Gamblers roll in to Phnom Penh as guns go quiet
Fifteen years on, the guns are silent in Phnom Penh, the big Naga Floating Resorts Casino appears to be flourishing and developers dream of superhighways with luxury buses, replete with massage chairs, bringing tourists in from Vietnam.
It was far different back in early 1996. I was in Cambodia in part to cover a lawsuit brought by a Singapore company against the casino, at that time just a gambling barge moored on the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh.
The Singapore company, Unicentral Corporation, which owned the boat, won a lawsuit in May 1996 in the Singapore High Court against Malaysian companies linked to the casino for S$8.5 million (HK$55 million) in unpaid charter fees.
The Malaysian companies and casino were controlled by Chen Lip Keong, who would go on to make a name for himself in Phnom Penh.
It was a violent time. I was having dinner in Phnom Penh with an international aid worker, when I heard a popping sound.
'That was a gunshot,' my host said nonchalantly. 'It happens often in Phnom Penh.'
Another night, I visited a disco with a Cambodian friend. At the entrance, we were checked for weapons. While I stood there, security guards confiscated M16 rifles, AK-47 assault guns, and pistols from customers lined up at the checkpoint.
The capital was thick with rumours of tension between Cambodian First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. A year later, a gunbattle between the soldiers of Ranariddh and those of Hun Sen forced Ranariddh to flee the country.
Today, Hun Sen is the sole prime minister of the Southeast Asian nation and the city is a more peaceful place.
When I was in Phnom Penh last month, I did not hear gunfire. The hotels, including upmarket venues, had signs on their doors banning guns, but I didn't see any weapons.
I felt safe during my visit to the new NagaWorld Hotel and Casino, owned by NagaCorp, in which Chen owns a majority stake. The casino, which looks like a gaudy Las Vegas gambling hall with a Cambodian touch, is decorated with statues in the style of the ancient Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat. The casino is located in front of the Hun Sen Garden, named after the prime minister.
The Malaysian investor who sued for unpaid fees 15 years ago, was close to Hun Sen, NagaCorp chief financial officer Philip Lee said. But then Hun Sen was close to all business leaders in Cambodia, he added.
'Dr Chen was a pioneer investor in Cambodia,' Naga chairman and former US FBI agent Tim McNally said. 'He came in the early 1990s. He brought a lot of credibility and stability to the country. We're very apolitical.'
Chen's vision doesn't stop there. 'There is a lot of business in Vietnam we are looking at,' Chen said.
'Our vision is a superhighway on the road and in the sky between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh. We want NagaWorld to own 10 coaches with massage chairs and videos to shorten the sense of distance between the two cities.'
During the first half of this year, Vietnamese visitors to the casino accounted for only 12 per cent of the junket headcount but 47 per cent of the revenues. Malaysian guests contributed the second-biggest slice of revenues, at 17 per cent, and China was third with 13 per cent, according to NagaCorp.
On the night I visited the gaming area of the NagaWorld Casino it was about three-quarters full. Most of the customers appeared to be Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian.
'We have a high occupancy in our hotel, especially with Chinese guests,' a NagaWorld Hotel employee said.
The hotel occupancy rate rose to 75.2 per cent in the first half from 42.4 per cent a year earlier, while hotel room revenue soared 46 per cent to US$2.2 million.
NagaCorp's total revenue rose 65 per cent to US$111.8 million in the first half, while net profit jumped 118 per cent to US$45.9 million.
As long as Cambodia stays free of political coups or civil war, and there are no gunbattles in Phnom Penh, the money should continue to roll in at NagaWorld and the capital.