gamblers who had gathered there to launch around a dozen 30-foot-long bamboo rockets in the space of a couple hours.

Equipped with wide-brim hats and binoculars, the Thais—men, women, even children—chatted underneath parasols while Thai pop music blasted from speakers. Sellers hawked whiskey, beer, and grilled meats to the crowd as they waited for launch.

Suddenly, the countdown began, and a massive puff of white smoke erupted underneath a rocket. A few earsplitting seconds later, the missile was already thousands of feet high, screeching across the Cambodian countryside like a bamboo banshee.

As the rocket became a speck in the sky, a spotter shouted a number of variables—how long the rocket stayed up, how high it went, whether it disintegrated in mid-air or plummeted straight to the ground. The missiles are crudely assembled on site with duct tape, so each one's performance is anyone's guess.

A rocket takes off. Photo by the author

At stake are vast sums of money and the spectacle is undeniably captivating. But, amazingly, the gamblers don't seem to give a damn about what happens to the rockets after they're fired off. And, apparently, neither does the Cambodian government.

The rockets have become a part of everyday life in the villages by the mountains of Cambodia's rural Anlong Veng district. You can spot them pretty much everywhere: lying in someone's yard, leaning on trees, even being used to build a fence.

Touch Nim, who lost his leg below the knee in the Khmer Rouge conflict and whose day-to-day life has been greatly affected by the nearby rocket gambling. Photo by Beth Ann Lopez

Last September, 64-year-old farmer Touch Nim and his grandkids were nearly struck by one as they worked their field. Realizing a rocket was hurtling directly towards them, they jumped into a bamboo thicket and narrowly escaped almost certain injury or death.

"The rocket got stuck in the bamboo right above my head," Nim told me.

From disabled veterans like Nim to the schoolchildren in the nearby primary school, the fear of being struck by a rocket is constant.

Chuon Ny's grandchild carries a spent rocket. Photo by Beth Ann Lopez

Chuon Ny's tiny wooden home near the village of Srah Chhouk has been under constant aerial assault for the past few months, as evidenced by the four massive spent rockets lying around her property.

"We are so nervous and afraid of the rockets coming," the 52-year-old said as she chopped cassava crops.

The projectiles aren't high school science fair material—they're dozens of feet long and powered by a giant blue PVC pipe packed with potassium nitrate and charcoal. "The smoke from one rocket got into our water supply, and the kids got very sick," Ny said. Out of fear, she has sent her grandchildren to a different village.

Prom Su, whose rice fields have been burned by the rockets. Photo by Beth Ann Lopez

"You can hear the noise, but you just don't know where it's going to fall down," said Prak Phoan, a 65-year-old farmer. He said one once fell only 30 feet away from him.

So far, no human casualties have been reported, but they cause plenty of real damage. Entire fields have burned down, and one rocket managed to obliterate the roofs of two adjacent houses in one go.

"It burned my rice field in two different places—I had to put out the fire myself," said farmer Prom Su, 61.

"There were some little girls in the field at the time. They ran and hid in the trees like chickens," he recalled.

The entrance to a gambling den, from where rockets are launched. Photo by Beth Ann Lopez

Rocket gambling has grown increasingly common in Thailand's northeast as a corruption of the traditional Bang Fai festival, during which rockets (some shaped like penises) are fired into the sky as part of an ancient fertility ritual to herald the rainy season.

But illegal gambling rings hijacked the festival for profit, setting up massive arenas where the rockets are launched on and off season with no oversight. Even though gambling is illegal in Thailand, the dens became so popular that they spiraled into a perverse competition about which outfit could build the biggest and baddest rockets.

Worried that the souped-up projectiles would down airplanes, the Thai army began cracking down on the gamblers in 2015.

Around that time, a savvy Cambodian man named Phal Samom cashed in on the ban by setting up a rocket launch arena right next to a Thai border crossing area.

Since mid-2015, usually three days a week, the gamblers launch at least 12 rockets a day, spreading panic below.

Workers prep a rocket for launch. Photo by Beth Ann Lopez

"We think the authorities get bribes from this company," said Khan Mao, a farmer and English tutor from Srah Chhouk.

"During a forum... we asked [the company] what would happen if someone got killed by a rocket. They just said they would make sure compensation was paid. Everyone got so angry. They really look down on people's lives," he said.

The locals' theories seemed to be confirmed by my first visit to the gambling den in October, back when the launches were located slightly closer to the border crossing. A Thai rocket builder said authorities were paid 100,000 baht ($2,800) every day the gambling went on.

Despite its obvious dangers, the operation has a prominently displayed "license" signed by one of Cambodia's most senior officials, National Police Chief Neth Savoeun. But Savoeun claimed to know nothing of the scheme when VICE contacted him, leaving it unclear whether the certificate was genuine or a forgery.

Spent rockets. Photo by Beth Ann Lopez

Meanwhile, a previous time I wrote about the rockets, a spokesman for Phal Samom attempted to bribe us not to publish the article. And during my latest visit, Cambodian soldiers guarding the gambling site questioned my driver, asking him if I was a journalist.

Sophal Ear, the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, told me that officials in Cambodia—which is routinely ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world—have a rich and sordid history of selling off licenses for dubious activities to the highest bidder.

"The authorities in countries like Cambodia act as gatekeepers, ensuring that those who pay win, and the poor lose," he said. "It's setting fire to people's homes and property, and never having to say you're sorry."

Additional reporting by Lay Samean

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