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Thais hit Cambodia casinos to sidestep junta's betting blitz

Desperate for a flutter during a junta crackdown on gambling at home, Thais are making a beeline for casinos in a seedy Cambodian border town -- which has already been deluged by migrants also fleeing the kingdom.

POIPET, Cambodia: Desperate for a flutter during a junta crackdown on gambling at home, Thais are making a beeline for casinos in a seedy Cambodian border town -- which has already been deluged by migrants also fleeing the kingdom.

For over a decade Poipet, a scruffy, vice-ridden frontier town studded with casinos and online gambling booths, has lured customers from neighbouring Thailand, where betting is all but banned.

Casino staff in Poipet told AFP the chips have been changing hands at an unusually fast rate since the Thai army seized power across the border on May 22.

A junta blitz on organised crime has seen raids on underground casinos, dozens of arrests and access to a number of online gambling sites blocked.

In its get-tough message to illegal gamblers -- and any local officials caught in cahoots with casino operators -- the army rulers cited the need "to safeguard the public and uphold social order".

The warning brought a boon to Poipet's card tables, slot machines and 24-hour online gaming booths -- key for live betting on World Cup football matches being played in Brazil.

"We cannot play these games in Thailand now," 32-year-old Nan told AFP as she laid a 100 Thai baht ($3) stake at a baccarat table at the Crown Resort Casino.

"Police will arrest us... the military has shut down illegal gambling," she added, refusing to give her real name.

Thais can only gamble on their state lottery or at a handful of horse racing meetings, prompting punters to splurge millions of dollars each year overseas.

Much of it funnels into Poipet, a four-hour drive from Bangkok, and the fastest-growing of Cambodia's casino towns.

There are few available figures on the sums spent by Thais in Poipet in an opaque industry clouded further by the restrictions on both Thais and Cambodians gambling on home soil.

But Cambodian government figures from 2011 showed gambling brought an annual tax bonanza of $20 million to the impoverished nation -- as well as thousands of spin-off jobs and strong profits for casino owners.

Cambodian croupier, Bopha -- also not her real name -- said the latest Thai influx came in parallel with a sudden deluge of more than 220,000 Cambodian migrant workers into the town.

They began to flee Thailand through Poipet around 10 days ago amid rumours of a violent crackdown on illegal workers, which the army strongly denies.

"Last week when a lot of Cambodians returned so many Thai people came to gamble too... it is because they cannot gamble now in Thailand," she added.

In a nation dependent on cheap foreign labour, the migrant exodus has sheared many factories and construction sites of their workforce.

It has raised fresh economic worries in Thailand, which has limped towards recession after months of debilitating political protests which presaged the army coup.

But the sight of trucks crammed with weary Cambodian migrants has failed to deter Thai gamblers.

"They are flocking to Poipet," according to Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, an expert on gambling at Thailand's Rangsit University.

"There are nine casinos in Poipet and gamblers like to try their luck at different ones... It's hard to stop them from crossing the border although (Thai) authorities know why they go there."

While there are no recent studies of what remains a controversial topic in the kingdom, Sungsidh estimates Thailand's illegal gambling sector to be worth anywhere between $9-12 billion annually.

The money that flows into Cambodia and its casino operators is dwarfed by revenue in Asia's gambling mecca Macau, which hit a record $45 billion in 2013.

But Poipet is growing amid a wider gaming boom in Asia over the past decade.

Last year, US-listed Entertainment Gaming Asia opened the doors to a new $7.5 million slot machine hall in the border town.

And in a town already geared towards its Thai guests -- World Cup odds are written in Thai and croupiers speak the language -- the casinos are flinging their doors open to exiled gamblers from across the border.

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