Sitting at a scruffy table in a brothel with his tin of clean hypodermic needles at his side, Phuong looked unutterably sad.
“I am a dog with no home,” said the 26-year-old Vietnamese at Pak Klong, a cross between a gaudy black market and a squalid refugee center on the first inlet on the Cambodian coast east of the Thai border.
Phuong, who interrupted medical studies to leave Vietnam with his family, abandoned his parents in the main Cambodian port of Kompong Som four months ago to try to get to the West.
With his tin of needles, with which he earns a tiny income from administering injections, he ended up in Pak Klong, for some a gateway to trade with the West but for him a dead-end.
On Stilts Over Open Sewer
For him and about 300 other Vietnamese who tried to port-hop along the Cambodian coast to Thailand, home is a collection of bamboo and banana leaf huts built on stilts over an open sewer.
Their dispirited community mingles with the affluent black marketeers who have turned Pak Klong into a main distribution point for illicit trade into Cambodia. The trade has turned an estuary village of only a few dozen people into a bustling town of several thousand.
The waterfront of brightly painted wooden houses presides over constant activity, unloading of cardboard boxes from fishing boats and small high-prowed boats with outboard motors that ply the waters on the two-hour trip from Thailand.
In the channel, a rusting hulk stands loaded with secondhand cars and motorbikes transferred from a less decrepit vessel from Singapore and destined for Kompong Som.
A visit by dozens of Thai businessmen and journalists in February was the first time the town was opened to such outside scrutiny in more than 14 years.
Thaw in Relations
The trip was made possible by the thaw in relations between the neighboring states as a settlement draws near in the 10-year-old conflict in Cambodia.
It was arranged by a Thai businessman and member of Parliament who has been involved in the illicit trade for a decade and who sees further chances for profit as Cambodia opens up.
Three Western journalists tagged along, their Caucasian features drawing stares. “I once saw a group of Russians here but otherwise you are the first,” said one surprised woman.
Fortunes Change Hands
While the Vietnamese carry tins of water or sell their scrawny bodies for a meager living, big fortunes change hands on the waterfront.
An elegant looking half-Thai, half-Cambodian woman sporting a heavy ruby ring and gold bracelets runs the bank. This consists of a wide wooden platform on which she sits behind a glass cabinet with three shelves. The top two are stuffed with Cambodian riel (currency) and the lower one with Thai baht.
“It’s eight riel to 50 baht. People have to change their baht to pay their taxes,” she said. Taxes is a euphemism for bribes to Cambodian patrols that intercept the boats.
Close by, women sort through piles of marijuana. The weed, grown in border areas and used by locals more as soup flavoring than as a narcotic, sells for 300 baht a kilogram, or about $5 a pound.
Many Carry Guns
Although the town seemed peaceful during the day, violence was clearly not far below the surface. Many men carried AK-47 assault rifles, pistols or battered bolt-action rifles.
An arm of the estuary leads off to the west, parallel to the coast, through forested hills where there has been fierce fighting between the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, now beaten back to the Thai border, and the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh forces.
Cambodian officials say the Khmer Rouge no longer threaten the harbor but few locals, remembering the slaughter during the 1975-1978 rule of the Khmer Rouge, are taking any chances.