I t's Christmas Eve in Poipet and three Americans are huddled over a meal at the Hope and Health Restaurant - a vocational program for former prostitutes run by a local faith-based NGO.
The trio describe themselves as Christians, and explain that they're back in town for two weeks. They say they have come to pray again for this dusty town on the border between Thailand and Cambodia.
"We hope our prayers will change things around here," says one of the group, who ask to remain anonymous. "This town needs a miracle."
A frontier town dominated for the past five years by a robust gaming industry, Poipet has earned a dubious reputation; the kind of image that attracts high-stakes gamblers, human traffickers, prostitutes, NGOs and even middle-aged travellers straight from the US Bible Belt.
"Things have definitely changed for the better since we first came here to pray for the people of Poipet three years ago," said one of the Americans.
Divine intervention or not, a range of local residents and business owners told the Post that Poipet has changed for the better in the last two years. But with more casinos opening throughout Southeast Asia, and Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra hinting at legalizing gambling, Poipet - and its flagship industry - could be in for a difficult new year.
Poipet is still growing fast. From a population of just 5,000 in 1999, when the first casino opened, Poipet now has more than 70,000 residents and nine casinos. The town continues to struggle with the massive trafficking, corruption and vice that comes with being a casino playground for Thai tourists and a major international border crossing.
In 2003 the border was closed for seven weeks because of anti-Thai riots and the burning of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh. Since then, the Thai border authorities have slowed down the crossing and no new casinos have opened in Poipet.
According to Graham James, senior manager at Tropicana Resort and Casino, the Thai government is working hard to persuade its citizens not to come to Poipet to gamble.
"The Thai border police are trying very hard to slow things down for a few weeks at a time," he said. "They are making Thais wait for three or four hours in the scorching sun before letting them cross the border. And there is always some new excuse. This time they say it's due to computer problems."
The gaming industry of Poipet is completely dependent on Thai gamblers.
Like most local casinos, more than nine out of ten guests at the Tropicana are Thai. James said that when the border crossing isn't running smoothly it has an immediate effect on all casinos.
After Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's announcement earlier this year that any government employee caught on security cameras in a Poipet casino would be fired without notice, the stream of Thai gamblers has become a trickle - threatening the economic foundation of the entire town.
"Some of them still come here of course, though I won't name any names," said James, adding that the casinos of Poipet would be in business as long as gambling was illegal in Thailand.
"Publicly Thaksin might say he is anti-casino, but with underground Thai casinos coming back to life and with everything he is doing to prevent the Thai gamblers from crossing the border, he can only be anti-Poipet casinos," James said.
"He is trying hard to persuade the gamblers to stay in Thailand."
Other casino managers confirmed a decline in business over the past three. months.
"We don't get as many customers as earlier," said Sally Tee, public relations manager at the Malaysian-owned Ho Wah Genting Casino. "I'm very scared that this will continue in the future - that we will keep losing customers due to Thai restrictions on the border."
The latest edition of the Lonely Planet guide begins its introduction to the border town with the words "Viva Poipet!" But the town's atmosphere is hardly comparable to Las Vegas. The first casinos were accompanied by new nightclubs, bars and karaoke parlors, but over the years they have mostly closed down, leaving room for only one thing to do in Poipet - gamble.
"It used to be a pretty wild town, with many karaoke parlours and bars, but now it seems to have really settled down," James said.
According to several casino managers, Thais just don't exhibit the sort of reckless behaviour, heavy drinking and late night partying that Westerners famously bring to other gambling destinations.
"The vast majority of the customers are middle-aged, middle-class Thais, and they only come to here to gamble," James said. "That's the only thing there is to do here.
"They don't bring their kids because there is nothing for them to do - and often because they don't want their families to know they are here."
In Poipet there are no resorts, no theme parks and few after-hours recreational activities. Diamond City Casino's outdoor concert stage is empty in the evenings and the Star Vegas golf course is in very poor shape. Poipet is a gaming town - not a place to spend a family holiday.
With Singapore's recent decision to legalize gambling and begin the $3-billion construction of two mega casinos, and with Thaksin testing similar ideas, the economic engine of Poipet may be headed for derailment.
While some might support ridding Poipet of gambling altogether, perhaps assuming that vice will follow suit, others acknowledge the gaming industry as an important aspect of the present Cambodian economy.
More than 10,000 Cambodians are employed by Poipet casinos. One of them is Mak Mon, 26, who worked his way into the position of personnel manager at the Poipet Casino and Resort.
In the wooden house belonging to his girlfriends' parents, just a few kilometers from the casinos, Mak Mon said the casinos had brought many good things to the Cambodians of the region. He says the property he is on has increased substantially in value over the last few years.
If he did not have his job at the casino, Mon said he would still be working part time as an English teacher, earning 1,000 baht (US$25) a month, not nearly enough to support his mother, father and three cousins in Battambang.
"Now I earn 5,500 baht a month and if I get promoted next year I'll make 8,000," he said. He plans to pay for a driver's license and start studying computer software development.
Most of the casinos in Poipet pay sick leave, accommodation and four meals a day. But according to Mon, the best thing about working there was learning to speak English and Thai and acquire skills he could use in other countries.
"At the casinos the Cambodian workers are treated like everyone else," said James, who claimed he was the only Westerner employed by the Tropicana.
"Many look for work there because they have aspirations to travel. The Cambodians are fast learners and some day they might take over the management completely."