BORDER CASINOS: The moment the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border checkpoint opens at 8 a.m., thousands of cashed up Thai gamblers swarm across to nearby Cambodian casinos _ most of them only to return with empty pockets
With a pocketful of cash or a good credit line, the right phone call to any of the casinos in Poipet, Cambodia, will bring anyone who asks a free ride eastward, via air-conditioned passenger van from Bangkok or nearby provinces, all the way to this booming Cambodian town across the Thai border from Aranyaprathet.
Once even chartered flights ferried casino guests from Don Muang airport to the Royal Thai Air Force’s Wattana Nakon airfield, some 50 kilometres west of Aranyaprathet. However, the media glare ultimately became too intense and the flights were discontinued.
Despite the long distance travel for just a few hours or days of fun, it always seems to be worth the effort to the committed gambler, especially since the Togel casinos are located but a stone’s throw from the border checkpoint. Just the other side of the Klong Luek canal demarcating Thailand and Cambodia, seven casinos spread across a 500-rai area are open seven days a week.
On the main road connecting the border checkpoint and Aranyaprathet, concrete walls and well-paved roads make the journey easier. The casinos are located within a well-fenced area beside the canal _ a mere 500 metres from the Cambodian customs and immigration area.
As Poipet and Aranyaprathet are stopovers on the route to Angkor Wat, casino operators are also involved in tourist travel, though in turnover terms it is more as a precaution in case Cambodia suddenly shuts down the casinos. Travel by road to the fabled temples of Angkor Wat costs much less than a flight.
MOSTLY THAI MONEY
The nearest ATM booth to the Thai border is at Klong Luek in Aranyaprathet. About 100 metres behind it lies the klong that separates Aranyaprathet in Thailand from Poipet in Cambodia, where seven casinos have been erected since 1999 to entertain thousands of Thai gamblers who visit each weekend.
Four years ago there was only one casino in Poipet. More casinos sprung up after some well-known Thai politicians and businessmen came up with over half the necessary capital while well-placed Cambodian businessmen and government officials made everything go smoothly.
Today, the Holiday Poipet casino stands some 100 metres from the border. Opened in January 1999 by an Indonesian-Taiwanese partnership with a Cambodian businessman, it became the first casino in Poipet.
Next came the Golden Crown Club, opened in April 1999 as a joint venture between a Cambodian businessmen and a well-known Thai tycoon.
The third casino to open, the Grand Diamond City, is just east of the Holiday Poipet. It was bought out by a well-known Thai politician from a Cambodian tycoon who owns a casino resort at Koh Kong, just off Trat province. The Cambodian has reportedly opened a casino at Chong Chom Pass, a permanent border checkpoint in Surin .
The fourth to open, the Holiday Palace, was first called Poipet-Aran. An Indonesian-Taiwanese consortium owns 51 percent of the enterprise, while 49 percent is owned by a Cambodian businessman.
The fifth to open, just north of the Golden Crown, is Star Vegas Entertainment, opened in December 2000 with a Roman facade and a total floor area of some 100 rai, not to mention an 18-hole golf course, discotheque and massage parlour.
The Tropicana Resort followed with an even bigger casino area.
The latest to open is the Princess Hotel, which supplements the Star Vegas.
And it is unlikely to be the last _ a Thai politician with shares in several casinos in Poipet has just bought 200 rai of land at Ban Sano Noi, some ten metres from the banks of the border canal.
Meanwhile, a flock of sky cranes and hundreds of labourers are busily expanding several casinos. An Aranyaprathet businessman who declined to be named told Perspective that each of the projects represents an investment of at least 180 million baht. One casino actually cost 500 million baht, with 80 percent of the funds being put up by a well-known Thai politician and the rest coming from a top brass Cambodian general.
MOSTLY THAI PLAYERS
Every Sunday afternoon, thousands of Thai tourists return to Klong Luek just before Thai Immigration officials close the border checkpoint at 5 p.m. _ SUPRADIT KANWANICH
Traffic heading towards Aranyaprathet is heavy early on Saturday mornings. The Aranyaprathet businessman says that 3,000 to 5,000 Thai gamblers pass through the casinos in Poipet each weekend. The numbers drop to 1,000-2,000 on week days.
Some Thais drive from Bangkok and park their cars in the Rong Klua market’s huge parking lot, right next to the immigration checkpoint. Parking is free for those with proof that they went to a casino.
The parking lot can accommodate more than 20 tour buses and at least 300 cars. Some of the tour buses also shuttle gamblers back to Bangkok. Although overnight parking is free, the gates close at 5 p.m. and reopen in the morning.
Though only a few hundred metres away, Thai gamblers use passports to get into Cambodia as well as fill out immigration exit and entry forms for both Thailand and Cambodia. To bypass the hassle, some don’t bring their passports. Instead, they pay Cambodian brokers 200 baht to take them into the casino compound. But they have to return by 5 p.m., when the checkpoints close after an 8-hour day. Others simply have their passports processed by casino employees long before they return to Thailand.
“In such cases, the passports only have Thai exit and entry stamps with nothing from Cambodian immigration at all,” the businessman said.
Although army-trained rangers are stationed every few metres along the road parallel to the border, the bulk of the long border is unpatrolled. Those without passports who do not return to Aranyaprathet by 5 p.m. can count on a Cambodian guide to arrange a night time return to Thailand. Just cross through the casinos’ barbed wire fences and pay 800 baht _ or 1,500 baht if it is very late.
Thai authorities have been approached by tour and casino operators to keep the border open until midnight, or even 24 hours. But despite the offer to pay the overtime to the Thai immigration officers themselves, the border firmly closes at five in the afternoon.
“Late Sunday afternoon, the road from Aranyaprathet to Nakhon Nayok is surprisingly heavy with traffic as most of the vehicles rush to return to Bangkok,” the businessman said.
MOSTLY THAI TARGETS
Meanwhile, telephone operators at Poipet’s seven casinos continue to take phone call requests for passenger vans. Some of the punters are picked up directly from their homes, and the vans fill up along the way.
One tour bus was seen with a Nonthaburi telephone number and the name of a Thai woman. “Call for a free ride to the casino.” the ad read.
One of the drivers told Perspective that he gets 4,500 to 5,000 baht per weekend, just to take customers to the casinos. If he persuades more to go to the casinos, he gets an extra 200 baht per new customer.
Attempts to rope in ordinary tourists continue. Walk-in clients are enticed by free food coupons if they buy at least 1,000 baht of chips; there’s even a music band and a top notch Japanese restaurant.
Accommodation for overnight stays is free if one buys at least 30,000 baht worth of chips. If one buys at least 50,000 baht, the room is free for the entire weekend. Big chip buyers also get free food and drinks. While the rules vary for each casino, small-time players generally pay from 500 to 1,000 baht a night for a room. Rooms and services are on par with those in three- to five-star hotels.
Services include massage parlours, beauty salons, exercise rooms and saunas. There are duty-free shops in every casino, most of them displaying imported wines, whiskies, cigarettes and sweets. Cambodian guides abound, whispering, “If you want women, I can arrange for you. Thai, Cambodian, Russian, tell me.”
However, there are also signs of the reverse side of the prosperity coin. Each casino has its own in-house pawn shop with glass display counters offering gold necklaces and rings, wrist watches, diamond rings and even mobile phones, all relinquished by hapless punters to pay their way home. Loan shops also abound, each displaying signs offering short-term finance at three percent interest for a week, five percent for two weeks. However, these disturbing signs are eclipsed by an abundance of glamour and glitter.
BEHIND THE GLITZ
Although the casino business seems to pull in large amounts of cash, investors are plagued with troubles.
Despite polished appearances, security guards with walkie-talkies are everywhere. On the other hand, there are no Cambodian policemen in sight _at least not in uniform _ giving Casino management carte-blanche to run their own security operations.
Following two bomb blasts last January 15 that seriously wounded two Cambodian security officers and slightly wounded 10 others, security has been tightened at the entrance to the Princess Hotel. Kok Ann, owner of the Princess Hotel, gave Thai police printouts of three Thais captured on closed-circuit video as rumours flew around that a rival casino had arranged for the bombs to be planted. Some even went so far as to single out the backers of the Diamond and Golden Crown casinos for suspicion, being major rivals of the Princess.
Earlier in December last year, the manager of Grand Diamond City, Mr Samlee (Fai) Pokha-in, was almost killed in a car bomb explosion. Said to be a close aide of a powerful Thai politician, he was not long afterwards gunned down in a taxi in Bangkok.
On the morning of Oct 26, 52-year-old Arun Wongrak and his aides walked out of the Golden Crown Casino to the Thai-Cambodian Friendship Bridge where he was arrested by Cambodian immigration officers. After being taken to Banteay Meanchey province, some 60 kilometres away, he was charged with illegal possession of firearms and fraud involving 39 million baht.
Arun’s arrest warrant was signed by Cambodian police chief Hok Longdee some three months previously when a Cambodian co-investor in the Golden Crown accused Arun of fraud. Arun is said to be one of the Golden Crown’s backers.
Reports say Arun was in court on the day of his arrest, and signed a Khmer document with no translation. It turned out that he signed a document admitting that he owes Kok Ann 39 million baht. The case will be closed if he pays up.
MOSTLY THAI LOSERS
Although the casinos are off-limits to all Cambodians, the casino dealers are young Thais and Cambodians, their demeanor that of professionally trained casino workers worldwide.
Thai gamblers pack the casinos’ main halls every weekend, deeply engrossed in their games of chance, cards, blackjack, baccarat, poker, dice, roulette. The atmosphere is hushed despite the large crowd, punctuated only by occasional roars of joy or screams of disappointment.
Although special rooms are set aside for those who want to spend big money in privacy, next to the casinos’ main halls are a number of slot machines, video slot machines, poker machines, and the most popular, electric horse race machines.
Here, visitors accompanied by their children insert coins, even as the more seasoned players shake the machines or jot down results in order to help them predict the next.
Two Sundays ago, only two westerners were seen wandering around the casinos, neither interested in actually gambling. By contrast, Thai men and women were seen in equal numbers and gambled actively.
Shortly before 5 p.m., hundreds of Thai gamblers poured out of the casinos heading for the immigration checkpoint. The general topic of conversation was the luck they had or hadn’t had and the relative merits and demerits of the casinos. Hardly any face seemed happy. Some were overheard vowing never to play the same games again but remained eager to try their luck elsewhere. Many pledged to return soon to recoup their losses.
At the end of every day day, similar scenes play out across each of the 30 casinos that are legally open in Thailand’s neighbouring countries. In all, they turnover a reputed 300,000 million baht plus annually, while the debate about legalising gambling in Thailand gets nowhere, just as the Thai shareholders in across-the-border casinos doubtless hope and pray.
Meanwhile, a hotel doorman in Aranyaprathet admitted that of his monthly income of 4,500 baht, he spends some 3,000 baht in the casinos. Though he loses most of the time, “it’s fun and exciting,” he says. “What’s more, the casinos treat me very well and some day I might hit the jackpot.”