Thais swarm into Cambodian casinos to beat junta's betting ban

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 7:29pm


Desperate for a flutter during a junta crackdown on gambling at home, Thais are making a beeline for casinos in a seedy Cambodian border town - which has already been deluged by migrants also fleeing the kingdom.

For over a decade Poipet, a scruffy, vice-ridden frontier town studded with casinos and online gambling booths, has lured customers from Thailand, where betting is all but banned.

Casino staff in Poipet said the chips have been changing hands at an unusually fast rate since the Thai army seized power across the border on May 22.

A junta blitz on organised crime has seen raids on underground casinos, dozens of arrests and access to a number of online gambling sites blocked.

In its get-tough message to illegal gamblers - and any local officials caught in cahoots with casino operators - the army rulers cited the need "to safeguard the public and uphold social order".

The warning brought a boon to Poipet's card tables, slot machines and 24-hour online gaming booths - key for live betting on World Cup football matches being played in Brazil.

"We cannot play these games in Thailand now," 32-year-old Nan said as she laid a 100 Thai baht (HK$24) stake at a baccarat table at the Crown Resort Casino.

"Police will arrest us ... the military has shut down illegal gambling."

Thais can only gamble on their state lottery or at a handful of horse racing meetings, prompting punters to splurge millions of dollars each year overseas. Much of it funnels into Poipet, a four-hour drive from Bangkok, and the fastest-growing of Cambodia's casino towns.

There are few available figures on the sums spent by Thais in Poipet in an opaque industry clouded further by the restrictions on both Thais and Cambodians gambling on home soil.

But Cambodian government figures from 2011 showed gambling brought an annual tax bonanza of US$20 million to the nation - as well as thousands of spin-off jobs.

The money that flows into Cambodia and its casino operators is dwarfed by revenue in Macau, which hit a record US$45 billion in 2013. But Poipet is growing amid a wider gaming boom in Asia over the past decade.

Last year, US-listed Entertainment Gaming Asia opened the doors to a new US$7.5 million slot machine hall in Poipet.

And in a town already geared towards its Thai guests - World Cup odds are written in Thai and croupiers speak the language - the casinos are flinging their doors open to exiled gamblers from across the border.