Many visitors to the Cambodian capital today would be unaware the city once had a lake. Boeung Kak Lake (usually “Bong Kak”) was the largest urban wetland in Phnom Penh. All up it was 90 hectares (222 acres) of water, aquatic weeds and wildlife. The lake was located in the north of the city bordered by the railway, Calmette Hospital, and a couple of Phnom Penh’s main boulevards.
Once it was the main backpacker ghetto where guesthouses lined the eastern shore jutting out over the water, and the surrounding lanes were filled with families, bars and cheap restaurants. Guests watched tropical sunsets, were served cheap beer and food, had their laundry done, and every day was like Sunday.
For Cambodians the reality was it much more than that. Boeung Kak was a wildlife refuge, aquatic playground, ready source of income for mostly family businesses, and an integral part of the city’s natural flood prevention system which came into its own during the rainy season. It was also an oasis away from the hustle of the densely-populated city and the constant traffic noise.
In 2008 all that changed when a development company started pumping it full of sand. Shukaku Inc, which is owned by the wife of a politician, bought a 99-year lease for US$79 million for 133 hectares of land surrounding and including Boeung Kak Lake. They turfed out the residents – it’s thought that over 17,000 people were affected– and turned this water wonderland into a dust bowl.
The fate of the lake, and those if its one-time residents, is nothing unique in Phnom Penh. Thousands of the city’s residents – some reports say 11 percent of the city’s population – have faced eviction and its waterways, mainly canals replaced by roads, have been slowly disappearing over the years. Both are victims of development, usually ruthlessly applied and often poorly conceived.
Land ownership is a vexed issue in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge abolished land titles and destroyed all the records. A land law change in 2001 resulted in further controversies. The people around Boeung Kak reputedly bought their land in the 1980s from high ranking military and civil service personnel. The trouble in Cambodia is that those with the power often use that power to service their own ends; and can employ the military, the police, and the courts to ensure they get their way.
Despite demonstrations, petitions by residents, and protests from international agencies like the World Bank and world figures such as Hilary Clinton, the evictions went ahead. Compensation options were offered. None of these apparently meet the obligations of international laws regarding evictions and were roundly condemned by civil society. Those facing eviction largely deemed them inadequate. Some of the residents were sent to jail. The most notable of these was a group of women known as the Boeung Kak 13, the oldest of whom was 72.
For visitors on a budget Boeung Kak was the usual destination when in Phnom Penh. I stayed there a few times off and on, and even set up semi-permanent residence at Number 9 Sister guesthouse, when I first worked in Cambodia. One of the noticeable things about Boeung Kak was a sense of living amongst the locals as opposed to just being a tourist. In return for the income provided, Boeung Kak’s residents tolerated scantily clad tourists and their sometimes late night noisy and drunken behaviour.
In 2010 I returned to Number 9 and took a photo from the restaurant out over the water. Where the lake once stretched to the buildings distant, most of it was sand.
Number 9 and Number 9 Sister were owned by a Phnom Penh policeman. Staff earned a basic wage and slept in a windowless room on bare bamboo beds. The policeman barely went out to do any actual policing. As another semi-permanent resident there explained “rather that than be out fleecing the local population.”
Once in Phnom Penh, moto riders whisked you away to the lake through the city’s chaotic traffic. Back then Cambodia was still making its mind up which side of the road to drive on. Give way rules were non-existent and traffic lights mere items of curiosity. The only factor saving you from death and injury was that vehicles didn’t travel very fast. Riders would deposit you at various guesthouses, for which they were paid by the passenger and the house. Often moto riders attached themselves to a guesthouse, sleeping in the restaurant and acting as unofficial security and travel guides.
Boeung Kak aspired to become Phnom Penh’s version of Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker mecca. The reality was the guesthouses on lakeside never, with one or two exceptions, raised above the rudimentary. The area had one main lane, which was sealed by the local community in 2006. Before that it was dirt and in the wet season, became a bog. Off this ran a rabbit warren of lanes where lean-to rooms could be had for as little as US$2-3 in some cases, and with good reason, they were flea pits. In addition to the usual Lonely Planet brigade of backpackers, these shacks were home to foreigners, some of whom were in dire straits. Occasionally though, you could find some real characters there, hardcore travellers and long-time Asia expats, well past their go home expiry dates and beyond which readjusting to life as it once was would prove nigh on impossible.
The breeze generated by the lake provided natural air-conditioning, great in the hot season. The guesthouse rooms were, however, poorly constructed, affording little in the way of soundproofing and just as likely to exaggerate heat through the thin roof spaces. Restaurant sound systems and movies competed with one another, providing continuous noise pollution; and the kitchens and alleyways were infested with rodents.
Entertainment consisted of collections of pirated DVDs; books leftover from various departed backpackers. The Killing Fields was usually the most viewed film, this being the introduction for most to the history of Cambodia; and sadly their education rarely went any further.
Later there was Moskito Bar run by a Glaswegian, Eddie, and his girlfriend, who looked like Boney M but sounded like Billy Connolly. The music was every night until the early hours, which local residents bore with great tolerance. One of the local restaurants was the Lazy Gecko, run as a kind of co-op, and which did a great BLT and plunger coffee, and where I’d read the day’s copy of the Cambodia Daily.
Hot water was rare, the toilets dodgy, and air-con unheard of. I can’t comment on bed bugs as I was never bitten, but did get a sick stomach on my first visit, and had a room infested with cockroaches – at the same place on my first visit. Food and beer were cheap, and drugs plentiful; all part of the attraction for backpackers on their gap year.
Rodent life could be experienced first-hand. Rats beat a regular path into Number 9 Sister’s kitchen; the presence of people seemingly offering no deterrence. Most of the rooms had en suite, a generous term for cold water showers and toilets of various descriptions and states of repair. The showers and sinks often ran out through a hole in the floor. Looking back I’m surprised rodents didn’t enter rooms via the plumbing, or perhaps they did and I just didn’t notice.
In addition to being an oasis in Phnom Penh, the lake fulfilled a valuable flood aversion role during the wet season reducing storm runoff. There was once a canal from the lake to the Tonle Sap, the nearest waterway and one that connects to the Mekong River. During the wet season the lake absorbed much of the rainwater and prevented flooding in a city that is both low-lying and flood prone.
Now the lake has been filled in, the guesthouses and restaurants demolished, their occupants evicted, and where fishers once serenely cast their nets there’s a dust bowl, in a city which is already dusty enough. The backpacker centre has relocated many to Street 172, which is altogether more central and not far from the popular Riverside area.
Near old Boeung Kak are symbols of the new Phnom Penh and the new money. The Vattanac Property Tower built by a family that made its money trading in gold, and Canadia Tower – named after a bank started by Khmers who were once refugees in Canada– now home to the country’s first stock exchange with its distinctive orange halo, lit up at night.
The lake is all but gone and so are most of the families, though some still linger living in a ghost town of semi-ruined houses.I miss the lake and feel sorry for the families impacted; but I don’t miss staying there. These days I like my creature comforts.