All in on Sihanoukville

A dead body is tossed out of a car in broad daylight.

As panicked bystanders flee, the car slowly drives off.

The victim was reportedly a loan shark operating in the casinos of Sihanoukville.

Once a quiet tourist town on the coast of Cambodia, Sihanoukville has been transformed into a Chinese gaming empire to rival Macau.

“It’s scary,” says Phay Siphan, the spokesman for Cambodia’s cabinet.

“Sometimes they kill those people. Sometimes they brutally treat those people. Cambodians don’t want to see that.”

More than 100 casinos are planned for Sihanoukville, with most already open to punters.

The density of casinos in Sihanoukville is higher than the Las Vegas strip.

"It's positioning to be the Las Vegas of the East.

Provincial authorities say more than 90 per cent of businesses in the city are now Chinese-owned.

"It's positioning to be the Las Vegas of the East,” says Wang Zhilang, a Chinese real estate broker in Sihanoukville.

“There are many who get rich overnight, so that attracts many Chinese investors here.”

Gaming consultant Ben Lee estimates more than 300,000 Chinese nationals have moved to the Cambodian city.

He says local authorities have not kept up with the rise in crime and rampant development.

“The rapid growth in Sihanoukville has resulted in basically a void in terms of police enforcement,” he says.

“You have building codes that have not been adhered to, you have crimes that are basically unmonitored and unpoliced. You have scores of incidents to do with Chinese gangsters, kidnapping, robbing and perpetrating crimes of various sorts.”

Chinese nationals have been arrested at Cambodian airports with suitcases stuffed full of millions of dollars in cash in several cases in the past year.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that the proliferation of casino licences has coincided with a surge in crime.

Casinos now dominate the Sihanoukville skyline, but much of the money driving this explosion in construction comes from further afield, thanks to live online gaming.

Gambling is illegal in mainland China. But insiders say many are violating this law by betting online through Cambodian casinos.

At WM Casino, rows of young women deal cards for livestream audiences around the world.

A few gamblers toss chips across the surrounding tables, but most of this casino’s clients are elsewhere.

The casino insists its operations are legal, but industry experts and government officials say mainland Chinese gamblers are the prime market for live online betting.

"This is the wild west, my friend.

“They are the number one user, [just] as Cambodia's currently the number one exporter,” says Marc McLay, a Canadian gaming promoter known as Jonny Ferrari who sold online gambling software here.

“This is the wild west, my friend. There are perhaps some regulations, but they’re not being enforced. Money talks, that’s all it is,” he says.

Ben Lee, managing partner at IGamiX Management and Consulting, estimates up to 80 per cent of gaming revenue in Sihanoukville now comes from online gambling targeting mainland Chinese.

“Once they got hooked, [online syndicates] would then perpetrate all sorts of scams, including in some cases downright fraud and manipulation of the gaming results.”

These scams, known as “killing pigs”, involve teams that work out of makeshift call centres and online chat rooms to target potential victims in China.

"‘Killing pigs" means you raise the pig and then kill it,” says real estate broker Wang Zhilang.

Scammers pose as young women to entice men into online relationships, gradually luring them to gaming sites.

“They will tempt you to start with winning a small amount of money. Once you increase your investment, they will hack into your account and you can't withdraw the money you've won,” Wang says.

Vast numbers of young Chinese recruited to perpetrate these scams often become victims themselves, according to Wang.

“When they arrive, their passports are confiscated and they are kept here for six months before they can leave,” he says.

As the syndicates have grown more audacious, Beijing is taking action.

In August, Chinese police flew to Cambodia to extradite 150 Chinese nationals who were allegedly part of online extortion rings.

That same month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced his government would outlaw online gaming by December 2019.

Despite the crackdown, notorious triad figures are still moving in.

Among them is one of Macau’s most feared men, Broken Tooth Koi, who served 14 years in prison for gangland crimes including leading the notorious 14K triad.

But when Broken Tooth - whose real name is Wan Kuok-koi - launched a new gaming crypto currency in Phnom Penh last year, some of Cambodia’s top brass were there to welcome him.

Another figure accused of connections to the 14K triad, Alvin Chau, is quickly becoming one of the most powerful figures in Cambodia’s gaming market.

Chau is the founder and chief executive of Suncity, a major Macau gaming company, that is jointly developing Sihanoukville’s biggest casino.

Chinese state media has accused Suncity of raking in billions of dollars from online gaming operations based in Cambodia and the Philippines that illegally targeted mainland Chinese punters.

Chau denies any wrongdoing.

A confidential 2018 investigation into Suncity by the Hong Kong Jockey Club raised serious alarms about the connections between Suncity executives and organised crime.

Chau declined to be interviewed by Al Jazeera.

Cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan says Cambodia’s government has taken steps to stop Chinese underworld figures co-opting senior officials.

“We are afraid of the mafia. We’re afraid of them colluding with the [military] officers... as well as the government members involved with that area,” he says.

But his government’s attempts to curb such allegiances don’t appear to be working.

In October, Broken Tooth Koi was back to launch another business - this time a beer company.

Once again, he was flanked by Cambodian government officials.