This is now my third time living in Sihanoukville. I first moved here three years ago, before the Chinese were here and the biggest game in town was $1-$2 NLH. Then I moved back about 1.5 years ago to run a poker room for a friend of mine in the middle of the Chinese migration and the expat exodus. At the end of this last stint, I swore that I would never come back. For those of us involved on the management side of things, running that room was very difficult and it soured our experience for the entire city. And besides, it can be hard to truly grasp what your environment is like when you are constantly trying to post a rosy picture for those who you are trying to attract as players/customers. And now I have returned and while I have some loose ties with the room at the WM Casino, I am not working for them in any real sense. That having been said, I think I have developed a truer picture of what Sihanoukville has become.
First the good, the poker is phenomenal. I admit that my own game at the poker room I managed was not that great of a game. But that is the only place I ever really played as most of the managers and I always had to sit on the table to keep the game going. Now having had the chance to play somewhere else, and also at higher stakes, has given me a true appreciation of how good the games here are. I have now been here for thirteen days, ten of which I have spent playing poker. Playing mostly $2-$5 my combined earnings from winnings and rakeback are a bit north of $2,200. Taking out the rakeback I have still achieved a rate of $45 per hour. These are all numbers that far surpass anything I have made recently in a similar amount of time, and it’s not even close. The Chinese mostly play $2-$5 and above and there are basically two types. There are the loose passives that play most of their hands and call everything to the turn. On the river they either fold because they’ve missed whatever they were chasing or they make their range completely transparent by raising. Then there are the loose-aggressive types who raise every pot and give action to even the tightest players, simply because they want to “get them.” They don’t care about the rake and the only bonus that really concerns them is the free food and drinks. The rakeback in this town is very generous for expat regs who are willing to put in the hours. Honestly if I really clamped down and put the hours in, I probably could live off of that alone if I just broke even.
Now for the bad, and there are at least a few items here. The traffic conditions are absolutely horrible, not only due to the influx of people, but also due to the sheer number of building projects. These projects clog up the roads with trucks that travel up and down the roads nearly 24/7. They produce a lot of debris and dust, making it very difficult to see while driving during the day. The roads themselves are completely torn up and there are pot holes everywhere. And when it rains, which is often this time of year, the roads get flooded with what is basically waste product from all of the building projects. The most difficult part is driving home at night when I am finished playing. Obviously all of the conditions I have described exist at night as well, except now there is far less visibility as the streets are completely devoid of street lights. And of course this causes every vehicle to drive with their high beams on, making it impossible for anyone on the other side of the road to see more than a few feet in front of them.
None of this would be that bad if the drive were not so long. But I have to live in Otres Village, about 6 km from the casino as everything nearby is either completely occupied or too expensive. When I lived here three years ago, I had a huge 1 bedroom apartment for only $150 per month. Everything I have looked at recently suggests that such a place would command nearly $600 per month presently. Guesthouses and hotels are $50-$60 per night and so I live in Otres Village, the last “oasis” for the few remaining expats and the backpackers that still travel through. I have a simple fan room, wit no air conditioning and a shared bathroom. It’s basically a bungalow and I pay $10 per night, which when calculated monthly is twice as expensive as the expansive 1 bedroom I rented just three years ago. So every night I finish playing poker around 1:00 or 2:00 AM, go grab a few drinks with friends then come back to my bungalow to crawl into my mosquito net covered bed. It really is not as bad as I am making it sound, but still it is a far cry from how life was here just a few years ago.
Speaking of grabbing drinks with friends, the nightlife in Sihanoukville has also completely changed. The Chinese have erected many new clubs and KTVs throughout town, but most are too expensive for the expats. In my poker room dealings with the Chinese I have had occasion to visit these types of establishments and the amounts of money spent would make Solomon blush. Longstanding areas familiar to expats are mostly gone. Pub Street was torn down and so was the Square. And while they built a “New Square” at the Youth Center of all places, the torn up roads leading up to those bars make it nearly impossible to get there. The beach bars have long since been gone so that only leaves Victory Hill. The Hill, as we affectionately call it, is a red light district of sorts in Sihanoukville and has been around for quite a few years. But now most of the bars on the street have been bought out by the Chinese and turned into other types of businesses. A few bars remain towards the end of the street, but only one is busy and the others are not long for this world as they will soon be bought over as well. There are a couple of bars in what I would call the middle of the street and there something fascinating has developed over the past year. A thriving ladyboy scene seems to be developing on the street with throngs of them walking up and down the street nightly. They mainly operate out of two bars in the aforementioned middle area of the street and my friends and I had occasion to have a drink in one of them the other night. There seems to be a segment of the Chinese population here that is really into this whole scene and it’s fairly open and done without shame. In fact throughout town I have seen Chinese go back to their hotel rooms arms locked with ladyboys and their peers think nothing of it. And even in the poker room from time to time they will walk in with such a companion and have them rail while they play. It is easy to conclude that the Chinese are just really progressive, but I do not think that is what is going on. The Chinese in this town must be pumping some serious cash into this community because a lot of these girls have gone to Thailand to get significant plastic surgery done. And in the process they get their skin whitened and end up not looking very Cambodian at all. Whether they are biological girls are not, these ladyboys actually end up looking more like the type of girls that appeal to the Chinese.
Back when the ladyboys still looked like boys, they mostly hung around the beach bars late at night or in the early hours of the morning. But those bars are all gone now and all of the beaches have dramatically changed as well in the last couple of years. Those of us who have lived in Sihanoukville for a while know not to go swimming in Serendipity Beach and Ocheuteal as their waters are right where the sewage line is. But we could always drive down to Otres or up to Queenco and swim in the waters there. But we cannot really do that anymore as the great number of building projects is causing an incredible amount of waste by product and that is all ending up in the beaches. Wherever the source, the waste and sewage have traveled as far down as Otres 2 and all the way up to Queen co as well. And while it can still be nice and relaxing to eat in a restaurant that is on the beach, there is hardly a spot that any of us would feel safe about actually swimming in the water. It is a real shame too, as I used to ride down to Otres 2 all the time in years past to go swimming. Now I have to settle for just watching the water as it becomes more brown by the day.
So given all this, why am I still here? Why do I drive through dangerous streets daily, fend off ladyboys in the night and merely watch as the beaches I once loved become more polluted by the day? The answer is simple, it’s the poker and really nothing else. Just about every aspect of the game is better here in Sihanoukville than anywhere else in Cambodia. I know those that play in Phnom Penh to collect on $20 every day. Here in Sihanoukville bonuses and rakeback can be as high as $2,000 every month for regulars who are able to secure them. All this would not mean anything if the games were not good, but they are good and far better than any other city. I won’t go over the reasons why again as I have already spoken ad nauseum as to why the action is so great here. But it is the only thing keeping me in town. I’ll be able to buy my wife a new phone this week, pay some people back and eventually get a more permanent place to live here. Once you get over the hurdles and challenges of living in Sihanoukville, the poker really does make all this more than worth it.
Reposted with permission from Poker Triad 2+2.