A warmly lit sign hanging above an alcove is the only indication of life in an otherwise dark laneway. In the tiled entrance, a couple of people known to the proprietor sit in the laconic manner of people who celebrate the end of their work day in much the same way every week, drinking and smoking cigarettes punctuated with laughter or some unreturned piece of insight into the day.
The aesthetic of the bar’s interior, decked out in crimson and purple cushions set around low-flung tables, is akin to that of an opium den, if lacking an opium den’s drug-addled inhabitants. Very few people pass through this Thursday night, and the neighbourhood around it is almost deserted.
The two buildings next to the Lost & Found bar have been levelled after their owners took an early offer from Skukaku. The only reminder of their existence is a concrete slab and the outline of where the brick walls once stood.
Five years ago, at this time of night, there would have been 1000 backpackers and expats teeming up and down Street 93, what was then Phnom Penh’s answer to Bangkok’s Khaosan Road or Ho Chi Minh’s Pham Ngu Lao Street.
Foreigners from all over the city came to watch the sunset over Boeung Kak Lake, before whiling away the evening by gorging on cheap meals and oscillating between the bars and guesthouses until the ungodly hours.
Lost & Found’s owner set up shop in Boeung Kak nine years ago, down an alley set back from the tourist mecca’s thriving epicentre, hoping to provide a quiet respite from the cacophonous tourist strip for the vibrant expat community based in the area.
Next year he plans to close up one of the few remaining nightspots in Lakeside, and is considering a move up to Mondulkiri.
Although he thinks the international attention on Boeung Kak has abated the threat of an unannounced eviction from the bar, for three years he lived in uncertainty.
“It was very depressing for me,” he says. “I never knew if they’d turn up one day and give me my marching orders. I never knew if I’d have another day, another week. If I broke something there was the whole question of whether or not I should replace it. Things started to slide.”
“At the same time you had these two guys from Skukaku, or whatever, riding through every morning on their Honda Waves to do their little inspection, followed by a bunch of soldiers with AKs. I was just seeing people leave. People I’d known for years – I didn’t always know their names but they’d walk past every day, and then they all left.”
The owner offers to take us for a walk around the neighbourhood. 50 metres west down the alley, it’s possible to climb a sand embankment where the edge of the water used to be, a residue of the giant plumbing machinery used to terraform the lake into a silt desert. The walk there takes us to the edge of the demolitions, where entire streets have been levelled.
The outline of old lanes can be seen in what remains of the plots. All of them are littered with old rubble that has been swept into hasty piles, an off act of civic-mindedness amidst the destruction.
The houses that remain on this street each have stickers of an angel dropping lotus flowers affixed to their walls. According to the Book of Exodus, the Israelites being spared the tenth plague of Egypt by marking their doors with lamb’s blood. The owner sees us gaping at them.
“Well, they’re not going to put up a Sam Rainsy sticker, are they?” he spits.
Given the CPP’s ties to Shukaku Inc., the company granted a 99-year lease to develop the area, to the outsider it’s perverse that these remaining locals hope to ward off the fate of their neighbours by adorning their property’s with the talisman of the party’s logo.
During last month’s commune elections, former residents of Boeung Kak, since displaced to the margins of the city travelled back to the site of their old homes.
The Cambodian Peoples’ Party swept the elections resoundingly, as it did at the site of the Borei Keila evictions on the other side of the city, where residents were bussed back from their new locales at the behest of the party.
One resident told the Post that he still expected the government to follow through on its plans to demarcate 12 hectares of land promised for the evictees, because the government had promised action once the elections were over.
“We are waiting for authorities to give us a resolution about our land dispute, because they claimed they would after the commune elections,” said Doung Kea, an evictee currently waiting for a land title at the site.
Walking south down Street 93, our guide points out his old favourite haunts of the strip. Guesthouses are boarded up. An Indian restaurant, still in operation and completely non-descript in appearance, is devoid of customers.
Further down are the Magic Sponge and the Drunken Frog, legendary bars in their day, now empty and their signs fading.
Before we leave, he tells us we should read the quote hanging up in his bathroom for perspective.
An aphorism from the 19th century German philosopher Georg Simmel, framed to meet the eye line of any male exercising their masculine prerogative, it reads: “Nothing more can be attempted than to establish the beginning and the direction of an infinitely long road. The pretension of any systematic and definitive completeness would be, at least, a self-illusion. Perfection can here be attained by the individual student only in that he communicates everything he has been able to see.”
The road out of the Lakeside strip, just south of the Calmette Hospital, is dotted with the businesses that tailor to the cosmopolitan set that the community once served.
Travel agents and restaurants built for 200 people still have their lights on but look dormant from the outside.
For those that left, many have since moved on to new venues around Riverside, Wat Ounalom and elsewhere, in tandem with the shift in the city nightlife’s centre of gravity.
There’s no shortage of people in Phnom Penh to tell Lakeside’s story. Many of them speak of Lakeside wistfully, rueing what was lost.
Several liken living there to an oasis, a community living in blissful ignorance of the contours and happenings of the rest of the city, a self-sustaining enclave in which transients would meander in and then never have to leave.
All of them are circumspect enough to remember that they only lost a lifestyle, while their neighbours lost their livelihoods.
“I was personally very depressed, but I’ve got over that now,” our guide says. “To watch them all go was very saddening. I never felt too sorry for myself. The people who were here have lost the lake they used to fish on, lost homes and businesses that they’ve had since forever.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]