In 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:
Now looks like this:
And from another angle:
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:
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.
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.