Life may be far from idyllic inside the wire fences of refugee camps such as this one. But for many Cambodians here awaiting resettlement, business is booming.
Every morning trucks piled high with fresh meats and vegetables pull up to the camps gate, where they are met by Cambodian men and women -- "refugee retailers" who will resell the food in large open markets that convene inside the camp twice a day, rain or shine.
In theory the 175,000 Indochinese refugees now in Thailand do not need to work. Basic needs for food, shelter and health care are supposed to be met by the Thai camp authorities. But in fact each camp has a thriving black market economy that can provide necessities and most luxury items that they can afford.
Money enters the camps as checks sent by relatives already resettled overseas. Or it might come as income from illicit jobs on the outside. However it arrives, the money causes a chain of sales as it passes from person to person.
This appearance of affluence -- the produce on sale in the Aranyaprathet camps market is as wholesale as that found in most markets in the country -- has formented resentment among the Thais. As a result, the Ghai government often insists that a portion of money that foreign agencies donate for refugee support go to raising living standards in Thai communities around the camps.
Standards at the Aranyaprathet camp are far from representative. One of the oldest camps and the most accessible to dignitaries visiting Bangkok, it is something of a showpiece. Conditions are far above the squalor found in some of the tiny settlements along the Mekong River to the north, refugee workers say.
Still, this does not make the wait any shorter for the camp's inhabitants. The fact that makeshift businesses are officially tolerated may help explain the remarkable lack of social unrest in this and other Thai camps. Most of those working are, after all, just ordinary people trying to make their lives a bit more comfortable.
In Aranyaprathet, like everywhere, prices are rising. But one can still find a 25-cent haircuut, under the scissors and shears of Men Muen, a native of Siem Reap who has worked as a barber for the past 18 years through peace, war and exile.
He works in a dirt-floored, thatch and bamboo shop in the camp's commercial district, a collection of crude huts and sunshades erected especially for business along a major thoroughfare. His chair is an unwieldy contraption of wood, bamboo and twisted nails that miraculously reclines if the customer requests a shave -- for which he pays another 25 cents.
Men Muen says he brought his barbering tools out with him from Cambodia. After 1975 he had spent two years on a Khmer Rouge collective. In 1977 he fled into Thailand but was not able to bring his wife and three children along.
An intent, squinting man whose blade stops when he answers questions, Men Muen says he doesn't want to be resettled just yet. "I'll wait until the end of the year. Maybe my wife and children will have joined me by then."
But given the likelihood of renewed fighting in Cambodia when the monsoon rains taper off this fall, chances are not good his family will make it.
In the meantime, he does five or six haircuts a day. "Many days I earn 30 baht [$1.50]. Other days it's only 15 [75 cents]." Like all businesses in the camp this one answers strictly to the rules of private enterprise. Men Muen is not the proprietor. He pays out half his take to another refugee who owns the chair, mirrow, walls and roof of the shop.
From a shelter near the camp's main gate comes the clinking sound of marble artisans at work. Earlier this month men could be seen finishing a variety of objects -- sitting Buddhas, wine carafe and cup sets, miniature likenesses of Cambodian deities. Their work has earned Aranyaprathet a minor reputation as a center for Cambodian marblework.
Phok Dul, a muscular 38-year-old man, is the shop's master. A native of Battambang, he studied the craft in Phnom Penh and has worked with marble for 19 years. He now shares a few square meters of barracks space with his wife and two children. Their home is brightened by completed sculptures waiting for buyers.
A Phok Dul sitting Buddha, which takes him about two weeks to complete, goes for $75. Just how much of that is profit is unclear. He and his apprentices trade nervous glances and tell conflicting stories on precisely what the raw marble costs.
Boonloy Sriboonruany is another man employed by a refugee entrepreneus. Boonloy is a tailor, working on piece rate at a tailor shop at one of the camp's busiest intersections. The shop is full of bolts of cloth and half-finished garments. It is equipped with three ancient foot-powered sewing machines, rented from Thai merchants for $5 1 month each.
Boonloy will make almost anything one asks him for. He takes home $35 in an average month, but like everyone working in the camp he cautions it can be a lot less than that. A pair of men's slacks sells for about $8, of which $1 will go to Boonloy for the two hours' labor he puts in. The remainder covers material, shop upkeep and return for the establishment's owner.
Boonloy, 23, is in his fourth year in Thailand. For two of those years he has practiced the trade he learned in his home town of Battambang. Like most camp residents he has applied for resettlement. But he notes laconically that "my name hasn't come up yet." In the meantime his special income is making the wait more comfortable for his wife and child.
Refugee workers familiar with life in the camps say a system of byzantine complexity exists under the serface at Aranyaprathet and other camps. For example, refugees pay for choice shop locations, for permission to enter an occupation, for permission to bring goods through the gate.
At the end, however, what is left for the refugee businessman seems pitifully small.