I have been enjoying poker tournaments in Asia since 2017. The first place I played was in Manila at the Asian Poker Tour. The hotel casino was an old run-down place that smelled of smoke from yesteryear, musty carpet and torn wallpaper. Lighting was dim and, well, I was there for the poker not for the casino, but since then I’ve played all over Asia. I played in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. I’ve also played at places like New Caledonia and Australia, and even Vegas.
In 2019 I made my way to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where they hosted the World Poker Tour for the first time. Cambodia for the most part is not as advanced a country as many of the other locations so I didn’t have high expectations to start with. I write this article to share with you how pleasantly surprised I was and have been playing in Phnom Penh.
I also played this year, 2022, at the second WPT event held at Phnom Penh. With two series of experience, here I share a little about my experiences. First of all, you may have heard, that Cambodia once had a bad reputation as a place to play poker but that reputation comes from other locations around the country and not from the main casino in Phnom Penh. The main casino, NagaWorld, is fully licensed and legal. It’s a large integrated resort in the middle of the tourist area and once you’re inside, because it’s so modern, you basically wouldn’t really know that you’re in a developing country anymore. My first impressions were of a fancy classy casino with English spoken by most staff and I think some speak Chinese and maybe Korean too. Inside, the casino has everything an international casino should have: all the table games that you need, food buffets restaurants, hotel rooms, spas, nightclubs, live music. Also, it’s expanding, with 3 wings now. NagaWorld1, Nagaworld2 and Nagaworld3. The buildings are close by to each other and there’s an underground shopping arcade joining them.
NagaWorld has a dedicated poker room with cash games and weekly low buy-in tournaments. You can read more about that in this article linked. Back in 2019, when I first went there for the WPT, I was a bit worried that we’re going to try and cram the tournaments into the poker room and but I was pleasantly surprised because the WPT took out the main ballroom for the series. The ballroom is where they hold large events, conferences and ceremonies and things like that but it was fully decked out for poker with enough tables for hundreds of players. Further, they also sectioned off an area dedicated to cash games so as soon as you busted you could go drop into a cash game with various limits: US$1/2 and up. Juicy games!
On the side of the ballroom was the registration area for the tournaments and a separate registration area for the cash. The queues were never more than a few minutes. On the other side you could also see some of the sponsors had booths. For example, you could order one of Cambodia’s premium beers. Wait staff were always on hand ready to take my food order. Yes, eating at the tables is allowed. I should commend the organizers for how many staff were on standby to take drink and food orders or help make arrangements for the events.
The ballroom was well decorated with WPT paraphernalia such as posters and such. There was a large screen at the end of the room that used the overhead projector and smaller screens distributed out around the room so it’s easy to know what was going on in your event. Of course Danny was there running the show and did a tremendous job like he always does as tournament director, ever friendly, ever helpful.
You might be thinking now what the currency is. They operate mostly in US dollars for the tournaments so bring your stash of US$100 notes for buy-ins. You get paid out in US dollars too. On the topic of payouts, there’s absolutely no tax in Cambodia at any level for poker tournaments and cash games (compared to Vegas which hammered me on taxes with a 30% tax on winnings). The tournaments events followed a standard schedule for WPT. Everything started on time and guarantees were all met and honored as advertised (it’s a shame I even need to mention this). The events were run smoothly. Speaking of which, how about the dealers? Cambodia doesn’t have a long history of poker so they bring in professional dealers from around Asia: Filipinos, Vietnamese, and some locals who’ve more experience. The dealer experience overall was quite good and what’s most important in the dealers know when to stop and call the floor to get assistance so that mistakes don’t escalate into bungles and conflicts. Overall dealiers are well trained, professional, skilled, polite and friendly.
The room itself is very comfortable the chairs were fine, tables sturdy, the air conditioning was not too hot and not too cold although some people wished that they brought a jacket along on some days.
NagaWorld Cambodia is probably my favorite experience I’ve had so far in Asia. But why? How is different from say Manila or Ho Chi Minh? Locally the player field is quite small so that allowed for a mix of players from around Asia, and some from Europe and even the USA and that made for a very balanced field. There were Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Thais , Australians Americans. This mix created an exciting dynamic of an international event. I felt a commonality amongst all the players. Play was serious however and yet I found myself having many enjoyable and funny conversations at the tables.
Outside of the casino there is so much to do in Phnom Penh. There are literally hundreds of restaurants that you can choose from. Cuisines from all over the world. There are nightclubs, go-go bars, massage shops, spas and you can take a pleasant walk along the river in the famous area called the Riverside. You can even learn about Cambodia’s dark history at museums and tourist sites.
Another aspect that makes playing in Phnom Penh a memorable experience is the locals. They are easy-going, relaxed and friendly. Sure sometimes they take a little bit longer to get the job done than you might be used to in more developed countries however they do want to serve and they do try their best. They work as a team to get you what you need. I never had a situation where I became upset. Patience goes a long way here.
One aspect which a lot of people ask me about is the safety because Cambodia does have something of a negative reputation. I would say in my ten or more trips to Cambodia so far I’ve not encountered a single safety issue. I’ve never had anything stolen from me and I’ve never felt threatened. Inside the casino feels like a very safe environment and I think the surrounds are also safe as long as you don’t do anything silly. I have not heard any stories of poker players in Cambodia running into problems but there are some things that require a common sense especially on the roads. Look in every direction! Take care with your money too. There is quite a bit of fake US currency floating around so you need to check your bills carefully when you receive them and also know that the establishments like the casino will reject your US dollar bills if they are too old, marked, torn etc.
Rumor has it that there’s going to be many more international poker events held in Cambodia in 2023, all of which have the support of the government. I highly recommend that you visit and try out one of the series. It’s very easy to get there, a short trip from Bangkok. You might plan a back-to-back trip with a NagaWorld series and a series somewhere nearby such as Vietnam. Anyhows, that’s a wrap. I hope to see you at the tables in NagaWorld soon!