The Tragic Death of Phnom Penh’s Lake

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 1st, 2012

Destroyed buildings in Beoung Kak Lake, CambodiaIn my nearly six years of traveling the world, my days on the lake in Phnom Penh, Cambodia still remain some of my favorite. I had come for a few days and ended up staying for a few weeks. I spent my time in the famous Number 9 Guesthouse on the lake, watching movies, having a few cold beers, meeting fellow travelers from around the world, and watching beautiful sunsets over the lake. We had a perfect view, as the lake bank faced west. At night, my friends (all of whom also got “stuck” in the city) and I would eat cheap Indian food, play poker, and head to our local haunt, The Drunken Frog. It was our “Cheers”. Everyone knew your name, and I could put it all on my tab.

My experience was probably shared by thousands of other travelers who got stuck in Phnom Penh’s lake district. Sure, it was a bit seedy—a backpacker ghetto if there ever was one. There were the pushers, the touts, the dreads, bootleg movies, and cheap beer. But it was fun, relaxing, and a place that brought people together.

And it is no more.

Beoung Kak Lake has been completely filled in and destroyed. When I was here in 2007, there was talk about closing the area and pushing the residents out so developers could fill in the lake and build on the land. Well, the talk turned into action, and for the price of 88 million USD, Shukaku Inc, a firm run by the influential senator Lao Meng Khin (corruption, anyone?) obtained a 99-year lease on the lake and the surrounding area.

And with that, the area’s fate was sealed.

I’ve heard of its decline in recent years. The encroaching sand and the departure of its residents. Now that I’m back in Phnom Penh, I made sure to head over to see what was left of it first hand.

And for the first time in my travels, I became deeply sad and angry over development. Development can bring a lot of benefits to a community, but here the flagrant disregard for people and the environment was too much. As I saw the area today, my heart sank—and is still sunk. It was heart wrenching to be there.

Gone is the lake, completely filled in except for a small strip of polluted sewage water. What once looked like this:

sunset on Beoung Kak Lake before it was destroyed in 2007

And this:

Houses on Beoung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh

Now looks like this:

The filled in Beoung Kak Lake

And from another angle:

Construction on what remains of Beoung Kak Lake

And another:

The stream that is all that is left of Beoung Kak Lake in Cambodia

Gone are the docks that stretch over the river, where you could watch the sunset and bond with new friends while being attacked by mosquitoes.

The two-dollar, all-you-can-eat Indian place has been demolished:

Destroyed Indian restaurant

And my favorite bar, the Drunken Frog? Boarded and locked up.

All that remains of this once vibrant area is a bunch of torn-down buildings, empty lots, and shacks. Buildings that once held vibrant businesses are now tenements. A few businesses have held on, and I saw three guesthouses still open. But there was less than a handful of people around. The lack of touts and tuk-tuk drivers spoke to the fact that crowds had long since disappeared.

“That place used to have a great breakfast,” I pointed out to my friend. “That’s where we played poker.” “That pile of rubble used to be a great seafood place.” “I used to stay here,” I said pointing to another place.

I wandered through the ruins, and as I stood on the pile of sand that was once the lake, I was deeply disturbed. There is a hole in my heart where the lake once was.

I don’t mind development. Places change, towns grow, societies develop. For the most part, I think development can be a very good thing, especially when it’s done right. But looking around here, I saw nothing but destruction and greed. The lake area was home to thousands of people who eked out a life in a none-too-glamorous part of the city. They ran businesses here. Raised families here. Lived lives that have been destroyed.

But as so often happens around the world, the locals were pushed aside for big money. Residents had very little legal recourse. The legal battle over eminent domain and just compensation was a farce. They were just told to leave, given a little compensation, and if they didn’t like it, too bad. The same thing happened in Ko Phi Phi after the tsunami, when locals were pushed out to make way for rebuilt resorts. Over the years, Cambodia has become rife with corrupt land deals. Residents are kicked out in blatantly illegal moves that even have some people wishing for the Khmer Rouge, because “at least they had a place to live.” The residents are left with little compensation and a lot of unemployment and debt.

I’m sad the lake district isn’t there anymore. I wish future travelers could have those same great memories.

But mostly, I’m sad and disappointed in the shortsightedness of those who would fill in a lake, ruin a community, and destroy a section of town in the name of money. There was no real need to fill in this lake. The only “real” need was greed.

While a few families were allowed to stay—only after the prime minister intervened—thousands more weren’t so lucky. The lake could have been developed with the families in mind and the area saved. But that was not the case.

And so as officials enrich themselves in a clearly dubious and corrupt land deal, all that everyone else is left with is a pile of sand and a lot of resentment.

Editor’s Note: Save Boeung Kak has the latest on the ongoing battle between the residents who are trying to keep what is left of their homes and the government.

comments 61 Comments

What a sad story…You’re right, the world is ever changing, but that doesn’t make it any easier when places we feel a connection are destroyed to make way for something which will never hold the same place in our heart….

Adam G

This is devastating… we have been here, stayed at the Happy Guesthouse and had an amazing time. Agree development is going to happen and should happen especially in Cambodia but there are lines and ideals that should not be forsaken. Thank you for this article, though it has made me incredibly sad but finding out this information is why I follow travelling blogs to keep me updated on the world when not there exploring myself.
Thanks

Jan

I enjoyed that place as well way back in the 90. it’s said. but honestly, a handful of guesthouses for traveller that only take the cheapest places has no economic importance. thats reality. there will be new places. and regarding the nature that has been destroyed: welcome to Asia.

Boueng Kak Lake didn’t exactly qualify as “nature.” The real tragedy is that the middle class Khmer who used to make a living off the tourist trade down there now have been booted off their land. The new development that will be built there will be for the benefit of foreign investment and the filthy rich in Cambodia. The gap between rich and poor here in Camboida widens every year.

this is an example of the capitalistic ‘progression’ that went on in our countries in the past that allows us to sit on our macbooks and pass judgement in 2012

Rod

Sad. Never been there, but it is a similar story worldwide. Nothing stands in the way of corruption.

Nicole C

While I have not seen this area before, it truly is heart wrenching to see such a beautiful area taken over. I am all too familiar with such activities because in a similar way, my home of Las Vegas has had the same thing happen. Not as tragic, but we lost what was once a happy memories to the bigger and better. Now, so we needed more houses and then everything crashed, including future projects, meaning less jobs. I wish I could buy land and let everyone stay just to ensure they are safe.

Chris Coughlan

That’s disgraceful. Perhaps that development is for housing and locals, but if it’s in the name of tourism they’ve made a serious mistake.

That development will be for foreign investment and the benefit of wealthy Khmer. The average/poor folks who used to live around Boeung Kak Lake will get nothing whatosever from it. That’s how it goes in Cambodia circa-2012.

NomadicMatt

The development is to make condos for rich people. Not exactly the best thing to do with a lake.

Wouldn’t subsidence be an issue if you’re building condos on an in-filled lake?

Regardless, I quite agree that this isn’t ‘development’. It’s senseless destruction driven by greed.

Thanks for a great post.

I feel for you. It happened to me last year. They filled in the pond behind my house and replaced all the fields around it with a housing developement. There was so much wildlife…ducks, Great Blue Herons, deer, fox, etc that I loved to watch coming to the water…and the sunsets were incredible. At night we would lie on blankets to watch the stars or fireflies. All gone…

NomadicMatt

Development is not always a blessing.

That’s terrible. Sometimes I am quite disgusted by what people do. It baffles me as to why someone would not think that a lake is beautiful and actually draws people to it. Sounds to me like they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

The world and the places we visit in it are constantly in flux, either for better or for worse. Unfortunately it sounds like development steamrolled this gem. The real tragedy isn’t for the visitors, but for those who lived there.

NomadicMatt

It’s a completely and appalling tragedy for those who live there.

Paul

Hello. I’m 17 and unlike some people my age, I have certain connections with places, and would hate for them to be destroyed or torn down. Ever thought of travelling to the UK, nomadicmatt?

Lu

I was there last September. I decided to go after many friends recommended me Happy Guesthouse, especially because of the lake. It was very sad to find that picture, the lake emptied, and the people not knowing what would happen to his future … is depressing what the ambition and boundless corruption causes in the lives of people, no matter where in the world we are. Im from Argentina, and we are use to things like that. Sad.

harsh for the locals but from a traveling perspective i’m happy it’s gone :S It represented everything wrong with the South East Asian traveling crowd, all family guy, beers, hookers and a fake economy. I don’t know when traveling became this boozey, university card on a right of passage before the ‘real world’

My main piece of advice about Cambodia was always ‘stay away from lakeside if you’re in Phnom Penn’. Of course i don’t condone capitalism destroying habitats, but like i say it’s nice to know people will have to actually seek out something more genuine. Add that to Walking Street, Vang Vieng, Nha Trang and most of Koh Samui. Great places to party or holiday, but travel? Not a chance

This has to be one of the most cretinous comments I have ever read online (including HuffPo).

“harsh for the locals”?

Try 4,000 families, often forcibly displaced under the threat of violence — and you’re “happy it’s gone”. You’re kidding right?

Seeking something more genuine?

As difficult as it may be for your brain to take in, Khmer families lived there long before backpackers decided to get stoned or laid there, and you croaking on about seeking authenticity elsewhere illustrates perfectly how little you appear to have picked up during your time in Phnom Penh.

If you’d bothered to walk 100 metres past the mosque you’d have found conservative Khmer families trying to get on with their life, with zero interaction with foreigners.

But you didn’t.

Johnny: You are an unformed idiot and 4,000 displaced families from Boueng Kak Lake would agree with me.

Your special snowflake “real” travel experience is of exactly zilch import when compared to the lives and homes of the “real” people you appear to so desperately want to get to know.

Tell me, what’s “more genuine” in Phnom Penh?

NomadicMatt

Johnny,

While backpacker places are annoying sometimes, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a “real” area. Just head down to Khao San Road at night and see how many local Thais are out partying. A lot. Yes, touristy areas tend to have more tourists but that doesn’t make them any less a part of that country than anywhere else. In Phnom Penh, the lake district is a short walk to the main part of the city.

And you can get a “real” experience too. While at the Drunken Frog, my friends and I befriended the local staff. After a left, my friends told me a few days later, the staff invited them out with them and then spent a few days at a relatives place in the countryside. Just them and some Khmers.

Local interactions can happen anywhere.

This destruction is more than harsh for the 4,000 families who got the boot and have nothing left to show for their years of hard work.

you’re missing my sentiment entirely, so before you resort to name calling, hyperbole and exaggeration (“This has to be one of the most cretinous comments I have ever read online”) perhaps take a step back and think – of course it’s terrible what happened, that goes without saying. I was merely conveying the fact that one less horrible backpacking cesspit is no longer isn’t a tragedy. I didn’t mention the entire ecosystem aside from ‘lake side’ hostels.

My comment was more of a commentary of the SE Asia backpacking scene, as opposed to commentating on the forced removal of families.

Cat

An interesting book in the same vein is River Town by Peter Hessler. I read it before traveling to China and got not only an interesting precursor to my trip, but the story of how the River Town, Fuling, was destroyed during the Three Gorges flooding. I’m always sad to see my favorite places gone, but in this day and age, it’s simply a reality.

NomadicMatt

Thanks for the recommendation. I like Peter Hessler. I’ve read his other book Oracle Bones. I’ll check this one out.

I stayed at the #10 guesthouse back in 2008. I stayed for a week and watched the sun set over that lake on the back deck every single night. This just breaks my heart :(

NomadicMatt

Those were great days…..

Wow. That is really sad. Sad to think about the people who lost their jobs because of this “development” who aren’t going to be the ones to get whatever new jobs the development brings in. I’m not entirely against development either, as long as it is done responsibly, but it’s sad to see it done like this. I’m not so sure it’s going to help the local community. I also hate to see this done at the expense of a natural resource. Do you have any idea what they are planning to build there and who is likely to be employed?

NomadicMatt

From what I understand they are going to build high end condos.

From a human perspective, I find this devastating. I learned of similar land grabs in Sihanoukville. Just Google “Sihanoukville evictions”- it’s awful.

From a superficial and selfish perspective, I’m sad I never got to experience this legendary backpacker hangout. I love Phnom Penh fiercely though, and I had a ball exploring the new hotspots when I was in town.

Betti

aside from the human tragedy side…. it is nearly always disastrous to mess with waterways and lakes in a tropical country. the new BKK airport was built on a former swamp. canals filled in, flood plains turned into housing development or industrial estates all over central Thailand. and then ooops a great big flood hits and they wonder why.
what’s next, trying to convert Tonle Sap to a housing estate?

NomadicMatt

Same thing happens down in the Gulf of Mexico too!

Isabel

I feel your pain Matt. The pace of development in Asia is scarily rapid and with nary a thought for preservation of what nature gifted to us. It is happening right now as I write this in my hometown of Penang in Malaysia. Reclamation of the sea occurs frenetically as developers build high rise condominiums in the blink of an eye (it makes you really wonder about safety issues), hills are raped and green lungs in the city are done away with in the name of progress. I live here and I feel afraid that one day, even the remnants of what we have of the soul of this city will be destroyed and all that is left will be an emotionless concrete jungle.

NomadicMatt

If there’s one thing i’ve learned with all my time in Asia is that there are hardly any safety standards.

Neil Skywalker

Impressive blog post. I have just posted a story on my stay in Phnom Penh on the Boeng Kak lake, its not a mainstream travel story. But i sure liked that place.

Greetz Neil Skywalker

Oh man, I was there back in early 2009. The sunsets, lazy beers, and chilling out were absolutely amazing. I met someone who showed me recent pics of the place and it completely blew my mind. Now seeing your pictures really hits close to home.

Back in 2009, there were rumors swirling about the closure/draining but never did I think it would actually go through. It really is devastating to see the state that it’s in now.

Ahhh, Lakeside… so sad that it’s nothing more than a memory now…

Jay

Hi Matt,

Allow me to be a total backpacker tragic…

I visited Phnom Penh in 2008, and low and behold, I stayed in Guesthouse Number 9 on Boeung Kak. I stayed in PP longer than I had planned, falling head over heels in love with it. I whiled away my late afternoons watching the sunset from the deck with a cold beer in hand and a few like minds around the table.

To me, Boeung Kak represented the backpacker ideal. I don’t think I need to explain it one iota. It’s an utter tragedy what’s become of Boeung Kak, moreover because of the real lasting damage that’s been caused to those making a living by its shores. But, as anyone who has spent time in SE Asia can attest, all is ephemeral.

Afterward PP, I stayed in Sihanoukville, also for longer than I had planned.

In these situations, and to show what a tragic I really am, I like to come back to a quote from Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach”…

I still believe in paradise,
But now at least i know it’s not some place you can look for,
Cause it’s not where you go,
It’s how you feel for a moment in your life,
And if you find that moment it lasts forever.

RIP Boeung Kak

NomadicMatt

Ahhh The Beach. That is one of my favorite books! I feel your pain.

Andy

Anyone know what happened to the guy who ran the $2 Indian joint? I had a few good nights out there back in 2005 and he and his family ran a great business. He said he had previously worked in a 5 star hotel in India before he moved to PP, and you could really tell with his wonderful curries and warm friendly service. Was hoping to go and visit them again somewhere.

NomadicMatt

I wish I knew because I would love to go back there.

I was just getting excited of the thought of my first SEA trip. Searching for the backpacker’s area in Phnom Penh, I’ve read this. Very disappointing that I haven’t had the chance to visit Boeung Kak before it’s gone. :(

I came upon this article while reminiscing about No 9, about reading Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ to the backdrop of lilies bobbing on the lake back in 2002.

So many of the places that I visited on my travels have met with a similar fate. It makes me feel sad, but also incredibly grateful to have experienced them when I did.

It all emphasises that when we travel we move through time as well as space. Ten years ago chilling at No 9 seemed such a generic travel experience, something we all did and that people had been doing for years before us. The passage of time has revealed it to be more precious than anyone of us could have realised.

NomadicMatt

Wow. That’s deep. And I love it. Thanks for the comment.

Dan

I was there in 2010. Lots of places were being closed down.

I returned one day to my guesthouse, my bag was outside the room, the beds were being taken out and there were a few heavies there holding wads of cash. They then jumped in to their blacked out 4×4’s and left.

The saddest aspect is the displacement of the thousands of people who made their living in the area, who have been moved miles outside the city. Their livelihood gone. Many who were also victim to the Khmer Rouge regime.

Capitalist gentrification at its most brutal.

Very glad I was able to spend a couple of weeks there before the area was demolished. I cant think of any other areas in Pnhom Penh as beautiful to stay.

Very sadly it was also the same week that over 200 people died because of the stampede on the Diamond Gate bridge.

Add to that visits to S21 Prison, the Killing fields and Angkor Wat, Cambodia will always leave a lasting impression.

This has made me very sad… Was there in 2002. Stayed at the No9 Guesthouse and ended up stuck Phnom Penh for nearly a month (far longer than I planned) with some amazing people I’d met on the road and it has some fantastic memories for me. Ive heard rumours that tourism is changing massively (for the worse) in Cambodia and I guess this confirms it… I’m just happy I was there when I was as the lake was one of the most memorable spots Ive visited on my travels and marks a time in my life of which I’m very grateful for.

NomadicMatt

I stayed at #9 too. Great place.

I was in Phnom Penh five years ago. The Lake area was one of my favorite places in the city. It is too bad that they are destroying it all for money…

Zoe Daniel did a feature on the forced eviction of the people living there and the destruction of their living quarters. Get goosebumps from watching that – it’s terrible. They say the authorities were so rough when forcing them out of their homes that some pregnant women had miscarriages.
There are still some people resisting the eviction, take 30 minutes out of your day to watch this in-depth report: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2012/s3641914.htm

Pete

Hi Matt,

Great & sadly a depressing article. I was planning on heading there this Xmas, after the recommendations of many of my friends, so started doing a little research. As I now know the Lakeside is no more, I was wondering if there are any alternatives in PP?

No doubt it’ll be impossible to recreate the atmosphere and impact this place has had on so many of you, I just hope there’s still some sanctity left in this mad cruel world ;)

P

Naomi

Spent one of the greatest nights of my year of travelling in The Drunken Frog in 2007. So sad to hear that it is no more. When I think of how many people were supported by the backpacker economy in that area. Each night at The Green Lake Guesthouse a half dozen young men slept on the floor of the communal area. My experience in Phnom Penh provided so many opportunities for interaction with both Cambodians and other travellers.

NomadicMatt

I was there in 2007 too. I wonder if we crossed paths.

Stacia

I haven’t been to Cambodia in 5 or so years. I was talking to my friend who is going for the first time and told her about the lake vs. the river for accom. and dining options. She’d read there is no lake. I googled it and found this. Sorry some people had to write nasty things. I loved your article as it was a piece about your time there and nostalgia for that, which I shared as I went to Cambodia alone in 2005 and again with a boyfriend just before this must have happened as the lake was full and gleaming. I can’t believe someone would want to fill a lake! A major part of their ecosystem and flood protection. Well if the negative commenters are write and it isn’t such a loss, I will just lament my lovely memories of mornings and evenings with the hotel workers and travellers on the deck looking out at the lake. One Khmer had said when I asked about how people had voted at an election “We have instruments to measure the depth of the The Lake but are unable to see what drives the actions inside another’s heart.”

zoe

I stayed at No Problem guesthouse in 2004. So sad to see what they have done…

Morag

I too got ‘stuck’ at number 9 on the lake in 1996. Can’t believe it’s gone. Some of my best backpacker moments ever x

Annmarie

i was there in 2009 and had a great time on all the decks looking out at the sunsets with a chang beer and Wee one of the little lads that sold books all day, we’d buy him lunch or dinner, use to feel so sorry for him carrying around them heavy books from 10am till 11pm, all the guesthouses never stopped him an let him do his thing… it was a lovely place :( so glad I experienced it

Judy

I stayed there in ’04. It was not even popular then, as in packed. I switched rooms a few times to get the perfect $5 room. Mosquito netting patched with duck tape, ghastly electric wiring. The toilets didn’t flush just emptied right into the lake…so I was very careful crossing the little bridge between room and hang out area. God forbid, I fall into that lake! The place was hysterical: kids selling $4 bags of quite decent pot, a wild assortment of travelers, helpful staff who would rustle up a meal at all hours. When I returned a few years later the place was packed with too many enthusiastic sports watchers. So, I stayed at a hotel downtown and just visited a few times. Very sad to loose that funky backpacker haven but seriously, the lake was polluted and that large area was underused in an important city like Phnom Phnom. Too bad it couldn’t have been used for some level of mixed income housing….But, that is pretty advanced urban planning.

Graham Carter

What a shame this is. I just recommended this to a friend who is visiting Cambodia. I have had to advise it is no longer. This was such an amazing place staying on the lake edge in lovely accommodation. I think I stayed in the happy guesthouse. I would say this was most of the beautiful parts of the area. sad times :(((((

NomadicMatt

It’s very tragic. Such a waste.

Jens

I stayed in green lake guest house for months around 2007.
Say what you want about the so called ‘green light district’, but it had it’s charm. And it remains one of my best memories of my backpacker days in SEA. Today I live in Bkk, and visit PP from time to time for visa renewals. But the old feel and community among like-minded backpackers are long gone together with Boeng Kak.

The streets a long Sisowath Quay can never be the same. And I’m not talking about the overflow of cheap weed and beers. Those are still readily available for anyone interested.. But Boeng Kak was something much more than that first impression some people might love while others despise. All in all I’m sad to see it’s gone.

I have met one of the owners of Green Lake since then. And while he is still getting by he’s not the same cheerful guy he once was.
I really wonder where all those guys who got stuck there ended up though, probably headed back to Wales and England and wherever else they came from.

Same thing happened in Hampi. One day bulldozers showed up and tore everything down with only 24h of warning for the residents. Talk is of hotels in neighboring towns putting bakshish in the right pockets.

All the guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafés of my fond memories are just rubble now.
It’s a tragedy, devastating….

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