Many of you already know that I lived in Las Vegas for six years. The city will forever have a firm hold on my heart as it is where I lived my dream of being a professional poker player. That is why it pained me to see the announcement that the Nevada Gaming Control Board made this past Friday that all poker tables in the state are to be limited to 4 players maximum once the casinos are reopened. Make no mistake about it, this is the death of poker in Las Vegas, not only as we knew it but in any shape or form. Some may say that this was the path the game was already on and that recent world events only hastened the inevitable. Others will argue that the game can survive this limitation and is only temporary until we are past this period completely. But given the climate that poker was already in prior to the virus, this is a development from which the game cannot survive in Sin City. In fact this will have repercussions the world over that will impact live poker scenes everywhere.
Let us not forget that this is where we were headed already. I have friends that are much younger than I and I always chuckle when they talk about the "glory days" of poker back in 2009 or 2011 or some other period that I would consider to be much too recent. They really have no idea how good the games were back from 2003 to about 2006, just after the poker boom and the Moneymaker effect. I used to joke that I could walk through a Vegas poker room blindfolded and come out with at least $200 and this was not too far from the truth. Every game in town was great from $1-$2 all the way to the nosebleed games at the Mirage then at the Bellagio. When I first arrived in Vegas back in 2005 there were about 50 poker rooms in town. Due to the growing popularity of the game this number would eventually double and the city would house over 100 rooms. But things quickly changed and by the time I left in 2011 many rooms had already closed and currently the number stands around the same 50 mark that I saw when I first arrived. I remember during the end of my tenure the Palms Casino had built a new poker room, adjacent to a new sports book and had spent millions in the process. I played in the room with my friends for a few days and it was quite busy. But I remember wondering to myself if this new room had actually created any new players or were they just recycling the same finite number of players that were in town? The room was closed inside of 1 year.
I imagine there will be many rooms that will try and move forward with this new restriction and play on with only 4 players per table. Let us keep in mind that the norm for online poker has become 6-max and now the live rooms of Vegas will attempt to move forward with fewer players. There are so many reasons why this could never work that I could hardly contain it in one paragraph. First there is the issue of rake as we remember that Vegas poker rooms typically offer a discount in rake when a 9 or 10 handed tables gets down to 5 players, sometimes even 6. This is a practice that they can no longer employ as the tables would be in a perpetual state of discount. So either they discount the rake and make even less money than the little that poker rooms already generate, or they have to keep the rake full and essentially make the games unbeatable for most. I say most because for others this will present an exploitable situation. Surely some poker rooms will attempt to continue and run 4 handed games and ultimately some regulars will give it a go as well and attempt to play on. But shorthanded games are not the live room norm and those who are not accustomed to it will surely suffer. As this type of game is an online specialty, there are those who will swoop down on the live games to take advantage of this situation and pick at the carcasses of the players that are left playing on. But even these players may not deem this to be worthwhile given the rake situation I just discussed. And lastly, these short handed games will essentially bring an end to most, if not all, promotions in Vegas poker rooms. The rake situation will already be bad and to try and take more of it in order to fund promotions will be an impossible task. But once again, I imagine that some rooms will try to carry on as if business as usual and still run promotions. Regulars and locals are known to game promotions by standing up and leaving the table as much as possible, to limit their risk and maximize their gain. A full 9 or 10 handed game can shield the rest of the table from this effect somewhat seeing as how there are more players on the table. But in a short handed game this practice will basically bring the table to a halt every few minutes.
And what of casinos outside of Las Vegas? There have already been stories of casinos in other States such as Louisiana installing what are essentially sneeze guards on every gaming table. In this setup, plexiglass shields would be screwed onto every table separating the players from the dealer and the players from one another. This seems to defy the main aspect of live gaming, namely the social one. I have to admit that whether I have lived in Vegas or Cambodia, an essential element as to why I played live poker was to socialize not only with my friends whom I often played with, but also other players on the table that I had never met previously. It would seem odd if I had to sit there on a table and literally be separated from every other human in the room. I would think to myself why I did not just stay home and play online? And what about when I cash out or need a drink; how am I going to be protected in those situations? I applaud the gaming industry in these areas for trying their best as they have the unenviable task of saving thousands of jobs in the casinos. But these efforts seem so impractical when thought out to their natural conclusions that I can hardly see any of them working. Of course there are some parts of the world where poker continues to run and I happen to live in one of them. Here in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville poker games continue to run in some venues and may appear as attractive destinations for those looking for a game. But many travel restrictions are still in place and without an influx of new tourists into the country, the situation seems barely sustainable at best and certainly not ideal. And desperate times seems to bring out the worst people, especially in the case of poker. There already have been a few incidents of scammers in the poker community here in Phnom Penh in recent months and such cases seem even more magnified when the playing field is limited as it is now during this pandemic. I have to admit that I have played live poker a handful of times recently and when I look around I see a bunch of unfamiliar faces. With no new tourists coming in, I always wonder to myself just exactly who are these people?
So what will poker look like moving on and what will become of this great game? Online poker will certainly continue to be a thing and will most likely continue to boom until this period of time is over. Being an agent for online poker clubs myself I can say that there has been an uptick in the amount of players jumping online and the games have greatly improved because of this influx. But this growth will also have its limits as poker in general, and the online version especially, depends on disposable income. With most of the world in lock down and people not able to work, extra money to play poker with will become scarce. And I previously wrote on my belief that live and online poker depend on each other for their respective growth in the industry. With the live scene suffering as much as it is currently, this will certainly have an effect on its online sibling. The challenge of all this will of course be to find new players and not just recycling the old ones, something that was already difficult enough prior to the pandemic. Those of us involved in the poker industry have a great responsibility going forward not only in helping the game grow, but also in maintaining the integrity of the game in a time where those that would take advantage are many. To the live players reading this article I would advise them that the transition to online poker is one that has to be made. Of course I have some self interest in making this point, but it also happens to be the truth. The days of game selection are over when it comes to live poker as choices will be limited, and in the case of Las Vegas perhaps an end to things altogether.
As I stated in the opening paragraph of this article, Las Vegas holds a special place in my heart as a poker player. It is forever for myself and many others still Rome in the center of the poker universe. But going forward the scene will look drastically different as the focus of this universe will shift elsewhere. More than ever players will seek games in other parts of the country and the world at large. But with so much of the world still choosing, and in some cases forced, to stay home players will often find themselves just playing each other. While not ideal the game will continue to run and perhaps even thrive in the online arena. I hope for a day when live poker can return to its previous state, but for now and for better or worse the game will carry on in the virtual world.
As many of you already know I am a frequenter of the hostess bars, or girly bars, here in Phnom Penh and there is much I have learned in the 6 years I have lived here. That having been said I host many poker players when they come to Cambodia and I am always fascinated by what most expect when they enter establishments of this sort for the first time. Thus I thought it might be pertinent to write a FAQ of sorts about the bars, the girls themselves and the scene in general.
HOW MANY BARS ARE THERE
There is no official record of this that I know of, at least a public one anyway, but rough counts given online in Facebook group puts the number somewhere around 200 bars in the riverside area. This does not include other areas around town known to have hostess bars so the number may be as high 250 to 300 bars. The riverside is the main area though and the one known by most visitors. It basically comprises of five streets along the river; 136, 130, 118, 110 and 104. Street 136 is the most well known of these streets and certainly the busiest with the most amount of bars. But with that variety comes a trade off as both the bars and girls are aware of this fact. Drinks on this street tend to be higher priced and the girls will also expect more in tips. Street 130 is always a nice alternative to street 136 as they also have many bars and a good number of them are owned by expats. I only bring that up as foreigners generally can expect a better experience in bars owned by other foreigners. Street 104 is also a good choice as many of those bars are long established and the girls have much experience in working in hostess bars.
HOW MANY GIRLS ARE THERE IN EACH BAR
The answer to this question really depends on the bar. On the high end some of the bigger bars on streets 136 and 130 will definitely have more than ten girls and as many as twenty possibly. But the smaller bars on some of the less busier streets may have as little as five girls in each bar. This is not to say that the bigger bars should be preferred as those establishments tend to be busier, nosier and some customers may get lost in the hustle and bustle of an establishment with twenty hostesses. A patron will certainly get more attention in a smaller bar as they are likely to be more grateful for your business. And there are other perks of a smaller bar as well such as that you probably will get to choose your own music most of the time and the drinks will be priced lower.
WHAT THINGS COST
I have discussed this topic once before on another blog post so I will reproduce the price list here and then discuss:
• draft beers $1.50
• canned beers $2.50
• high end bottled beers $3.50
• craft beers are not offered often in hostess bars
• cocktails and mixed drinks $3.50 to $6
• specialty drinks $4-$6
• lady drinks $3.50- $6
For patrons the price of drinks are a bit more than what one can expect from a non-hostess bar. Still I would not call any of these prices expensive, especially when considering where most of us come from and how much drinks cost in those countries. I have seen drinks for the hostesses range on the low end at $3.50 and $6 on the high end. A lot of this depends on whether you are drinking at a new bar, what street you are drinking on and how big and busy the bar is. When ordering a drink for a girl she will usually get a coke with a splash of whiskey in it, a draft beer with ice or in many instances just a soda or juice. When drinking the latter the girls will usually tell the customer that it's difficult to drink all night, but I personally do not care to hear that as they seem to drink cokes all night in which I do not see how that's so difficult. And I do not really care to pay for $4 sodas all night so I usually insist that they drink some form of alcohol.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Patrons are not guaranteed anything more than the company of a hostess within the premises of the bar, during the time in which they are being bought drinks. This situation sort of reminds me of Las Vegas where every new tourist arrives expecting certain things to be legal and readily available. While the comparison is not exact, the analogy is still appropriate as many new comers have expectations that do not always line up with reality. The bars are still plenty of fun regardless as most now have regular dancing shows on a stage or sometimes right up on the bar. Many of these girls have plenty of experience and are expert at showing customers a good time. But this is not to say that is always the case. With the proliferation of bars in the last couple of years newer girls have been in high demand and the bars have resorted to hiring many girls, younger and without much experience. So it could very well be that you may be sitting with a girl who is very shy and may not even speak English. In such a case it is appropriate to buy her the one drink and politely ask for the company of another girl. In any good bar they should be as interested in you having a good time as you are.
MOST BAR GIRLS ARE MARRIED
Every bar girl tells customers that they are neither married nor have a boyfriend. But of course this is what one should expect them to say and I do not really blame the girls for claiming this as it would hurt their bottom line otherwise. This reminds me of when I lived in Sihanoukville all the bars would get crowded every night and fill up with Khmer men around 2:00 AM, about an hour before closing. I wondered for a while why this was the case but soon learned that they were all the husbands and/or boyfriends of the hostesses, waiting to take them home after work. This should not really matter for the customer, although there are some who do go into the bars looking for their next girlfriend or even a wife. These girls certainly do exist, but they get married really young in this country and have children just the same. So it should not come as a surprise that most in the bars are the same as well.
MORE THAN YOU THINK ARE LESBIAN
I only bring up this next point because I find it somewhat amusing, but it may surprise some readers to find out that many of the hostesses working in bars are actually lesbians. Walk into most bars and customers can expect to find somewhat feminine appearing men working behind the bar as cashiers and bartenders. These employees are actually lesbians who have "transitioned" and are living out their lives as males. I find the situation humorous because often enough it is these bartenders that are dating the girls working as hostesses in the bars. They are often called "tomboys" here and are quite prevalent in the scene. So if you are ever wondering why the dude behind the bar is giving you death stares as you kiss your hostess, now you know why. Or if they are smiling, just know it is because they are both going to happily spend your money after.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SPONSOR A GIRL
When a girl at a bar is sponsored that usually means that a patron has pledged to give her a monthly allowance to stop working at the bar and essentially become a girlfriend. This was not always such a formalized practice as it was a more naturally occurring phenomena previously but with the ever increasing prevalence of the Chinese and other Asian cultures in Cambodia it has become more common. The practice does not mean exclusivity, at least on the part of the man, as it usually implies quite the opposite. In most cases the two parties do not live together and the man will most likely still see other girls. In other cases the patron will already be married and is basically looking for a mistress. The amount of the allowance varies as I have heard girls ask for as little as $600 but the going rate these days seems to be $1,000 USD per month.
THE CHINESE EFFECT
There has been an influx of Chinese here in Cambodia over the last few years and they have had a great impact on the society and the hostess bars are not exempt in this regard. As previously mentioned the practice of sponsoring is something that became more prevalent as more of them have entered the country and enjoyed the nightlife. So many of the most sought after girls have already been taken off the market as either they become sponsored or go to work at KTVs where the majority of the clientele are Chinese. Of the girls that remain in the bars as hostesses they have certainly seen this effect and desire the same outcome for their own lives. That having been said there are many girls who will exclusively keep the company of Chinese clientele and will basically ignore everyone else. If you ever wonder why the prettiest girl in the bar is sitting outside and pays more attention to her phone than to you, now you know why. But not everyone should automatically conclude that this is happening when they get ignored by a hostess. Simply put, this is of course a job for the girls and how they make their money. If a customer comes in and sips on a single draft beer for two hours and buys a single lady drink they are going to be ignored for the most part, Chinese or otherwise.
MARRYING A BAR GIRL
Plenty of expats come to Cambodia and end up marrying a bar girl or take one as a girlfriend. To get married as a foreigner here is actually very difficult as you cannot be older than 49 years old and must show a proper monthly income exceeding $3,000 per month in order to obtain a legal license. Many end up living together, having children and living exactly as a married couple without actually being so legally speaking. This is of course the dream for every bar hostess, to find a rich foreign man who will take care of her and her family for the rest of their lives. But it can often be difficult for the expat to live up to the expectations of what has basically been built up in their minds for years. It can be difficult for local girls to quantify just how foreigners have in terms of wealth and/or income. Since they have very little experience with bigger amounts of money, they just simply know that foreigners have more. This can often lead to the girls asking for what the boyfriend or husband considers to be too much, but one must always keep in mind that such can be due to their lack of experience in such matters. But for the man it can be difficult to near impossible to ever know if the girl truly loves him because the wealth gap is just too wide. The question will always linger of whether or not she would be with you if it were not for your money. Some simply do not care and take the situation for what it is as many have no such notions of what we would consider "love" in the Western world. For others it may be possible to truly know, but very unlikely without some sort of financial hardship or tribulation in which the girl stuck it out through a difficult time. In my six years here I have seen a little of both in which the girl was done with the man as soon as he ran out of money, and other situations in which they stayed together and went on to have a long and happy relationship.
Much of what I have written here are just data and numbers, while other things mentioned are of course my opinion. Some may find the topic offensive in general to even discuss on a forum such as this. But it is a reality of life here and it would be disingenuous to treat it as if it were not. My purpose in this writing is neither to endorse nor judge anything, but rather to be informative just as I would be about any other topic of reality here in Cambodia.
I remember the day Black Friday happened in America. For those of you outside the States that are unfamiliar, Black Friday was the day that the FBI seized the domains for the top online poker sites and essentially made online poker illegal in America. I was living in Las Vegas at the time and I remember my roommate waking me up telling me that the government had seized all the sites for Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet. I thought to myself at the time that this was nothing new and that they should be back up within the same day. But that did not happen of course and playing online became a very different endeavor after that date in America. I saw a variety of reactions online on the various forums, Facebook and Twitter. But what I found most peculiar was that those associated with live poker rooms seemed to rejoice at the news. Some poker clubs in Los Angeles raised their rake a bit as a result and even poker celebrities such as Doyle Brunson tweeted a challenge to online pros, basically writing that they would not do as well since they now had to play "real" poker in live card rooms. It was of course long believed that the casino lobby had a lot to do with the events of Black Friday as they have much power in the government and had pressured them to take this action. I always did think that such actions were misguided as poker has been in a state of somewhat free fall ever since. For the casinos this was a complete freeroll as even if the popularity of poker waned, they could always replace them in their floor space with other games that were most profitable. But for the players this was a complete loss as events since have more than demonstrated that live and online poker go hand in hand and that one cannot grow without the other.
The poker boom of course started back in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker took down the Main Event of the World Series of Poker for a cool $2,000,000. The story is all too familiar now that he qualified through a series of online satellites, paying $40 instead of the entry fee of $10,000. Moneymaker was not a poker pro but rather an accountant from the South and with his win began a craze during which quite literally every man thought they could obtain such riches and glory. And not long after that commercials started to appear on every TV channel for Party Poker, Full Tilt and the like. Poker was everywhere and it hardly seemed as if one could turn on ESPN, Fox Sports or the Travel Channel and not see a televised poker event. Other sites would soon open to fill the new market and sites like Absolute Poker, Paradise Poker, Pacific and Cake would join the ranks of the established platforms. With money being easily moved on and off of sites through banks, credit cards and debit cards the live rooms started to fill up as well as the game grew in popularity like never before. I spent the first few years of the boom playing in the live rooms of Los Angeles and I remember every game imaginable was being offered at the time. One could play anything from hold'em to omaha, from Mexican poker to 7-card stud hi-lo. After a few years of grinding the tables of L.A. I soon moved to Las Vegas where both online and live versions of the game grew as well.
When I lived in Vegas I played both live and online and this was a common phenomenon for poker players in sin city. There was money to be made in both arenas so we did not see any reason not to take advantage. During my peak I remember months when I would play 6 hours live and another 6 hours online 5 days per week. There was just that much money to be made back then and none of us wanted to waste the opportunity. And much like L.A. the game grew in the casinos as from somewhere around 50 poker rooms, the number would ultimately grow to over 100 in the city. Having spoken to casino managers at the time though, poker was never something that these entities wanted to run. In previous years poker rooms took a limited amount of floor space in a few casinos. But after the boom it was simply something that every facility needed to have as too many customers asked for the game and wanted to play. It was only a few short years after the boom that the casino lobby had started to attack the online industry and had even convinced some players that online poker was harmful to the game. But what most did not realize was that online poker was an introductory experience for new players. It may be difficult to realize for those of us who have played the game for years, but going to a casino and sitting in a game where others may be better than you is not an easy task. The online game allowed players to learn the game gradually and graduate to a live game, where they were probably still outmatched but at least they were more willing and likely to play at the casino. All one has to do is think about the mechanics of an online game vs live, especially in terms of the money that is being handled. In a casino game a player will have to take a few hundred dollars at least to play any meaningful game. But in an online experience one can simply deposit $50 just to get their feet wet, just as I did with the first deposit I ever made in Party Poker.
Money would soon become more difficult to move in and out of poker sites as the years went on. It became common for players have to use third party payment processors such as Skrill or Neteller. But this did not prove to be too difficult and the game continued to grow on all fronts. But once Black Friday occurred it became nearly impossible to get money on and off. All sorts of creative measures were enacted in order for players to deposit such as prepaid credit cards or Western Unions sent to a woman named Guadalupe in Costa Rica. I remember I made a deposit once that showed up on my bank statement that I did not initially recognize as it was listed as a purchase at a furniture store in Connecticut. When I called the phone number listed on the statement, a man answered the phone and was very coy about describing to me why that amount appeared on my statement. Legally he could not tell me that it was for a poker deposit and after about 15 minutes of giving me hints I finally remembered that it was for a $500 deposit into Bodog Poker. And when it came to cashing out things were even more difficult as I remember one check taking 6 months to arrive. Another time a check arrived in four months but bounced as soon as I tried to cash it. Things got so desperate that I started to sell money on my poker sites on online forums at $0.75 for $1. Players had to go to great lengths to move money and it was not the sort of thing that recreational players were going to put themselves through.
This of course had a big impact on the live games as well. As it was becoming more difficult to play online, grinders did initially start to flood the live rooms. But they soon found the rake difficult to beat and without perks such as rakeback the transition was a difficult one. And without any sort of introductory forum such as online poker, recreational players were coming in to live rooms at a lesser rate as well. When I moved to Vegas there were something along the lines of 50 rooms in town, a number that would eventually grow to 100+. I remember even a gas station near my apartment had a poker table in the back that would sometimes run a $1-$2 NLH game. But with all these events the game started to be less popular and soon enough casinos started to close down rooms. The most telling is what happened at the Mirage where the most well known pros once played their "Big Game." I remember one day playing on a Sunday with a friend at the Mirage when he remarked to the dealer that what was happening to the room was very sad for him. When I asked him for an explanation he told me that we were playing on table #1, where the likes of Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan once played games as high as $200-$400 mix. My friend found it rather depressing that this table was now being used for a $1-$2 NLH game. Other casinos closed down their rooms altogether of course and soon the number of them in town was closer to the 50 of when I first arrived.
All of this is not to say that online poker has always been a perfect partner to the live industry. There have certainly been enough scandals of cheating over the years on online sites to scare people from playing. And with the game played in a measured environment that online poker provides, the use of stats derived from software has done much to make the game worse. But I would argue that such would have been the case regardless and had not certain powers waged war against online poker, such players would be part of a much larger field and their impact would not have been as great. A minority of the pool will always win the majority of the money in this game, but they need recreational players from which to feed on and such players have been decreasing over the years to a presently alarming rate. The more recreational players exist in the pool, the more regs will play and generate more rake. And as more players get introduced to this great game of poker via the online experience, more of them will also gradually make their way to the live felt. All of this will go a long way towards making the game more of a social experience, especially the live version. In the end that is what many live rooms are missing today, the social experience, as the presence of grinders becomes ever more prevalent while less and less new players get introduced to the game. There has been a resurgence as of late with the popularity of private game apps that have emerged in Asia and quickly into other parts of the world. Unlike the established sites, these apps have gone to great lengths to attract new players and not just crushers. For the moment those that operate live rooms have adopted a welcoming attitude towards such apps. As I am agent for several such apps, one manager of a poker room here in Phnom Penh even remarked to me that we mutually benefit each other. Such was a refreshing take on this whole phenomena, one that I hope other operators around the world also adopt.
Much like earlier sites during the early days of the poker boom, these apps exist in a legally grey area and remain largely unregulated. But all of this only demonstrates how much there exists a thirst for online poker, even among newer and lesser established players. Clubs are now emerging from America to help fill the void when the market was vacated by the events of Black Friday and online apps are seeing a resurgence of great games with action that has not been seen for years. It is the hope of this writer that history will not repeat itself and like here in Cambodia, both room operators and law makers will take on a more accepting attitude towards the virtual version of this great game of poker. When run in harmony poker is a game in which a variety of different parties can benefit and the online experience does much to contribute to this balance.
I wrote in a previous blog post that for the most part it was business as usual in Cambodia during this coronavirus pandemic. While a few businesses shut down, most shops and markets continued doing commerce and all casinos in the country were still operational. Concerning that last point I recently spoke to a Khmer friend who I had asked if he ever thought Nagaworld would shut operations temporarily during this crisis. He unequivocally stated that the casino would never shut and even laughed while giving me his reply. Today all that has changed and the unthinkable has happened as the Prime Minister has announced today that all casinos throughout the country are ordered to cease operations temporarily starting on April 1, 2020. This is nothing short of a stunning announcement as it signifies that the government considers this pandemic to be a real and serious health threat, something it had not necessarily done prior.
This will no doubt affect the poker community here in Phnom Penh as Nagaworld houses the biggest poker room in town, running 4-6 tables nightly before this crisis. There are other live venues in town currently and it remains to be seen whether or not they will stay open. It will be interesting to see the result of all this as if any one of the other rooms decide to continue operations, they either face criticism for remaining open during a health threat or will be a haven for those who wish to continue playing live poker. No doubt many will also find a haven in online poker as some actually need to keep playing for their income. As an agent of online poker clubs, I can say that a shift has already occurred in the number of players jumping online as they prepare to socially distance themselves in their homes in cities all around the world. Back here in Cambodia, this essentially puts the death nail on the poker scene in Sihanoukville, which was struggling already after the ban on online gambling that caused the Chinese to flee the city in droves. There is no word on how long this order will last as the wording simply states that the closures are "temporary."
More importantly this order will affect the country on a much larger scale beyond poker. Along with the previous order to close KTVs, cinemas, clubs and hostess bars thousands will lose what are some of the highest paying jobs for locals in this country. The country is even considering declaring a state of emergency as the PM also stated during his press conference this morning that the government will convene a special meeting to work on a state of emergency draft on Friday before forwarding it to the National Assembly. I am not sure what this would entail as he said in the same breath that none of the markets, restaurants or shops would be ordered to close during this time. I imagine then the biggest impact such a declaration may have is the imposing of a curfew on the city and country at large that would keep everyone at home during the late hours. If the intention is to keep businesses open, it is unlikely that a complete lock down where everyone would have to self quarantine would be in order.
I have to admit that prior to today I was even feeling optimistic about the state of things here in Cambodia during this crisis. Reported cases of infections were low and life in Phnom Penh was hardly affected. But everything has changed today and for the first time I am thinking about things such as stocking up on food, baby formula, diapers and whatever else my family may need during this period. The closure of casinos happens in two days from the time of this writing and two days after that will be the draft on the state of emergency. No doubt I will be heading to the market tomorrow and I would advise everyone else to do the same. Even for those who still do not believe that this threat is serious, such may become irrelevant when the world around you believes it is. I did not want to interject too much of my own thoughts or judgments on this matter, but rather wanted to provide a quick update of the state of things here in Cambodia. Here's to hoping for the world to run good and quickly heal from this pandemic and wishing everyone to stay safe.
Cambodia provides an interesting and unique perspective in regards to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. As the rest of the world shuts down and isolates itself both as nation states and as individuals, it has largely been business as usual for most here in the Kingdom of Wonder. Things have started to slowly turn in terms of precautions and even closures of certain businesses, but the reaction thus far seems to be vastly understated in relation to other parts of the world. I write this not to speculate on the reasons for such a muted reaction, but rather just to offer a glimpse into a society that has thus far reacted quite differently than the rest of the world.
The first thing that should be addressed in a blog of this nature is of course the state of poker in the country and how the virus has affected the game. My friends on Facebook have been circulating screenshots of the Bravo poker app that show that not a single game was running last night in both Las Vegas and Los Angeles; an amazing fact when considering the sheer number of rooms and the popularity of the game in both cities. But here in Phnom Penh both rooms continue to run, while not necessarily business as usual. People entering Nagaworld have been stopped for a temperature check for a few weeks now and anyone exhibiting a high temperature is not allowed entrance. An interesting aside to this is that during the beginning stages of this virus there was a clear bias towards those entering who appeared Chinese. During this time my friends and I went to 2Pangea, the buffet at Naga 2 several times. When entering I was asked for my Passport every single instance as I am a Korean-American and I assume that to the casino staff I looked Chinese enough. But no one even looked at my white foreign friends once as they entered without hardly a hindrance. It is interesting how that focus has now shifted to other countries as Cambodia has restricted entry into the country from several states, but not China strangely enough. The Riverking continues to run their games as well, although with more precaution than before. Like the casino, everyone is stopped for a temperature check before entering and there are hand sanitizers at every corner. Both rooms have slowed to be sure, but continue to run their games and have not given any indication that will change.
The story has been quite different for hostess bars on the riverside as things have turned in the last few days. Three nights ago I was with some friends on street 130 at a bar when the police came around ordering all the bars shut. The white/foreign owners complied almost immediately whereas the Khmer owners protested, pointing out that the decree to shut shown by the police only included KTVs, cinemas and nightclubs but not bars. Since then bars have shut down more and more, with many of the girls deciding to return to their home provinces to wait out the virus. Some bars have decided to continue running as they have shut their lights off outside, but still operate inside with hostesses in the waiting. It is unclear if these establishments face any possible consequences from the authorities if they decide to continue to run their businesses. Indeed all of the KTVs, cinemas and clubs have shut including the two clubs inside the Nagaworld Casino, namely Darling Darling and F-Club. The interesting fact about that is while the two entities inside have shut down, the larger entity housing them have not as other parts of the casino continue to run business as usual.
For businesses continuing to run I would not haste to judgement and say that the motivations for the decision are necessarily greed or money related. Entities such as casinos and poker rooms employ a vast number of people and loss of jobs for so many would not only be devastating to the overall economy but also for the individual lives involved. While it may be easy to judge, I personally know many people who work in this industry and I am certain that most, if not all, would prefer to continue on working as they may be the only ones in their families who are allowed to do so. Personally I still debate within my own mind what the right thing to do is as I do realize that in most other countries lives have come to a halt as both individuals and institutions have voluntarily suspended their activities. I was at a Western Union today and saw many people in line as they attempt to still send their families money, while desperately trying to keep what little they can for themselves. A friend back in the States texted me today and said that Americans would be receiving a stimulus package in the amount of $600 during this crisis. Perhaps the government here should consider a similar measure so that people would not have to make the difficult choice between trying to remain uninfected and having to work.
Recent events and closures here in Cambodia may have something to do with the fact that the figures on the number of infections have been updated. While different outlets are reporting varying numbers, it does seem that from the original number of 12 reported cases, the number at least doubled to 24 in just one day. Currently the number stands at 37 and with all this in mind I finally started to think that it would be a good idea to stock up on some food and supplies. So I took a long Pass App ride to several different venues to get some baby formula, diapers, water and food. The baby store was near empty, like they are on most days and the markets I went to were a bit busier than normal but every item was fully stocked and I did not even have to wait one minute in line at the checker. On my way home I stopped at Carl's Jr to grab a burger and the restaurant seemed normally busy, with all staff wearing masks while the patrons were a mixed bag with some donning the mask and others going without one. While things are slowly starting to turn in terms of precautions and closures, a general panic has still not yet set in and I do not feel the need at this point to fill my apartment from floor to ceiling with water and toilet paper.
As previously mentioned I will be staying home today and for the foreseeable future. I still continue to work and meet friends and players to process deposits and withdraws, but have limited other activities. But if things turn for the worse I may send my family back to the province where they have had limited contact with foreigners, while I remain in Phnom Penh in order to continue working. Here is to hoping such a decision does not have to be made.
I recently played in a live game of no limit hold'em where the number of players had reduced from 6 to 5. I called the floor manager over and asked for a reduction in rake and while he did grant one it was insignificant at best for a game so short handed. I then told my friend who was also seated at the table that I would do everyone a favor by leaving and making the game 4 handed, to essentially force the floor's hand to give a further reduction. But as I cashed out and started to leave the room my friend informed me that the floor had not granted another reduction. I told him that the game would not last another 30 minutes and wished him good luck as I walked out. All too predictably the game broke about 20 minutes later and the whole episode left me very frustrated. I should point out here that I left the game at approximately 4:30 AM and so the floor manager was essentially punishing the very players that were keeping his single $1-$3 NLH game alive at this late hour. I did not understand the logic of this decision and wondered if there could be a better way for poker rooms to grant reductions in situations such as this.
The truth of the matter is that for the most part, rake reductions are near meaningless and do not alleviate the burden for players in a short handed game. Let us consider a few factors that will help us to come to this conclusion. A competent dealer will get out approximately 20 hands per every 30 minute down or shift. This number only increases when the game is short handed, the very situation that requires a rake reduction. But it is the bottom levels of the rake that are still most likely to get hit regardless of whether or not the game is short handed. In considering a 10% rake system the first dollar is take when the pot reaches $10. Being the first level that is the most likely one to be hit on every hand and that does not change no matter the number of players. In fact a short handed game will dictate that higher levels of the rake are less likely to get hit. So all the poker room is doing when granting a rake reduction is eliminating a level, or levels, that are the least likely to reach in the first place. And although fewer players usually means smaller pots and less rake, the first levels are still being reached frequently enough and since the dealer is now getting out more hands the house is still taking the same amount of rake per hour, if not more. Or to give an example:
• Dealers A and B get out 40 hands total during a one hour span in a full ring game
• They average $3 dropped in rake per hand
• 40 hands x $3 = $120 rake/hour
• Dealers A and B get out 60 hands total during a one hour span in a five handed game
• A rake reduction is in effect
• The dealers average $2 dropped in rake per hand
• 60 hands x $2 = $120 rake/hour
And while the total dollar amount taken in an hour is the same, a closer examination of this scenario reveals that each player is now paying more rake:
• $120 rake/hour taken in a 9-handed full ring game
• $120 / 9 players = $13.33 rake paid per player per hour
• $120 rake/hour taken in a short 5-handed game
• $120 / 5 players = $24 rake paid per player per hour
Having run many hold'em games throughout my life I can say with confidence that $120 dropped in rake per hour for a full or near full $1-$2(3) game is completely appropriate. It certainly is not ideal but at that rate the game is beatable. But when we nearly double the amount that each player is paying from $13.33 to $24, that is an insurmountable amount for a player to have to bear.
As poker is at its core a game that can be beaten, this is a situation that requires correction unless we just assume that short handed games are never to be played live. My proposal would be that rake reductions occur in the reverse order of the traditional method. In other words, instead of cutting the rake at the top simply cut it at the bottom. In most rake systems it is the first couple of levels of rake being taken that are the most punishing as the burden is lessened when pots get bigger and the cap is reached. Let us consider the rake system that is used at the local casino here in Phnom Penh for a $1-$3 game as an example:
• $1 at $10
• $2 at $20
• $3 at $30
• $4 at $40
• $5 at $50
• $10 at $200
So if a rake reduction is granted in this example it would mean that the house would not take $10 when the pot reached $200. Instead they would simply cap it at $5 for pots $50 and larger. But I would contend that $200 pots in a five handed game occur infrequently enough that the gesture is near meaningless. My proposal would therefore be that the reduction take place at the $1 at $10 level so that the house does not take a commission until the pot reaches $20. It would mean less rake per hour for the house, but would maintain the hourly burden for each individual player so that the game remains beatable for the very players that are keeping the game alive. And in the instances where the pot does get large, the house can still maintain the top level to compensate for the reduction at the bottom level(s). And besides, at 4:30 AM it should not be the goal of the poker room to take the same amount of rake as they would in a normally full game. In these instances it should be the goal to just keep the game alive for the next wave of players that may potentially arrive. And even if this does not occur, the good will fostered will be more than worth the reduction in hourly rake in the long run.
The trend in Southeast Asia in regards to rake has been an upward one at an alarming rate to players. Rates and percentages keep rising to meet the demands of casinos that would rather much run other games. On top of this players have to bear the burden other forms of revenue extracted from the game such as bonus drops for various promotions that may or may not be +EV for the players. While all of this is not likely to stop or reverse itself anytime soon, the one concession that the house should make for players is in this area of the rake reduction. Unless they want to start bringing out free food, buffets or at least doughnuts for those keeping the game alive during late hours it should not be a huge ask for poker rooms to make this minor adjustment in how rake reductions are given. By the way, almost every poker room I played in Las Vegas would always bring out free doughnuts for players if the game last until 6:00 AM. I would not mind seeing that either by the way:)
Poker in Cambodia is in a bit of a state of flux. While the city of Phnom Penh is just coming off a successful running of the World Poker Tour at the Nagaworld Casino, there are indications in the overall scheme of things that poker is regressing in the country as a whole. There are many reasons this may be occurring and an entire anthology can be written to discuss them all. In this article I will cover the issue of rake and how its deployment is contributing to the current direction of the game in Cambodia. This issue is discussed first as it concerns money, that which the poker room generates and also that which is taken from the players that take up the seats in any game. As with most things in business a balance needs to be reached in consideration of all the parties involved. A skewing of this balance can adversely affect the growth of any profit driven endeavor and while certain parties may benefit in the short term, we can readily see in this country how it can negatively impact the overall growth of the game.
Rake is of course the small commission that the poker room takes from each pot, which represents the revenue for the room. This is what differentiates poker from other games in a casino, namely that the game is not played against the house and that it is supposedly beatable. In an environment such as Las Vegas rake has largely stabilized and is consistently similar throughout the town. Both $1-$2 and $2-$5 no limit hold’em games are charged a commission of 10%, capped at $5 while larger games are charged timed rake in which each player is charged a fixed amount every 30 minutes. In other words, players are rewarded for playing higher stakes. This makes a lot of sense in that games of higher stakes generate the most revenue for a poker room and also can add to the reputation and popularity of the room. In Cambodia and Asia at large, the opposite logic is employed in that players who play higher are punished with escalated rake caps. This can readily be seen in the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville where rake caps for games as low as $2-$5 reach near $100. But rake here in Cambodia is on the rise overall and this escalation has reached into the smallest games in the country. A $1-$1 game in Sihanoukville recently had a rake percentage of 7% with a cap of $10 and another such game here in Phnom Penh still employs a 10% rake with a $5 cap. The latter is the same rake charged for $1-$2 and $2-$5 games in Vegas and was never intended for smaller games. This is why $1-$1 games do not run in Sin City as they are very difficult to rake. Either they do not make enough revenue for the poker room or they have to be raked at a rate that makes the game unbeatable.
I have heard the argument that rake should be high in a poker game since only nits, regulars and pros concern themselves with how much is coming off the table with every hand. I suppose the logic is that if a particular room wants tables filled with only recreational players, that it does not matter how much rake is taken. This is essentially the thinking that is employed in the running of poker rooms in Sihanoukville where exorbitant rates are charged in games filled with Chinese who do not think about the commission taken. The only issue with this is of course that the room is punishing the most the very people that the room needs in order to survive. While winning regs will pay more rake throughout the course of their playing careers, losing players pay more when things are considered in smaller units of individual sessions and hands. Losing and recreational players are looser and thus play more hands, and thus in turn pay more rake. This is beneficial both for the winning regs and the room as the former have access to what is basically their food source and the latter make more money from a looser game filled at least partly with players increasing the revenue by playing more hands. But this whole process is like dance, one that requires great care and balance in order to achieve a sustainable poker ecosystem. Charge too much and the room destroys the very lifeblood of the room, the very players that it needs in order to survive long term. It is not difficult to figure out why not a single room in Sihanoukville has lasted over even one year since the influx of the Chinese began a few years ago.
Much of the erratic fluctuations and escalations in rake here can be attributed to the fact that the market and ecosystem for poker is still relatively young in Cambodia. Even environments like Vegas went through their own growing pains before becoming the stable economies they are now. I imagine that Cambodia may very well go through a similar process, but how long such a process takes is anyone’s guess as the attitude towards the game is quite different here in Asia. Referring back to Vegas, poker rooms are almost looked upon as what can be called a loss leader. What this means is that games like poker are undercharged by the casino because they expect that its presence will lead to the increase in revenue for more profitable services and games. So while poker may not generate that much money, the fact that people play in a casino’s room may mean that they also eat in their restaurants, play other casino games, go see a show or stay in their hotel rooms. This is why private and underground games throughout the world usually have the highest rakes, because they exist in a vacuum without any of these services. Most of the poker rooms in Cambodia also exist in this type of situation when you consider that even rooms inside of a casino are not really part of the larger entity but are rather run by outside groups that merely rent the tables. It is almost assured that in any environment where poker is depended on as the sole source of revenue, the rake will always be higher. The Nagaworld Casino in Phnom Penh comes the closest to the loss leader model in Cambodia. But even there the rake is not ideal and represents the general misunderstandings that casino operators in this region have towards the game of poker.
I have already referenced Las Vegas many times in this article. The reason for that is because Vegas is one of the most tightly regulated gambling markets in the world, one filled with consistent regulations and practices. This leads to another point in regards to the rake, namely the bonus drop. This is a practice that is being adopted by poker rooms here at an increased rate but one that presents many issues. A bonus drop is an extra rake that is taken in order to fund a promotion that a room is offering its players. For instance in Vegas they employ the aforementioned 10% capped $5 rake which means that they take $1 for every $10 in the pot, up to $5 for $50 in the pot. But rooms that employ a bonus drop will also take an additional $1 as soon as the pot reaches $10. They will not take any more above this level, but this amount is taken in order to fund promotions such as bad beat jackpots, high hands and freerolls. It is actually an ingenious method by which a room will throw a promotion to attract players, but actually have the players pay for it themselves. Many rooms in Vegas that have a bad beat jackpot have a sign that states the current amount of their prize. This number always increases by the day because the award is progressive, meaning that it grows as the room collects more money every day with that extra bonus drop. Whatever number is listed on that sign represents 100% of what that room has collected in the bonus drop for a given time. This is why whenever a poker room closes in Vegas, they have a bonanza of promotions as by law they are not allowed to keep any bonus money and have to give it all back in the form of some sort of promotion. In the 5+ years that I have lived in Cambodia I have seen many poker rooms that employed a bonus drop close up shop and I have only one question. Where is all that bonus money? This is in fact player money and so it has to be asked where the money that was collected from them went when a room closes. But a room does not even need to close for it to keep most, if not all, of the bonus money it collects. My friend recently played in a $2-$5 game where a total of $3 was taken for a bonus; $1 at a $20 pot, a second $1 at $40 and a third $1 at $60. They claimed to be giving this money back in the form of a high hand promotion. My friend hit such a hand on a pot that was between $20 and $30. He was told that he would not be paid out for his hand even though $1 was taken as a bonus drop and that all $3 would have to be taken. So if that’s the case, why even have the $1 and $2 levels and instead just drop $3 at some point? And if they are not paying him out, what happens to that $1 that was already taken as a bonus?
It is obvious that the poker ecosystem here in Cambodia still has a long way to go to become the type of environment in which poker is played in the West. It is my hope and estimation that it will, but how quickly how that happens depends on many factors. As players we have to remain aware of these types of issues and present casino and room operators with some form of resistance when certain tactics and methodologies are employed. When given a choice players should reward poker rooms that are completely transparent regarding their regulations and practices in these matters. And if the resistance of these rooms proves to be larger than that offered by players, perhaps then they need to stay away altogether. More than a few players have already expressed to me that this would be their final year in Cambodia, that they will not be returning in the future. Their reasons are varied but stem from the issues already covered in this article. It is my hope that the operators in this country evolve, progress and do everything in their power to ensure such an exodus does not happen en masse.
From sleepy beach town to booming gambling mecca to bust, the transformation in Sihanoukville seems to be complete. With the governmental decree that all online gambling operations cease by January 1st in the Kingdom of Wonder, Sihanoukville is now a complete ghost town. So the question remains, was happens now? The expats that once inhabited this peaceful town are now all nearly gone, the Cambodian locals have all been priced out of their own city and now the Chinese that caused all this in the first place are gone as well. What now remains is a broken town with the remaining few left to pick up the pieces in the hopes of a better future that may never come.
First a little background is required. The big misnomer about Sihanoukville, and any casino town in Cambodia really, is that most of the gambling revenue is generated on the casino floor. This could not be further from the truth as what is made on table games is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the real money maker for these casinos, online gambling. When entering a casino in Sihanoukville one will notice that much of the gambling floor is dedicated to rows and rows of empty tables with absolutely no players. The table is only populated by a single dealer, always a young and pretty Khmer girl, with a video camera pointed at her. What is going on here is that she is dealing hands of baccarat that is being broadcast back in China where gamblers can get their fix in a land where such activities are illegal. Certain studies have shown that nearly 85% of the casinos revenue is generated from these virtual games. So when the government decreed all such activity illegal starting in 2020, it was no big surprise that the Chinese that once flooded into Sihanoukville left in droves.
So why the ban? To answer this question I think it is really important to note that the Chinese get a really bad rap in all of this. That's a word that gets thrown around a lot, namely "Chinese" and it is always in a negative connotation. Let us really think about what has happened in Sihanoukville over the past few years. You take a sleepy little town with just under 100,000 inhabitants and then suddenly introduce an additional 300,000 people from a foreign land. And of course these people came because gambling licenses, both live and online, were issued out as easily as the Sunday paper. With no real regulatory body nor a commission to overlook the casinos in any meaningful way, the newly licensed entities then set up operations to serve a clientele that lived in a land where the service being provided was completely illegal. And as there were no rules governing how these licenses were used they were then leased out, sub-leased and sub-sub-leased to groups who had no business running any sort of operation let alone one that involved gambling. Given all this, who did we think was going to show up to take advantage exactly? Every society has both members that impact society in a positive and negative way. I think it is safe to say that Sihanoukville got much of the latter when it came to this recent boom.
What is left now in the city are a plethora of Chinese businesses with no clientele to service. I read a story today that stated 56 of 75 licensed casinos in Sihanoukville have already closed their doors. With massive unemployment and no other industry ready to replace the Chinese ones that are quickly dying, it is near impossible to predict what might happen next. It is possible that both expats and locals may return and reopen businesses that once were successful. But this scenario seems unlikely given that most would probably fear that the same thing would just happen all over again. Let's not forget that this online ban was at the behest of the Chinese government and they have pledged billions of dollars in exchange for Cambodia's cooperation. Thus the likelihood that the Chinese are done in the Kingdom of Wonder is unlikely, especially since so many of them already inhabit other cities such as Phnom Penh. But we here in the capital city have experienced very little of what Sihanoukville has seen in terms of crime with the arrival of the Chinese. That can be attributed to the fact that the Chinese in Phnom Penh are not here for any reasons associated with gambling and that their interests are more mainstream and legitimate. I do believe that once Sihanoukville is built back up they should experience much of the same in terms of their relations with the Chinese.
So what in the meantime? I believe that the next 1-2 years is very crucial for the future of both Sihanoukville and the country at large. It is very possible that if the correct steps are not taken that the exact same thing or something close to it can happen all over again. So I propose something radical and look to one of our neighboring countries in Southeast Asia for a possible solution. I have always wanted to travel to the island of Boracay in the Philippines but when planning a trip in 2018 was dismayed to learn that the entire island was closed to tourists. This was done after President Duerte had declared the island a "cesspool" in light of all the pollution that had desecrated the region. I find many parallels with what has happened in Sihanoukville and so perhaps the best solution is to just close the city for one year. This would allow the city to fix its horrendous sewage system, clean up much of the pollution that has been caused by the many building projects and clean up the beaches that were once a tourist destination. Many of the projects in the city have already been stopped anyway and the money that the Chinese government has pledged to Cambodia can be used towards the many necessary fixes and to subsidize the people and businesses that will remain during such a closure. This would also give the government time to set up a proper governing body or commission to overlook activities such as gambling so that the same mistakes do not occur again.
There are those that say that you can never go home again. I think this is the case in Sihanoukville as those hoping for a return for what the city was a few years back will probably never come back. There is just simply too much money invested already and more to come for that to ever happen. What the town will eventually become depends heavily on what decisions are made and what occurs in the next 1-2 years. This whole thing started with an under-reaction, letting just about anyone come in to set up businesses that were ripe for ill repute if not done correctly. And now we are at the result of a complete over reaction in which nearly everyone has departed and left in the remains a broken city. While it may never be what it once was, Sihanoukville can be a great city in the future that is welcoming to all groups. Here is to hoping that the right steps are taken in this not so distant future in order to ensure a happier ending than the one we have now.
Whenever planning a move to another country, a question of paramount importance is just how much everything costs. There are a lot of trade offs when coming to a third world country, but the main thing that makes it all worth it is the relatively cheap cost of living. Cambodia is usually in these sorts of discussions but it is often difficult to pin down exact numbers as to how much everything costs. As the country continues to develop and progress, prices are often in flux and also everyone lives a different lifestyle so what may be reasonable for one may not be for another. I obviously cannot speak for everyone either, so I will not attempt and try to give an exact number for every item and service. Instead I will discuss what key elements of life have cost me here over the years, breaking everything down to a few key elements:
• Apartment/Home Rent
• Visa extensions
In the five plus years I have lived in Cambodia I have occupied ten different apartments/homes in three different cities. The easiest thing to do would be to list them all by chronological order:
• 1 bedroom market in Russian Market (Phnom Penh) - $350/month (2015)
• 1 bedroom in Sihanoukville - $150/month (2016)
• Studio in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $150/month (2016)
• 2 bedroom in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $350/month (2017)
• 1 bedroom in Sihanoukville - $380/month (2017)
• 1 bedroom in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $250/month (2018)
• Studio in Daun Penh (Phnom Penh) - $150/month (2018)
• Studion in Kampot - $150/month (2018)
• 2 bedroom house in Kombol (Phnom Penh) - $270/month (2019)
• 1 bedroom in Russian Market (Phnom Penh) - $220/month (2020)
A few trends are instantly noticeable; one is that I really like to live in Daun Penh, prices in Phnom Penh have remained relatively stable while they have gone up in Sihanoukville. I have lived in two areas basically whenever I have stayed in Phnom Penh. The Russian Market area, where I currently live, is named after the local market once patronized by a large local Russian contingent. It is about 10-15 minutes outside of the town center and so prices are relatively low for apartment rentals. Many expats live there so the infrastructure is good and one can expect to find many expat oriented businesses, shops and restaurants. The other is Duan Penh which is near the Pontoon Night Club. The area is fairly centrally located to just about everything in town and provides a good variety of Khmer and foreign businesses. There certainly have been many developments over the years and for newer condos one can expect to pay much more. But there are still many rentals available for a low price and rental rates have remained very stable over the five years I have lived here. Sihanoukville is a very different story as when I first lived there three years ago I had a huge 1 bedroom apartment for only $150 per month. Fast forward 1.5 years and the one bedroom unit I occupied was $380 per month and also very much smaller. That unit was actually a bargain and a favor done by a friend of mine who owned the building. The last time I was in the beach city to play poker, studio units 35 minutes outside of town were going for $600 per month. I have been told as of late that prices have come down due to many Chinese leaving after the ban on online gambling. But even so I doubt they have come down to the rates I first encountered three years ago.
Visa extensions used to be very simple and affordable. They have been complicated as of late due to the requirement of needing either a work permit or an employment letter from an official business. Six moths extensions were previously available for a little over $150 and one year extensions for about $300. Those prices have gone up as services will now offer to push through extensions without any documentation. For six months one can now expect to pay around $250 and for one year extensions up to $400. These prices are still lower than a country like Thailand and certainly much easier, but the process is a bit more complicated than it once was. Still this is a very attractive feature of coming to Cambodia as it is both possible and affordable to stay here continuously without having to leave or make border runs.
One negative aspect of living in Cambodia is the price of electricity as the prices here are some of the most expensive in the world. What exacerbates this issue is that landlords who rent apartments to foreigners will often charge even higher than the government rate in order to make a profit. In reality electricity in Cambodia is about 720 riel/kwh, or less than $0.10 USD. I know this as this is the price listed on the government site and also once I had my wife rent a house for us in her name and this is what we were charged. We were also given the bill directly so that we could see each month what we were being charged. But when a foreigner rents a unit they will almost never be able to see their own bill. Instead the landlord will simply tell them the amount that is due and ask for it along with the rent. The rate they use for this charge is 1,000 riel/kwh, or about $0.25 USD/kwh. This practice is not illegal and is the case nearly 100% of the time when renting apartment in Phnom Penh. For a studio apartment I would pay roughly $125 per month when blasting the air conditioner every day. In a one bedroom I paid about $140 per month and about $175 in a two bedroom apartment in which I would sometimes turn on the unit in the second bedroom. But in the house that my wife was able to rent out, we lived in a three story building with 2 bedrooms and a unit in each room. In that residence we blasted both units all day and night and still paid only $150 per month.
Unlike utilities phone service and internet are both very affordable in Cambodia. There are three major companies when it comes to phone service; Smart, Cellcard and Metfone. Of the three the first two are the most popular and probably the most reliable. One can purchase monthly plans on both services for $8 that will come with 80 GB of data per month, unlimited calls and texts within the network and all with 4G or 4G+ speeds. Smart possibly has the wider coverage and will work in most cities throughout the country. Cellcard has less coverage but in the areas it does service the speeds are often faster as they offer 4G+. In Phnom Penh this is hardly an issue though as they both work fine within the city. There are several home internet companies but Opennet is probably the most known and used service. The last time I used their services I paid $110 in advance for 16 months of service with speeds up to 10 Mbps. The phone companies also offer home internet services and this is what I use currently with Smart. I paid for six months in advance for only $44 total, received a free modem and get unlimited data speeds up to 10 Mbps. It has gone out on me a couple of times in the three months I have used it, but nothing worth complaining about and for those playing poker online this option is more than fine. Once the six months I have already paid for runs out, I can pay monthly at a rate of $8 per month.
The next two categories of groceries and restaurants can often be treated as one category as there are those who almost always eat out and never cook, while other do just the opposite. And when eating out one's expenses can differ based on whether they eat local food or foreign food. I do a combination of all three; I buy some groceries to cook at home, will eat out at local establishments at times and also go out for Western food. In all I spend about $350 per month on food for myself living in this manner. But one can easily decrease or increase this amount depending on how they live. If one can survive on local food alone, breakfast can often cost as low as $1 and the other meals anywhere from $2.00 to $2.50 per plate. All local meals will come with rice and also free unlimited ice tea. Eating only local food one can easily spend less than $200 per month on food without ever having to cook at home. In fact Khmers do this as it's often more cost effective to eat meals individually from small restaurants and stalls rather than shopping and cooking them at home. For expats as well it can often cost more to grocery shop and cook at home. Western expats often want Western products but these can be more expensive and make a trip to the grocery store a costly one. For example, a simple large box of any breakfast cereal from Kellog's will cost around $7 per box. One can mitigate this a bit by shopping at local markets instead of Western ones, but even there certain products imported from other countries will always cost more. And of course one can greatly increase what they spend by eating out at Western restaurants every day. I had dinner last night where I spent $21 for myself in which the main course was $15, the appetizer $5 and the rice $1. Not all Western restaurants cost this much obviously, but one can easily see how things can add up quickly when living in this fashion.
Transportation is an expense that can also vary greatly from person to person. It used to be that tuk tuks and motos were the only way of getting around. One had to be a good negotiator whenever using these services as the drivers would fight fiercely for every last dollar. But times have changed greatly with the introduction of ride sharing apps. Much like Uber and Lyft in the West, here in Cambodia we have PassApp and Grab through which people can order tuk tuks, rickshaws (covered motos with a back seat), cars and even SUVs. The rickshaws are often used the most and what they are is basically an eggshell shaped seating area attached to the back of a moto. Most rides using this service will cost only $0.75 to $1 USD while the cars will run at $2.00 to $2.50 per ride and the SUVs from $3.50 to $5. Comparatively speaking, tuk tuks will often ask for $3-$4 for every ride. While one can usually negotiate most rides down to $2, that is still double the cost of a ride sharing app and in the case of the latter there is no need to negotiate as everything is measured and automated. I spend about $75 per month using these services but if it was a little bit more I would probably just rent or purchase a moto. I've seen used motos recently for as low as $300 with all the proper paperwork and renting one can go for anywhere from $75 to $90 per month.
This next category is one that is not particularly cogent to my life right now, but as it is for many I have decided to include it. There are several gyms in the Phnom Penh area, ranging from local outdoor gyms that cost less than $1 per day to modern facilities that have every piece of equipment under the sun along with a pool and sauna. For the latter prices vary a bit, but the last gym I was a member of charged me $550 per year. This was the Super Fit Gym in the Russian Market area and the price is fairly comparable to what other modern gyms will charge. Some have monthly rates but it is often more cost effective to pay by the year. My gym was three stories high with aerobics classes, rock climbing, separate sections for weights and machines and a fully decked out pool/sauna. Since I paid for the whole year in advance, it really motivated me to go every day. I do not belong to a gym presently, but if this was something I wanted to get back into, the cost of it would not be prohibitive.
There is one last category that I did not include in my original list, but can often be the most important one for many expats. I am of course talking about the nightlife here in Phnom Penh. There are those who never go out, never drink and for one reason or another do not want nor need the company of young women. If this applies to any of you reading this post, then please ignore this entire paragraph and move onto my final summary paragraph. But for those that want to participate in such a lifestyle, this aspect can often break or make one's stay in Cambodia. It is true that everything is cheaper here when compared to our home countries. But that quickly stops being the case when one goes out every single night and punts on drinks and girls like it is their last night on Earth. I will simply start by listing the prices of drinks in what I would call regular bars:
• draft beers $1
• canned beers $2
• high end bottled beers $3
• craft beers $4-$6
• cocktails and mixed drinks $2.50
• specialty drinks $3-$4
In hostess bars the drinks are priced a bit higher:
• draft beers $1.50
• canned beers $2.50
• high end bottled beers $3.50
• craft beers are not offered often in hostess bars
• cocktails and mixed drinks $3.50 to $6
• specialty drinks $4-$6
• lady drinks $3.50- $6
It is that last inclusion in the hostess bar list "lady drinks" that changes everything. If one is the type of person to hit these sorts of bars frequently, purchase many lady drinks and everything else that often comes along with that, then living in this country is no longer all that affordable. Once again, all these things are less expensive here than back home, but it can be difficult to find solace in that once the month is over and over $5K has been spent on these establishments. I once knew a poker player that would go out several times per week and easily spend at least $300 each night. And of course there are establishments even more expensive when considering night clubs and KTVs. As a group, my friends and I can easily spend $600 on a given night inside of a KTV when there may just be three of us going. And the clubs can be even pricier as girls will often ask for a $50 tip just for sitting with you and drinking your alcohol. One does not have to be a complete monk of course in order to afford living in this country and still enjoy these activities. One just has to not spend as if their lives depended on it and there are alternatives as drinks at expat bars are far cheaper and there are other ways to meet girls besides going to hostess bars.
In conclusion, I will just reproduce my original list here with prices that I currently pay:
• Apartment/Home Rent - $220/month
• Visa extensions - $30/month
• Utilities - $150/month
• Phone/Internet - $20/month
• Groceries - $100/month
• Restaurants - $350/month
• Transportation - $75
• Gym - $0
• Total - $945
So my core costs are at about $1,000 per month. I should add here that I am married with a baby girl and that adds to my costs considerably. I have not included those here, rather separating the costs that apply to myself only as that is what should be most cogent to those who are considering moving here. I am sure there are things important to the lives of others that I have omitted from this list. But the things that I have listed here should apply to most, if not all, and clearly demonstrate that life here is still very affordable. Once again, there are different elements of life that can add to these expenses whether or not it is choosing to have a family or enjoy the single life on a regular basis. If one can learn to carefully measure those decisions, it will go a long way towards determining being able to live in a country like Cambodia.
One of my favorite films of all time is 2007's Gone Baby Gone, which tells the story of a couple working as private investigators in the city of Boston to find a missing baby. The film begins with shots from the poorer sides of Boston, depicting the harsh realities of life in these parts and yet still romanticizing the virtues of such hardship. And over these shots the main character begins a narration in which he talks about how one can survive in these difficult surroundings while still remaining innocent. He then recounts of how his priest quoted for him a verse from the bible, "You are sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves." I often think of both this movie and the passage itself when pondering over the poker scene here in Cambodia. I am not sure if I am a dove or if I am wise, but certainly we are all surrounded by wolves.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates this more than what occurred recently in the tiny little town of Kampot, Cambodia. This is the city that many expats relocated to when Sihanoukville became inhospitable for foreigners after the Chinese had moved in. And with so many of those that moved being poker players, one man thought it would be a good idea to start a poker room. Of course there were already a couple of games running in town, small affairs in which games were self dealt and no rake was taken. Thus not everyone wanted a game in town in which a commission was taken and customers were invited to play in order to turn a profit. But nonetheless one man pressed forward and started a small $0.25-$0.50 game that managed to run daily from the start. It picked up quite a bit of momentum after a few months, to the point that a second table was needed and additional staff required. Games would often run late with player splashing the pots with chips late into the night or even early into the morning hours.
Of course all this perceived success caught the attention of others and soon enough more people set their eyes on the small town of Kampot. Some were players obviously who were looking for an alternative to playing in either Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. Obviously a game of this size could not provide anyone a living, but for those who wanted to play for fun the city was very attractive with its scenic rivers and affordable living. But it was not just players who were eyeing the game but also room operators who somehow saw a fortune in the hourly drop of a game in which the big blind was only half of a dollar. What ensued over the next few months can only be described as tragic farce of epic proportions in which many would come to fight over the game and force it to change managerial hands several times. Sometimes those who ran it left of their own accord, while others were forced out in favor of someone else or some other group. It got to the point that those who ran it were paying visits to the small $0.10 games that were self dealt among friends and threatening them to stop their game or else... All this over a game that on a good night, took in about $25 per hour in commission.
I lived in Kampot during some of this time and I quite enjoyed it there. I played in the game on most nights and also helped my two friends run it during their tenure as managers. I do not write this to denigrate anyone else who ran this game nor am I trying to make myself and my friends look like the innocent victims in all of this. Instead I have come to a realization that none of us were innocent during this time. My friends were not the first to run this game and in fact they took it from someone else. I helped them run it for a while but those that would come after us took the game in the same manner, and those that came after them and so forth. But even the one who started the game originally is not free of blame here. I have always said that once you drop that first dollar into the rake box the game is forever changed and will head down a path similar to the one in Kampot. This is Cambodia and whether it is foreigners or locals, people will not idly stand by while others make a profit running a business of this nature. I would like to remind everyone at this point that this was a $0.25-$0.50 game. It should have been just a friendly game that ran out of some guy's house, garage or attic. But that first person had the idea to drop that first dollar into the box and before everyone knew it entire houses were being rented out to run this game with players being promised rakeback and all sorts of benefits. Once again, this was a $0.25-$0.50 game.
We were all bad actors on this stage and here we are now months later and there is no game in the city of Kampot. Every once in a while we will hear whispers of someone else trying to open a new game, but I do not think anyone would dare at this point. It will take some time before these wounds heal and there can be another game in this small town. But of course we are not really talking about just a small town here because Kampot was really just a microcosm for what goes on in the poker scenes of other cities, the entire country and even all around Asia. Someone recently asked me what I would do if I had the chance to run another room and do it exactly the way I wanted to. I am secretly hopeful that I will never find out for I fear that I will remain a wolf and never become the dove that I strive to be.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.