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The Future of Poipet

Poipet is, perhaps, the gambling capital of Southeast Asia. Outside of Macau and those underground "casinos" scattered about the region, Poipet, Cambodia is known as a magnet for gamblers from many ASEAN countries. With casino gambling illegal in Thailand, thousands of Thais cross the border into Poipet every week (when the border isn't closed, anyway), dropping 100's of thousands of baht into the Cambodian economy.

Poipet has continued to increase the number of hotel/casinos yearly. There are now at least seven such operations in existence and more are being constructed while existing ones have recently undergone major expansion.

With thousands of workers drawing salaries in these venues, it is not surprising that Poipet's economy in recent years has been driven by gamblers' thirst for good fortune. But will this source of revenue continue; and, if not, will Poipet fade into the clouds of dust for which it is known and merely remain a commercial border crossing and a convenient destination for visa runners from Thailand?

The recent Aranyaprathet/Poipet border closings by both the Thai and Cambodian governments provided an opportunity to observe and listen. Cambodians were refused entry into Thailand at the border crossing to both shop and to work. Thais were refused entry into Cambodia to gamble and to work. (Yes, many Thais were employed in the Cambodian casinos/hotels.) As a result, hundreds of hotel rooms were empty, casino tables were covered, thousands of people were out of work, small businesses (on both sides of the border) shut down, and crime in the town (already somewhat notorious) became more common. With no work, employees at the hotels/casinos went home, leaving only those who had no real home to return: that is, beggers and the hardcore motodops. Prices of basic food items increased almost 15% by one estimate. No longer was food available from Thailand directly. Only by "importing" from Sisophon, were locals able to depend on fresh staples.

In the meantime, politicos on both sides of the border took turns firing nationalistic salvos at each other. This fueling of a mutual (though quiet) dislike for each other, may have serious consequences for the future of Poipet. Influential elements in Thailand had previously floated "trial balloons" regarding the legalization of gambling in Thailand. Occasional reports were observed in Thai newspapers. Some sources reported actual venues being discussed, some as vague as "Phuket" (which has an international airport) and as specific as the Ambassador City Hotel, Jomtien (near Pattaya) being acquired and re-developed as a gaming destination. Further, it has been said that a multi-story hotel is being planned for Trat, the second floor of which is designated on "blueprints" as a "fitness center"--to be later converted to a huge casino. If that is not enough, the Mirage group has been said to have made overtures to Thailand regarding the development of a Las Vegas-style hotel/casino.

So, it was no surprise when Thailand's Prime Minister Taksin (noted for his nationalistic banter) seized the opportunity to address (and, in doing so, seemingly promote) the legalization of gambling when Thailand's embassy in Cambodia was destroyed by rampaging Cambodian elements in January. The timing couldn't have been better for those who stand to gain substantially from legalizing gambling in Thailand. That is, why have Thai baht leave the country for those "ingrate" Cambodians, when the taxes, license fees, and other "payables" could be collected at home. Too, many jobs would be created for the Thai population.

Speculation by many is that, if not in 2003, in 2004 Thailand will pass legislation legalizing gambling and will issue its first license(s). And, when it does, the beginning of the end of Poipet as it is known today is very much possible. With foreign and Thai interests pushing for "up-scale" resort-style gambling destinations, the hotel/casinos in Poipet may very well be once again covered with dust.

This is not to say that Poipet will fall into the same catagory as Pailin. Poipet will continue to remain a major border crossing for commercial traffic destined for the interior of Cambodia. But like many ghost towns of the Old West in the U.S., it's likely that it's "haydays" are about over."

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

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