Does the border town of Poipet deserve it’s moniker of ‘The Worst Town in Cambodia’?
In a short word, yes, but in the spirit adventure, a group of fellow barang was rounded up and the poor man’s Vegas was put to the test- could it be a diamond in the rough, or can a turd consisting of gambling, drugs and smuggling simply not be polished?
The taxi was late. Our driver had been to a wedding, and despite his slightly intoxicated outlook, he had a lucky mole sprouting black hair and plenty of amulets tied with red string to his rear view mirror.
As is the norm in taxi situations we sped through the countryside overtaking trucks around blind corners using the horn more than the brakes, stopping only to buy more beers and have a smoke.
Entering on the road which runs down to the border zone, we were stuck behind a Thai plated double articulated truck with Chuck Norris mud-flaps. Our driver made no effort to beep or drive past – even he knew that nobody, even suicidal Khmer drivers, overtakes Chuck Norris.
We were promptly dumped right on the border, where a welcoming party of cracked up ‘guides’ and scraggly street kids swarmed about offering services, illegal goods or just simply begging for change.
Despite being told exactly where to extract themselves to in both English and Khmer, two ‘guides’ obviously high on illegal stimulants felt sorry for us, assuming as foreigners we had never faced the uphill challenges of booking into a hotel for a night. Kindly they followed us around, barging in before us to explain our situation to receptionists in order to get us the most expensive deal possible.
We settled on a grotty little place with prices clearly on display in Khmer script. Our secret weapon was Mr Strange, who, despite being touched by the hand of Asperger’s, learned to read and write Khmer in a period of poverty and boredom with Phnom Penh bar girls.
Amazingly there was a discrepancy between advertised price and the price demanded by the owner (a sour old cow with a face covered in warts of biblical proportions).
‘Price change’ she said, after we pointed out this error. Mr Strange proceeded to take a marker pen and write (in Khmer) ‘Price now change’ and amended the correct charge in $US. White people who can read and write the language seem to get mythical status in many places, so although a touch perplexed we were let off this violation of face by the owner and a gathered crowd. We didn’t get any discount, but no-one was stabbed.
As a man of the world, I have stayed in some pretty grim guesthouses, mostly getting what I pay for. This particular room has to rank as one of the most disturbing. The smell of other people’s spunk and sweat was nothing new, but the décor was, well, most disconcerting to say the least. Either it had:
A) Until recently been a child’s playroom, or
B) Been a studio for sick movies which are occasionally found on the hard-drives of celebrities and people who are put on a register for life.
I really hoped it was A).
Showered, we regrouped and planned to nip across the border to check out a few casinos, when we hit a snag. Tomato Man, the oldest and supposedly wisest of the crew had left his passport in Battambang. A surly border guard expressly forbade him to enter the no man’s land between borders. Again, protests fell on deaf ears, but our druggy friend from earlier popped up and offered to smuggle our red faced drunk across. We thanked him for his kindness and reminded him we had told him to ‘Fuck off’ earlier and had not had any change of heart.
Instead of afternoon gambling, we went off to discover the charms of Poipet town. It didn’t take long to discover that there are no charms. The streets are not so much paved with gold nor broken dreams, but mostly piss and the stench of rotting fish.
We settled in a cheap eaterie, ordering some rice and beers from another youth apparently under the influence of the ice. He wasn’t happy because customers ordering things had disturbed him from watching Jack draw Rose like one his French girls on the TV movie, Titanic – the Thai dubbed version.
The food was pleasant and the beers almost cool, so we drank and watched chicks in casino uniforms march to work like zombies. There is something missing in Poipet town, from my observations, and that’s the smiles and general upbeat playfulness of people. Perhaps it’s those long, never changing work hours in brightly lit 24/7 casinos dealing with the sadness of gambling addicts, maybe it’s the drugs everyone seems to be on, but there is very little joy de vivre going down.
Stomachs full and satiated by beers we tried to run the border a second time. No men in uniforms attempted to accost us, and with a cock-of-the-walk strut we crossed into Casinoland (Khampuchea) Inc.
There is a place worse than Poipet – any casino close to it.The smell of smoke and desperation permeates the walls, fluorescent lit cathedrals of flashing screens and table upon table of green felt baccarat, blackjack, roulette. A roaring trade was being done, mainly in elderly Asians, mostly Thai, putting chip upon chip down in the vain hope of beating the house.
Another of our group, Chunk, the youngest, yet largest of us, considers himself a bit of a poker star. Texas Hold ‘Em is his thing, and he set about looking for a table. It was another case of the ‘yeah-yeahs’
Chunk; ‘You have poker, Texas poker?’
Bored uniformed monkey; ‘Yeah yeah’
B.U.M. points in a vague direction and then busily pretends that we don’t exist. After wandering the tables, another person questioned says ‘No have no more’.
Then after being told which other casinos did host his favourite game, the situation was repeated until we gave up.
THE US Dollar is scorned inside Casinoland, the Thai Baht is the one and only king, which is the same for Poipet itself. Being so used to the greenback and the local funny money, having to exchange and convert brought confusion in the ranks. Alcohol, mathematics and cash should never be mixed, especially not with games of chance.
Chunk, still brooding from the lack of real poker sat down for few hands of blackjack. Feeling on a roll after 2 pontoons in quick succession he laid down a 1000bht chip and promptly lost.
‘How much is 1000 worth?’ he asked me. The answer didn’t please him.
The art of the casino scam is to make gamblers think they are winning, right down to their last chip. With minimum stakes of 100bht, it’s pretty easy to blow a fair amount of cash in a short time, even though the player notices more wins than losses. Of course the house always wins, but it beat us with force,like we were an ugly ginger step-kid.
It was agreed to head back over in Cambodia proper and have a few drinks in a beer garden, now that the sun had set. There’s a big sign on the immigration post reading ‘PLEASE CROSS ON THE RIGHT SIDE’, which was ignored by everyone except me. Tomato Man was immediately recognized by the same border guard who had barred his access earlier. TM did the most honourable thing and jumped on the back of a moto and said ‘Drive!’ leaving Mr Strange (who had his passport) to do some explaining.
Motodops were ordered to take us a beer garden, instead they dropped us off on Brothel Row, where painted up teenagers looked bored on plastic chairs. Happy enough to be seated outside, we were ushered with force and feminine guile, into a dingy airless box. Strange had his leering look on, and got all sulky when I took the only hot chick out of 5.
Beers were ordered and plates of food which weren’t arrived. They had 2 DVDs to play, one of Gangnam Style and the other J-Lo and Pitbull. After the standard bit of a cuddle and an improvised dance around a table of fruit (an empty can with a plate of half eaten mango balanced on top), it was time for the bill-nicely bumped up to the sum of $75.
We cajoled, bargained and discussed this figure and handed over $50 and a 50,000KHR note as out final offer, the exchange rate confused the Mama san, who handed over some Baht in change. Sensing that we should probably leave before the mistake was noticed, I hopped on a moto with Tomato Man, looked around to see Strange doing the same.
Chunk, however, had taken the opportunity during this time to go back inside the place to have a wee. Again the honourable thing was done as we sped away, leaving Chunk and Strange to face the music. I turned back to see that the girls had stopped smiling.
Reconvening at our guesthouse, Chunk was visibly upset at his abandonment, and didn’t really see how his ill-timed toilet trip was to blame. For some reason he swallowed a Kamagra, downed a beer and hopped on a dop over to the Casinoland disco.
When crossing over from Thailand, only a small part of Casinoland can be seen, but it stretches right back, a town in itself, full of Houses of the Rising Sun, and somewhere, deep inside, is Touchdown Disco.
Even for this part of the world, Touchdown is pretty hideous. A disco without a dancefloor, the standard fare of terrible music and the bonus of drugged up Thai chicks with thousand yard stares, swaying in bikinis. The beer was warm and expensive, but Strange got lucky, a very odd semi-naked chick sat next to him, both looked away. Watching this weird courting couple ignore each other was too much. Me and Tomato Man finished our drinks and went back to Poipet.
The boy at the guesthouse sold us more booze and was very sympathetic to our needs. A phone call was made, and remade when Chunk returned, full of cholesterol, alcohol and knock off penile pills. Although overcharged, nobody felt cheated on this particular occasion, except perhaps Chunk’s conquest.
The next day I awoke with a pounding head and a few Baht to my name. Outside, Tomato Man was getting stuck into a breakfast Chang, Chunk was groaning in his room and Strange was AWOL, with his phone turned off.
Our friendly crack-head popped up again, as if by magic, and hung over, we relented and allowed him to arrange a taxi home ($5 more than the previous day’s fare).
‘Where is your other friend?’ he asked, concerned. We shrugged. ‘Your friend, very clever’ he continued ‘Speak Cambodian good, write Cambodian good…..’ he paused ‘But he is little….erm….strange’.
Not being Navy Seals, we had zero qualms about leaving a man behind, especially one who knows the score and has previous form for letting Asian girls take pity on him, so we handed our ever-amicable shyster a few silver coins and asked him to keep an eye out for the missing one and returned home, away from the hustles, street kids, the addicts and casinos.
Poipet really is Scambodia at its finest, a place to leave before you arrive. Not only living up to a reputation, at times, it strives to go that extra mile. As a border town, it feels neither Khmer nor Thai, but a hybrid, a bastard mongrel with the worst DNA from both places.
Seedy and a touch edgy, not to be recommended as destination for a relaxing break, but for a laugh and an excuse to ‘chop your money’, it serves a purpose as ‘the armpit of Cambodia’. But no-one got stabbed, not even Chunk.
Like a hungry Lassie dog, Strange finally turned up a few days later with tales of screwed-up Thai chicks, funny pills and casino based adventures. He now genuinely likes the place, which goes to show that there’s nowt as strange as folk.