Once a quiet seaside haven for backpackers, Sihanoukville has morphed into a giant construction site in the past three years. Cranes dot the skyline, roads have become muddy potholed lanes and jackhammers resonate late into the night. Many of the new buildings are casinos.
Most of this activity is due to Chinese developers, says Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a Southeast Asian studies expert from Lund University in Sweden. “An estimated 90% of businesses in Sihanoukville, including hotels, restaurants and entertainment establishments, are now owned by the Chinese,” she says.
Many building fronts in Sihanoukville are now covered in Chinese characters. On the beachfront, Sichuan hotpots have replaced plenty of the 50-cent beer joints beloved by Western travelers.
This has had far-reaching consequences for locals, squeezing their income from traditional backpacker tourism channels, pushing some into dangerous jobs on construction sites and bringing a thriving casino industry to the city, which has caused many residents to lose their homes.
By transforming Sihanoukville into a casino mecca, Cambodia hopes to rival other Asian gaming hubs like Macao, Singapore and Manila.
Gambling is illegal for locals since 1996. So the city hopes to attract Chinese tourists, who are not allowed to gamble in their home country. Despite a recent crackdown on online gambling, they are coming in droves.
Casino operators here aren’t required to check their customer’s identity or verify the origins of their funds, according to several industry experts.Earnings from gaming are not taxed, although the government collects a monthly fee from bigger casinos and a fixed levy on each table and slot machine from smaller ones.
Sihanoukville has also become a hotbed for online casinos.
In one establishment, tucked away in a side street, a row of women wearing black lace leotards shuffle cards. They stare into cameras with fixed smiles. There are no players. “The game is live-streamed to bettors — usually based in China — who play remotely,” explains Jonny Ferrari, a Canadian online gaming consultant who lives in Sihanoukville.
These virtual operations are legal in Cambodia but not in China, where gambling is forbidden.