Twenty-eight-year old Sokne – not her real name – has a degree from a private university. She also has a latent psychological disorder.
She would often visit casinos for days at a time without going home, staying until there was no money left to gamble.
“Because I am a gambling addict, I would lie to my parents to get money for paying university fees, but I would take all the money to gamble,” she said. “I sold my motorbike and my friend’s to afford the game.”
For Sokne, help came in the form of severe intervention from her family.
“When my parents found out I was addicted to gambling, they came to Phnom Penh and locked me in a room for a few days, only giving me food. Later on, I decided to stop playing, and I went back to live in my province to start a new life.”
While a government ban technically prevents Cambodian citizens without dual citizenship from gambling, for those wishing to do so, a variety of illicit routes exist – from the nation’s glittering casinos, where the ban is loosely enforced, to informal card games to betting rings for everything from football to the next rainfall.
But while the temptations are myriad, treatment options for addicts are essentially nonexistent.
Further, pervasive cultural attitudes lead to an avoidance of treatment, experts say.
Dr Sothara Muny, of the Cambodia-based Transcultural Psychological Organisation, noted that while gambling addiction is an undeniable problem in the Kingdom, it is often lumped together with issues such as drug addiction.
“Many people do not consider it a disorder, but they do consider it a reason [for larger issues],” he said.
Muny also noted that while his organisation deals with everything from drug addiction to depression, it has yet to receive a patient seeking treatment for gambling.
“For [Cambodian] gambling addiction cases, they probably don’t think a doctor or psychologist will help them. The understanding of gambling addiction for many may be understood as a social problem and not a medical problem.”
Dr Timothy Fong, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Gambling Studies Program, notes that other issues, including shame and stigma, contribute to the issue’s lack of recognition.
“Asking for help and talking about personal problems and emotions is not a widely accepted practice amongst Asians, which discourages seeking treatment,” Fong said.
NOWHERE TO TURN
In the lazy hours following lunch, tuk-tuk drivers huddle on a street corner near Koh Pich for an afternoon ritual.
Six drivers crouch in a circle, shoulders slumped, focused on the activity in the centre. The drivers are playing a game called kate or a high card betting game. For one game, a wager can cost 1,000 riel with a payout of 3,000.
“We can play 10 times during a break time, and when we see police, we run away to continue driving,” said one tuk-tuk driver.
But for these drivers, who typically earn around $5 to $7 a day, even a single game of cards is high risk, as a chunk of their wages could easily be lost in a few afternoon bets. What’s more, for low-income addicts, travelling beyond Cambodia’s borders for treatment is a fantasy.
Outside the Kingdom, gambling addiction resources in neighbouring countries are expensive to access – one treatment centre in Thailand draws wealthy foreign tourists for a month of residential therapy, with each paying $10,000 for resort-like treatment in lush Phuket.
In locations like Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore, community-based resources are available for free and funded by the government, noted Daphne Yeung, assistant supervisor of Tung-Wah Hospital in Hong Kong, which treats gambling addiction.
In Cambodia, no such treatments exist.
As a casino dealer in Cambodia’s border town of Bavet, Sopheak – a pseudonym – is accustomed to the behaviour of gambling addicts.
“[Dealers] used to say to the person who was addicted that if you have a little money, you should save it and stop playing, but they do not listen to us.”
But while they may have the dealer’s sympathy, Cambodians suffering from gambling addiction are only seeing their gaming temptations multiply.
In Poipet, Dreamworld Poipet Casino has announced a $7.5 million expansion. That comes on the heels of NagaWorld’s nearly $400 million expansion in the capital.
According to Fong of UCLA’s gambling studies program, in areas with legalised gambling institutions, issues of addiction are less vocalised, creating a situation where the government and regulating bodies aren’t compelled to act because of local community pressures.
“The biggest issue I think, is that most Asian countries accept the concept of gambling addiction, but have not created effective, culturally relevant programs or responses to gambling addiction.”