Gambling on the Cambodian-Thai border
POIPET, Cambodia, March 23, 2003 - Life, and all its permutations in this Cambodian frontier town famous for its casinos, has begun returning to normal following the re-opening of the border with Thailand.
Dozens of Khmer and Thai villagers had gathered along the canal separating the two countries to watch a ceremony marking the end of a seven-week border closure -- and hopefully, they said, a beginning of more stable times.
"We are thrilled about the opening," said Nantachai Wongwattanaboolpol, a Thai chef in one of the larger casinos who was watching ministers from the two sides shake hands on the nearby Friendship Bridge.
"I'm no longer worried about paying off debts or borrowing money."
Poipet's prominent business empires -- the seven lavishly appointed casinos literally a stone's throw from Thailand -- have been hemorrhaging profits since January 29, when anti-Thai riots were unleashed in the capital Phnom Penh.
The unrest led to a downgrade in bilateral ties and a sealing of the border, which brought once-flourishing trade, tourism and the notoriously excessive Thai gambling to a standstill.
Checkpoints were reopened temporarily a few weeks later, but Thailand, where casinos are illegal, refused its nationals permission to enter Cambodia for gambling excursions.
Most of the punters at Poipet are from Thailand and the move irked Phnom Penh -- which rued the lack of foreign capital inflow -- as well as the gaming kingpins.
Like most people at the gambling houses, Nantachai and his seven kitchen staff had been unemployed for nearly two months as the roulette wheels ground to a halt and business collapsed.
Poipet's casinos were losing some seven to 12 million dollars per week, a Thai military intelligence source reportedly said.
They promptly dismissed thousands of staff, including about 1,000 of 1,100 employees in one establishment, a staffer revealed.
Poipet became a ghost town, according to villagers, as migrant workers headed back to family farms to wait out the closure.
Cambodians sealed off from their normal source of food products and other necessities became desperate.
"I can say I've been luckier than my friends," said one casino staffer who was allowed to hold her housekeeping job, though at half her normal wages.
"Many of my friends have no job, and no money for their families."
Khmer trader Keng Tong, 40, recalled how street markets had been decimated.
"When visitors stopped coming, no one came to the border markets and traders couldn't sell a thing."
"I've gone from living on 1,000 baht (23 dollars) per day to 100 baht per day."
Conditions were hardly better across the border in the boomtown of Aranyaprathet, about 270 kilometres (165 miles) east of Bangkok, where thousands of sellers of everything from lettuce to lingerie and Louis Vuitton bags rely primarily on cross-border trade.
The town's normally heaving Rong Kleu market, a maze of 2,000 stalls, was almost entirely shuttered for lack of business on the morning before the re-opening.
Losses were topping 60 million baht (1.4 million dollars) per day in Aranyaprathet, said Bamrung Lochareonvatchanachai, chairman of the Sa Kaeo province trade council.
On Saturday, the first full day of open checkpoints, traffic was light, with a few dozen Thais entering Cambodia and several hundred Khmers making the reverse crossing.
"Not many people seemed to know about the checkpoints opening," said Lieutenant Colonel Surintr Plairaharn, a Thai immigration official.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra spoke of the re-opened border in his weekly radio address Saturday, but he also spelled out a warning of sorts to punters that is unlikely to sit well with Cambodia.
"I don't want Thai people going gambling in neighbouring countries," he said, adding that government officials should obtain permission before crossing borders.
An immigration official said some Thais had already entered Cambodia on gambling junkets.
"But I think the casino business is not so lively because they aren't fully staffed."
Indeed, one of the most plush casinos, overlooking the frontier was all but empty Friday after the border opening, with just three diehard customers, all Chinese, huddled around a roulette wheel.
The 40 blackjack tables and banks of slot machines were deserted. The gold fixtures and pawn booths sparkled in anticipation of a wave of Thai gamblers that had yet to return.
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