The nonstop construction has also cost Korhan, as workers are building a giant hotel on a plot of land next to the guesthouse he owns. Day and night, construction workers dig into the ground with jackhammers, cracking the walls of his guesthouse. He’s recently filed a petition for the construction to stop since he’s no longer able to rent out the rooms due to the racket next door.
“The problem here is there’s no infrastructure, no control over the construction,” Korhan said. “They just come and do as they wish. They think money can buy everything.”
As Chinese swoop in with suitcases full of cash, rent has skyrocketed: In the past, Olive & Olive staff could rent an apartment to share between two or three people for $50 a month. Today, the same apartment costs $800. The high rent has forced thousands to move and shut down hundreds of Cambodian-owned businesses. Bars, nightclubs, and restaurants once lined the beachfront, but most have been forced to close as backpackers—their main clientele—have stopped coming. One- and two-star reviews fill the TripAdvisor page for Ochheuteal Beach, with tourists complaining about broken glass, trash, and even dead rats found in the sand.
The crime rate also has increased as the casino business naturally attracts other vices: money laundering, prostitution, kidnappings, drunk driving, and fights. Police are easily swayed by bribes, so many of the perpetrators are not caught. Last July, a Chinese gangster shot four men from a rival gang in the legs during a drunken brawl at a Chinese restaurant. Shortly afterward, five Chinese tourists kidnapped another five tourists and held them for ransom to cover gambling losses.
The tensions between local Cambodians and the influx of Chinese prompted provincial Gov. Yun Min to write in a report to the Ministry of the Interior in January 2018 that the large number of foreigners in the city “gives opportunity to the Chinese mafia to commit crimes and kidnap Chinese investors due to increased insecurity in the province.” He added that “some foreigners do not respect the traffic laws; they drink alcohol, get drunk, yell, have arguments, and are fighting each other at restaurants and in public places.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has forged close ties with China, reassured Sihanoukville residents that the rough-edged Chinese workers were only in the country temporarily because of the shortage of skilled Cambodians. Once all the construction is finished, he suggested, a different sort of Chinese tourist would be coming to the country. China promises to send 2 million visitors a year by 2020.
Only a few Chinese families came to the Sihanoukville beach during the Chinese New Year holiday in February. Even at Jin Bei Casino, just a few tables were occupied. Korhan noted that this was because the casinos in Sihanoukville make most of their money from live-dealing online gaming. This means the casino has a separate pit or room where dealers pass out cards with a high-definition camera pointed at the table. Players can place bets and make moves from the comfort of their own homes. These online gambling sites share the gaming license of the brick-and-mortar casino.
Because Cambodia does not yet have strict gaming rules in place, it’s easy for gamblers to launder money or skirt currency controls, especially through online gaming. Money-laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force announced in February that it had placed Cambodia back on its gray list of “jurisdictions with strategic deficiencies” as the country had never prosecuted a money-laundering case and its judicial system had “high levels of corruption.”
OLIVE & OLIVE is considered lucky: While business has dropped by 30 percent, Korhan’s preparation for the influx of Chinese nationals and the fact that he’s locked into a nine-year lease on the building means that he may be the last non-Chinese restaurant to remain standing. In order to attract more customers, he asks his Chinese customers to rate and review his restaurant on Chinese social media platforms.
Across the street from Olive & Olive, Western tourists wait outside the Koh Rong Dive Center for a bus to take them to a ferry that will speed them away from Sihanoukville construction to the tranquil islands off the Cambodian coast. Inside the dive shop, Katerina Zelenova sits behind a table reminiscing about what life in Sihanoukville was like when she arrived from Russia in 2013: “It was a sleepy, slow, and very friendly town.” Now the town is polluted, the old expat haunts are gone, and she feels like a stranger in her own home.
She remembers when finding a place to live was as easy as biking around and looking for “room for rent” signs, but now it’s impossible to find any available rooms. The landlord of the dive shop is also tripling the shop’s rent, and she believes it’s only a matter of time before they have to move. “I love the company I work for and I make good money, but if I got a chance to leave, I would take it,” Zelenova said.