Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Kandal Border City Swelling With Mysterious Condos

Workers walk on a rooftop structure of one building in the Golden Fortune Resorts World Casino compound in Kandal province’s Sampov Poun city on June 10, 2024. (CamnoJA/Danielle Keeton-Olsen)
Workers walk on a rooftop structure of one building in the Golden Fortune Resorts World Casino compound in Kandal province’s Sampov Poun city on June 10, 2024. (CamnoJA/Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

The ground in Sampov Poun city shakes as construction trucks, stacked with bricks and dirt towering over their cabins, pass over battered cement roads in June. 

Sampov Poun, the new city on Kandal province’s border with Vietnam, is experiencing a seismic construction boom for the agricultural town, with sprawling building complexes springing up from empty fields. 

The sudden boom is only about a year old but has been transforming the shape of the border village, said Veasna, a 60-year-old resident who lives a block away from the massive Golden Fortune Resorts World Casino complex. With the trucks have come more military personnel and sports cars, but Veasna, speaking under a pseudonym to avoid repercussions in his city, said he did not wish to see this kind of development. 

“How about building factories for people to work in?” he asked. “That would be more beneficial.”

Kandal’s newly-minted border city of Sampov Poun is exploding with new constructions of large, homogenous condo complexes in what’s otherwise an agricultural village. Though residents were not sure what these new condos would become, they increasingly noticed foreign workers in the city and even Cambodians being recruited for “online” businesses.

Reporters found at least four new multi-building complexes are being built in Sampov Poun city, while the existing Golden Fortune Casino – which is associated with the opaque conglomerate Prince Group – is under construction. While some of the construction workers migrating into the bordertown didn’t know what they were building, several said that their worksites would someday be casino complexes – and by the multiple storeys and buildings at each construction site, they appear to hold more than just slots and baccarat tables. 

An under construction compound in the middle of agricultural fields in Kandal province’s Sampov Poun city on June 10, 2024. (CamnoJA/Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

The border city already has six licensed casinos, according to the Commercial Gambling Management Commission, which is chaired by the Economy and Finance Minister Aun Porn Moniroth. The sudden growth coincides with the persistent online scam and gambling industry being hosted in and around casinos across the country, as well as the national government’s decision to create Sampov Poun city at the quiet border checkpoint abutting Vietnam’s Long Binh province. 

Several local officials declined to comment on the growth of Sampov Poun city, including Kandal deputy provincial governor Kruy Malen, deputy provincial hall administrator Each Sovann Veasna and Sampov Poun city police chief Chhun Chichhoun. Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophoan could not be reached for comment.  

When asked about the properties on the market in Sampov Poun, real estate service firm CBRE Cambodia’s managing director Kim Kinkesa declined to comment, saying she has not observed the area enough to answer CamboJA News’ questions. 

Tom Sullivan, the CEO of land and property information website, said he didn’t know about any developments in Sampov Poun. However, a 2022 listing on the property site, selling a bit more than 4 hectares in the city for $1.36 million, suggested that the property on offer was in a bordertown development area.

Rising from the rice fields

On the ground, residents of Sampov Poun see clear changes. 

The new constructions in Sampov Poun seem to occupy large walled-off compounds outside the small cluster of houses, hotels, KTVs and regional restaurants offering Vietnamese, Indonesian and Chinese cuisines. 

Workers spent their morning carrying materials, sawing and laying rebar, and stacking bricks on multi-story buildings. Their sleeping shacks – stilted homes hastily constructed with red wood and furnished with sleeping mats, hammocks and fans – huddle in the fields next to the newly constructed white walls. 

Construction workers who spoke to CamboJA News said they largely followed other workers to the Kandal province border city within the last six months, hearing there were several construction projects underway. 

Roath, a 28-year-old taking a break to spend time with her young daughter, said she earned $10 for an 8-hour day of work and the conditions were standard, but she preferred her time helping to construct the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway, saying her wages and hours were better. 

“I have two kids, and it’s hard to pay for their school,” she said.  

Khuth Bunthann, Sampov Poun commune’s police chief, told CamboJA News that he encountered workers coming for two or three months from all over the country:  Siem Reap, Prey Veng, Preah Sihanouk and Koh Kong, to name a few. “They just stay inside the construction [project] area,” he said. 

Math, a 35-year-old worker from Prey Veng, said that he arrived at the construction site just north of the border nine days before meeting reporters on June 10. He heard this project started in April, and he had just followed a crew to work on the line. 

Math had yet to find out what he was actually building and speculated they might be building a borey. “It could be the same type of project as this one,” pointing to the other construction site due north, where Roath works. 

Unlike major developments in Sihanoukville, Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, there are few signs next to or banners draping from fences to advertise the new construction. Workers also said they knew little about the three sites visited by CamboJA News, suggesting they could be borey, condos or casinos. 

Sampov Poun commune chief Chhit Heang said that he knew the construction projects were related to Chinese companies or investors, but he did not know details about the cases. He added that there is some heightened sense of security around some sites:  “[In] some places they allow my authorities to check and some places do not allow [us] to check.”

One of the sites had a sign advertising the complex under the name “Jin Wan Property Developer”. When CamboJA News called a number, one representative told a reporter that they’re currently selling apartments and office space. When a reporter asked about the parent company, the man said to text a Telegram number that did not connect to the app. 

However Roath, the worker from that site, knew the complex as something different. “This project is called Prince,” she said. 

A new ‘online’ hub? 

The Golden Fortune Resorts World casino along National Road 21 is unique from the other gambling hubs in Sampov Poun city because instead of one or two buildings, the gated complex consists of at least 16 buildings and three rows of borey-like housing, based on the view from European Space Station satellite imagery. 

The gated property has been named by as the site of cyberscam operations that use detention, violence and torture to keep workers in line, according to media and police reports. A Prince Group representative told RFA this year that the property was constructed by the group but not owned by it. 

A map showing the existing casinos and incoming constructions in Sampov Poun city, using a European Union satellite image captured on June 13, 2024. (Map by Danielle Keeton-Olsen/CamboJA News)

The Golden Fortune complex was actively under construction when CamboJA News visited, with workers installing a structure on the roof of one of its southernmost buildings. 

The registered casino’s owner, Ing Dara, has served presently or previously as director for several Prince-linked companies. The contact information for Golden Fortune Resorts World in the Commerce Ministry’s database links the company to a man called Derrick Keo, who describes himself as a consultant for Prince Consulting & Advisory on LinkedIn

CamboJA News could not reach Golden Fortune representatives via their Commerce Ministry listed email and phone number. 

The new construction sites due south of Golden Fortune appear to resemble the complex’s simple and expansive structure, even in their partially complete stages. 

Heang, the commune chief, said that there are three compounds linked to Prince Group in Sampov Poun commune, all of which are close to each other. It was not immediately clear to reporters which compounds, if any, were under Prince Group’s ownership.

The commune chief reported that there had been some problems with “Prince,” referring to the Golden Fortune casino complex. He said that a foreigner was held in the casino leading to a difficult dispute a few years back. 

“You come and talk with authority, you will know [what has happened] clearly,” he said. 

Residents also expressed concern about the rise of reported scam and online gambling in their city, which they referred to as “online” businesses being conducted in casinos and the growing number of compounds. 

Dany, a 28-year-old drink vendor from Sampov Poun, parked her motorized cart outside another large construction site on the northwest edge of the city. From her estimate, workers were building an office park, a complex of rental rooms and an electricity station, surrounded on all sides between banana plantations, irrigation streams, and flat, empty land. 

She can only sell a little bit a day to Cambodian workers, but she notices that there are foreign workers, likely Chinese and Indonesian, already working in the semi-complete structures. 

“Cars are always coming in, going out,” she said. 

Veasna, the 60-year-old living in the shadow of Golden Fortune, said he’s seen more suspicious activity:  he showed CamboJA News a security camera video allegedly of a worker attempting to escape the Golden Fortune complex, which was published in local news. The video shows a man being dragged out of the garage by his arms by four uniformed guards and other men in plainclothes. At least one guard in a uniform kicked the man, according to the video. 

“We’ve learned that in the past when the cops come to investigate crimes in the casino, we see police cars coming into the building and a little later, they come out of the building,” Veasna said. 

Construction worker housing in front of a construction project, which has a sign advertising “Jin Wan Property Management” at its entrance, in Kandal province’s Sampov Poun city on June 10, 2024. (CamnoJA/Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

Veasna’s son, Socheat, in his 20s, decided to take a job delivering water inside a compound called “Prince 2” by locals, noting that there are no other jobs in the province. All the office workers there – both foreign and Khmer – do online business such as gambling promotion or finding clients for scams. While Cambodian online workers get paid lower salaries of $600 or $700 per month, they at least have freedom of movement. 

Socheat, also using a pseudonym, recalled that he saw a man try to steal money who got his hands broken. When a group of foreigners tried to escape, they were put in an isolated room. 

“They looked like they were suffering a lot and in pain,” Socheat described. “[Their employers] put them inside one room filled with 30 people. They give them tap water for drinking and…they get electric shocks every day.”

As with the rest of the country, the scam industry in Sampov Poun has not stopped and instead quieted down. 

The security in Sampov Poun seemed to tighten after 42 people escaped the city’s Rich World Casino complex by swimming across the Binh Di river into Vietnam in August 2022, which coincided with a broader clampdown on the reported scam industry

Through rumors among residents, Veasna heard that security is very intense, using fingerprint or card scanners, with multiple armed guards at the door. He added that cars with license plates for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces have been spotted in the complex. 

Veasna noted that the land has to be owned by Cambodian nationals doing business with Chinese people, but he did not know any names when asked. With little explanation of how Sampov Poun city is expanding, Veasna and other residents can only share rumors and speculate. 

“Now it is very secretive,” when people escape, Veasna said.

Barbed wire lines the backside of the Rich World casino, from which 42 foreigners escaped in August 2022, in Kandal province’s Sampov Poun city on June 10, 2024. (CamnoJA/Danielle Keeton-Olsen)