A Khmer Rouge border story

by John Einar Sandvand on February 12, 2009

In no other area of Cambodia Khmer Rouge ruled for so long. Yet the first to meet visitors as they cross the border at Psar Phrum is exactly what Khmer Rouge supposedly fought against: Casinos, corrupt officials, brothels and a colorful Buddha overlooking it all.

Diamond Crown is one of three casinos in Phrum Pasar

Diamond Crown is one of three casinos in Psar Phrum

It started already at the border crossing. In a friendly tone the police official asked for 1000 Thai baht for a visa fee.
That is overcharging 50 per cent, money which will go directly into the pockets of the officials. The scam is common at the land border crossings along the border to Thailand.

I smiled and put up my most innocent face.
- But Sir, it occurs to me that I only paid USD 20 (700 baht) when I last entered Cambodia, I said.
He didn’t even try to apologize.
- Oh, is that so? USD 20? Well, you can pay that this time as well, then.

And of course I knew: Corruption is everywhere in Cambodia. It is like a poison slowly killing the society’s ability to function and making it very hard for the poor majority to move ahead.

Girls walking hope in Psar Phrum

Girls walking home in Psar Phrum

Having passed the border crossing three huge casinos met me. Gambling is illegal both in Cambodia and Thailand. Yet somehow the casinos along the border are allowed to operate. Do you wonder how it is possible? Welcome to Cambodia!
The customers are all Thai. As they cannot gamble legally in their own country, they cross the border to empty their pockets in their neighbor country.
- But we cannot let any Khmer customers in, a security guard at Caesar Casino told me.

At night the casinos were filled with eager Thai gamblers of all ages. Some were big families who had taken a weekend trip together. In Diamond Crown Casino alone at least 30 tables were filled with players at the same time. Money was moving fast.  Other visitors spent time in the karaoke rooms or the adjacent steam sauna.

The border village is named Psar Phrum and is basically a collection of a few dusty streets – contrasted by the flashing casinos. There is a border market, of course, but not much to buy. And there are some brothels to go along with the casinos.

On a small hilltop above the village a colorful Buddha rests.

Enjoying the view of the Buddha with Diamond Crown Casino 100 meters away it occured to me how ironical the view was. This area of Cambodia has been ruled by Khmer Rouge for decades, both before and after the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) was in power. Even after peace was made with the government in 1996, former Khmer Rouge leaders continue to have significant influence. And still, the very symbols of what they tried to fight – like buddhism, gambling, corruption and prostitution – are so much in presence when you enter the border into their last stronghold.

Is it a coincidence? I wondered.

The Buddha in Psar Phrum and Diamond Crown Casino in the background

The Buddha in Psar Phrum and Diamond Crown Casino in the background

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