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Regional News

Cambodia goes all-in on China in casino port city

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia (Reuters) — Between Sihanoukville’s beaches and its multiplying casinos, “Lao Qi” and Bun Saroeun run restaurants barely a hundred dusty meters apart. But their fortunes could not be more different.

For while Lao Qi is riding the Chinese boom that brought him and thousands of others from China to the Cambodian resort, Bun Saroeun’s business was built on low-budget Western visitors. It is far less profitable and now he faces eviction.

Sihanoukville starkly illustrates how Cambodia’s ever tightening relationship with China is transforming the country. Just as China’s aid and investment have helped Prime Minister Hun Sen defy Western criticism of a crackdown on his opponents, they are also binding Cambodia’s economy ever more closely to China‘s.

Sihanoukville, which has Cambodia’s only deep-water port, was carved out of the jungle in the 1960s and named after former King Norodom Sihanouk. Once a playground for Cambodia’s elite, it fell on hard times during the Khmer Rouge genocide and conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s before becoming a stop for backpackers and other Westerners looking for sun, sea, sand and, for some, sex.

But a steady trickle of Chinese money into its casinos has now swelled to a tide that promises to remodel a city touted by developers as the first port of call on China’s “Belt and Road.”

“This is like China 20 years ago. The opportunity is huge,” said Lao Qi, 33, who goes by his nickname and first moved here from China’s Zhejiang province to work in a casino. His noodles and fried rice can now make him hundreds of dollars a day.

Down the road at the Ecstatic Pizza restaurant, 59-year-old Bun Saroeun counts himself lucky to make over $100 a day. Rising hotel prices and the noise of construction are discouraging Western visitors and Cambodian tourists from the city, he says.

“A few Chinese came here but now they have their own restaurants,” said Bun Saroeun, whose landlord is now evicting him to redevelop the prime property near the Occhuteal Beach.

The Chinese influx is very much by design. In charge of the city is governor Yun Min, the former regional military commander and a close ally of Hun Sen. He made trips to China himself to encourage investors and offer them protection.

“We want more of them to come,” he told Reuters, estimating that Chinese already rent half the property in the city. “We benefit from them.”

Estimates for the numbers of Chinese now resident in the city of 250,000 run from the thousands to the tens of thousands, but no figures are made public.

Across Sihanoukville, Mandarin signs are proliferating. Supermarkets packed with Chinese goods are commonplace — the only Cambodian items tend to be beer and bottled water.

Yet the current Chinese influx into Sihanoukville is nothing compared to what is forecast. Near the once tranquil Independence Beach, concrete towers have sprouted in months, promising casinos, hotels and thousands of apartments.

“This is Macau Two,” boasts Chen Hu, the 48-year-old general manager at the $200 million 38-storey Blue Bay Resort development, comparing the city to the world’s biggest gambling center.