Monday, September 3, 2007

Ex-Khmer Rouge stronghold bets the pot on casino boom

PAILIN, Cambodia (AFP) — From the road one is immediately aware of the "Danger Mine" signs -- tiny red squares with the distinctive white skull and cross bones flashing warnings from the surrounding bushland.

Landmines -- thousands of them -- lie unseen, in some places only metres (yards) from the road.

But the hidden killers are one of the few reminders left of the war that raged a decade ago across this remote hill country in Cambodia's western-most reaches.

The tanks that were commonplace have since given way to truck convoys rumbling across from Thailand, past casinos and highrise hotels that residents hope signal a rebirth for this former Khmer Rouge stronghold.

These ex-guerrillas, whose misguided dream of a classless agrarian utopia had violently rejected the fruits of capitalism, are now in the business of making money.

On the roads leading to the border, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) away from Pailin town, garish billboards emblazoned with playing cards and roulette wheels suggest riches are waiting for gamblers -- mostly Thais flocking to Cambodia for one-day high stakes excursions -- at the Diamond Crown and Caesar casinos.

More than a dozen casinos dot the borders with Vietnam and Thailand, raking in an estimated tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars each year and fueling the economies of several hard-scrabble Cambodian cities along the way.

The largest, Poipet in Cambodia's northwestern corner, has emerged as a key gaming centre and trading hub with Thailand.

Considered by many as a magnet for vice, Poipet is still viewed with envy in this stripped down frontier town of tidy but stunted buildings whose illicit gem and timber trade financed the Khmer Rouge during the communist movement's last years.

"Poipet is much bigger than Pailin, we cannot compare," said the town's deputy governor Ieng Vuth.

Until recently, Pailin was Cambodia's "wild west," cut off from the rest of the country, the final refuge of a murderous regime that at the height of its power in the late 1970s had killed nearly a quarter of the country's people.

The town today is still a rambling low-slung place that chokes in dust during the dry season and is a hard two-hour drive from the nearest city Battambang.

Roads into town are lined with single-storey stalls -- cutters and dealers wringing the last few dollars out of a gem trade that dried up years ago. The surrounding hills are bare, logged out in the 1980s and 1990s.

The gaming industry seems the quickest route to stardom for a tiny municipality with little else to offer other than its proximity to Cambodia's biggest source of punters: Thailand.

"The big money for the border area is in casinos -- our market is for Thais," said Ieng Vuth, whose father Ieng Sary served as the Khmer Rouge's foreign minister during the regime's 1975-79 rule.

Thais, who are banned from gambling in their own country, come across by the hundreds each day and are thought to play as much as 100 million dollars a year in Cambodian casinos.

Besides the Caesar and Diamond Crown, a third casino, the Krom, is staffed and running in Phrum village, an otherwise desolate outpost between Pailin and Thailand that has become a cluster of gambling dens and at least four hotels.

A fourth casino is also in the works, Ieng Vuth said.

Young women, neatly dressed in skirts, vests and bow ties, shuttle back and forth between the casinos and the adjacent hotels. At the Diamond Crown, a huge annex is being built to handle the overflow of visitors.

"When I saw Pailin for the first time it was a jungle area, but now it is developed and has many buildings," said Chhim Sovann, a 37-year-old fruit dealer who moved to the area 10 years ago after the Khmer Rouge defected en masse to the government and effectively crippled the movement.

"Now, Pailin is becoming a money making town," he told AFP, standing in front of the Caesar, a colonnaded gambling den bejeweled with lights across its white facade.

Hopes are that the money from Pailin's casino boom will pave the way for other development. The area is most seriously lacking roads, and Ieng Vuth said this is discouraging both investors and visitors.

Elsewhere in Cambodia, record numbers of tourists have dumped billions of dollars into the economy over the past two years, and Pailin -- behind the curve by several years -- wants to take advantage of this unprecedented boom.

"Pailin has many hills and waterfalls, and we want to develop those areas as tourist destinations," Ieng Vuth said.

"If we talk about natural assets, Pailin is so beautiful. When we have good roads many people will go back and forth."

Foreign investment in the sector, though, remains disappointing, he said.

"Many investors have studied about tourism development, but they have not signed contracts yet," he added.

Still, signs that Pailin is slowly emerging as a tourist destination are already appearing.

Tidy brick and tile homes or freshly painted guesthouses have sprung up among the tin-roofed shacks, giving Pailin the quaint, prosperous appearance of a small Thai town.

The Hang Meas hotel, originally a spartan way-station for traveling government and NGO officials, has had a karaoke and discotheque installed, while foreign tourists, non-existent here only a few short years ago, can be seen wandering past lively fruit vendors and smiling children.

"Pailin has huge potential for economic development. We have many nice resorts," said Khlok Nguoy, cabinet chief of Pailin Municipality, adding that hundreds of South Korean tourists have already begun visiting the area.

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