I’d heard from locals and students about Poipet – a seedy Cambodian border town. No one had anything good to say about it. The girls heading towards Angkor Wat were scared witless. My interest in the place was also fuelled by an article by David Eimer in the Sunday Telegraph, April 2013. He placed it as the hub of the massive illegal betting industry and behind a match-fixing pandemic. The place is crowded out with casinos, illegal betting shops and brothels.
Poipet is one of the few places in Cambodia where casino betting is legal. This wealth of gambling opportunities attracts hundreds of thousands of punters every year, some Cambodian and some from Thailand, where betting is also illegal. Many take advantage of free buses from Bangkok laid on by the casinos, which will give each passenger a few complimentary gambling chips.
Despite the immense profits generated by the gambling industry, Poipet is lacking in Vegas-style glitz. Separated from Thailand by a rubbish strewn river, its dirty streets coat everyone and everything in yellow dust. Barefoot children beg and prostitutes prowl for customers. The motorbike drivers who act as taxis also sell drugs.
‘It’s a lawless place and scary because of that’ said a local bar owner. ‘There aren’t many police here, so if you have a problem you can’t count on them to solve it.’
It seemed the perfect setting for a chapter in my book The Ekkamai Conspiracy – but I had to see for myself. One Wednesday morning I joined the crowd on platform 6 at Hua Lamphong, Bangkok’s main intercity and international railway station, waiting for the 05:55, third class carriages only, diesel train to Aranyaprathet - a town six miles from the border with Cambodia. All the carriages were full with an eclectic mix of backpackers, smartly dressed western tourists, Thais, Khmers and Malays. The Khmers were heading back home with pay packets to support their families. The Thais were heading for Poipet and the casinos, brothels and plentiful supplies of methamphetamine tablets. What happened next? You’ll have to read the book.