“Five…four…three…two…one!” a loudspeaker blares in Thai. Seconds later, an ear-piercing swoosh sweeps across the mountains as a 10-metre-long bamboo and PVC pipe rocket takes off and rapidly climbs into the sky.
Squinting past their wide-brimmed hats, hundreds of Thai gamblers eye the rocket as it travels up and eventually becomes just a tiny black dot, leaving a thick column of white smoke in its wake. At stake are substantial sums of Thai baht the punters have bet on how long the rocket will stay in the air, and how high it will go.
The rockets, which can ascend up to 2km, may excite the gamblers, but they terrify the Cambodian population living below. Homes and fields have been damaged by the dozens of missiles that land nearby every week.
Despite locals’ concerns, and a crackdown on the practice in Thailand, the operation is fully legal in Cambodia. The operators have even obtained a license from the Ministry of Interior signed by Cambodia’s top police official, although locals accuse authorities of directly pocketing funds made from the scheme.
But in this relatively remote part of Cambodia, where the closest town is the impoverished former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, the complaints are ignored. And the rockets keep falling.
Shooting rockets is a longstanding tradition in Thailand. During the annual Bang Fai rocket festival in May and June, homemade bamboo missiles are traditionally launched all over the country’s northeast as part of a Buddhist celebration heralding the rainy season.
But gambling in Thailand is illegal, and although betting on the rockets is widespread, Thai authorities this year cracked down on organized gambling rings hijacking the traditional festival for profit. They also banned certain districts from launching rockets due to concerns the increasingly-powerful missiles would hit airplanes.
Spotting a lucrative opportunity, a Cambodian company headed by a man named Phal Samom, who had been involved in occasional rocket launches since 2013, transformed a large clearing less than 1km from the Choam border crossing with Thailand into a launching arena – a shambolic mini-Cape Canaveral with Singha beer, earsplitting pop music and loose hundred-baht bills thrown into the mix.
The Phal Samom Khemarak Development Company charges Thai punters 500 baht ($14) to enter the area, a rectangular clearing on top of the Dangrek Mountains with a scenic view of the Cambodian plain below. It is less than three minutes on motorbike from the border, and only a couple of kilometres from Pol Pot’s grave.
A contract posted prominently at the rocket site and signed by Cambodia’s national police chief, Neth Savoeun, shows the company gained its license on July 31 of this year. (In June, the Post reported that the company was running “tests”, which had already alarmed villagers.)
One of the contract’s clauses stipulates that the company is “responsible for unexpected problems which cause damage on state and private properties derived by the competition”.
“Before, [the gamblers] did this in Thailand, but the Thai banned it, so they come to Cambodia to do it,” said a stout Thai man, the leader of one of the rocket assembly crews who declined to be named.
“The local authorities are paid around 100,000 baht [$2,809] every day that the gambling goes on,” added the rocket crew leader.
Despite the havoc wrought below, the events – which attract hundreds of Thais – have a carnival-like atmosphere.
At 8:30am last Saturday, the site was already buzzing with activity.
Hundreds of plastic tables and chairs had been set up, while workers scurried around transporting materials for the rockets, which are assembled on site. The workers can make about 500 baht ($14) a day assembling the bamboo projectiles in the area’s three workshops.
But Cambodians need not apply: although the company is headed by a Cambodian, the operation is almost completely staffed by Thais, down to the drinks vendors. All transactions are made in baht: using the toilet costs 10 baht ($0.28), and even sitting on one of the bright plastic chairs costs 50 baht ($1.40). Dozens of concession stands sell everything from cigarettes to meat skewers to whiskey bottles, while a massive loud speaker constantly blasts tinny Thai pop music across the valley.
Around 11am, the area quickly filled up with hundreds of Thai adults, most from the neighbouring provinces of Surin, Sisaket and Ubon-Ratchathani.
Naphon, a jovial 22-year-old from Sisaket City, came to gamble with about a half dozen girlfriends.
“I don’t [need to] work, I just come here!” she joked in broken English, as her friends erupted into laughter.
“Woooosh!” she went, mimicking the rocket roaring through the sky with her hand.
Just before the first rocket launched at 1pm, the attendees massed into a crowd and began waving bills of cash around. The betting had begun: a short but frantic period that stopped once the announcer began the countdown.
Not long after the rocket launched in a giant ball of smoke, it became too small to follow with the naked eye. A spotter armed with binoculars watched the projectile as an announcer holding a microphone relayed crucial information, such as its estimated height and how long it stayed up. The punters were in rapt attention, erupting into cheers if a favoured result was announced.
The process is repeated about 13 times a day every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes on other weekdays too. On the road from Anlong Veng to the border crossing in the mountains, the rocket trail is clearly visible.
It’s a sight the Cambodians living in the area know all too well.
Im Chheun, a 66-year-old man who lives not far from the rocket camp, was outside his home selling noodles near the border on October 16, the day after Pchum Ben. He was “lucky” that day, he said. A rocket hurtled through the sky and crashed onto his and his neighbour’s houses, destroying their roofs.
Soon after, representatives of the company approached Chheun and his neighbour, giving them each 20,000 baht ($562) in compensation.
“I’m a little concerned about my kids [from the rockets], but what can I do?” said Chheun. “The district and province authorities accept money from the Thai company.”
Still, for Chheun, the issue is complex: his sons make money by giving moto rides to Thai tourists.
“We do get benefits from that place.”
But down in the valley below, where farmers do not profit from the gamblers, one woman said the recent harvest was at risk. A cassava field had already burned because of the missiles, Chheun said.
“We’re concerned, but we don’t complain, because the company has already received approval from the governor,” said Chhim Bai, a 57-year-old farmer with a gap-filled grin.
Mea Chron, a 63-year-old former Khmer Rouge soldier who charges tourists $2 to visit Pol Pot’s overgrown grave a few minutes from the rocket site, said there was nothing the locals could do about the missiles.
“The rockets burn fields, and when they fall into streams, they put chemicals in the water, so people do not drink,” he said.
“Nothing is done because the Thai pay the Cambodian authorities.”
Even though the operation is legal, it does not appear completely open to public scrutiny. No photos are allowed, and Post Weekend was told to leave the site by a security guard because an unnamed “four-star general” from Cambodia was set to attend. Rumours repeated by locals and a security guard say that local journalists are routinely paid off not to report on the site’s mishaps.
But Hing Thoeung, police chief of Anlong Veng’s Trapaing Brei commune, defended the rockets.
“[Phal Samom] runs this game in Khmer land because he wants to benefit Cambodian people like motorbike taxis, taxicabs and so on,” he said.
“There are no injuries or fatalities, but [rockets] just fall down on roofs of houses and cassava fields. If there is a problem, the company pays compensation.”
Thoeung said the company used the proceeds of the festival to “help poor people in the village”.
He added that local police did not receive bribes from Phal Samom’s company, although they did get paid when they provided services to the events.
“If someone from our bureau goes to check [the company’s] security or record the launches, they are paid 500 baht each, but if we don’t go, we aren’t paid,” he said.
Post Weekend attempted repeatedly to contact Phal Samom directly, but was referred instead to Chan Thy, a local reporter for the national Kampuchea Thmey newspaper who acted as a spokesperson of sorts for the company.
He said Phal Samom was a military man who had obtained the consent of 100 villagers before setting up the operation.
“The company never gets any complaints from people, but they are happy to do business with visitors,” he said.
Asked about the rumours local journalists were paid off by the company, Thy said he only wrote articles about Phal Samom’s charitable works in the community.
“I got some money, about 40,000 to 50,000 riel ($10 to $12.50), to cover gas for when I had to travel to report about the company,” he said. “They only pay when I go far to report, if it is near I don’t get paid.”
Thy later called Post Weekend to try and make a deal for the paper not to publish any articles about the rocket gambling.
National Police chief Neth Savoeun said he would “check” on the issue when contacted by Post Weekend. He did not answer further calls.