Debris from demolished homes and guesthouses at Boeung Kak Lake. Photo by: DANIEL GOODMAN
I will probably close in the next few months once the tourist season ends because I don’t have enough money
In Boeung Kak, it’s not only the lake drying up. Tourism, an important part of the community’s economy, is disappearing and many local businesses are struggling to revive their livelihoods in other parts of the city, while others cannot even afford to relocate.
Joe Yan, a 33-year-old former tuk-tuk driver, opened his establishment almost two years ago when Boeung Kak lake was still a popular tourist destination. It survived the nation-wide drop in tourism during the global financial crisis, but it’s not likely to survive the loss of the lake.
“I will probably close in the next few months once the tourist season ends because [unlike some others] I don’t have enough money to start a new shop in other parts of town,” Joe says.
His small, dimly-lit dive bar, Corner Bar, which offers visitors a selection of Indian food, “happy” pizza, cheap beer and a pool table that has seen better days, used to be a popular hangout for backpackers travelling through the region on a budget but is now often empty, according to Joe.
Beoung Kak Lake is the site of a controversial development by Shukaku Inc, a company owned by ruling party senator Lao Meng Khin. The government sold Shukaku a 99-year land concession to the lake. The company has been filling the lake with sand and forcing out residents and businesses to make way for its planned 133-hectare commercial and housing development project.
Local human rights groups estimate around 4,000 families are being impacted by the development, not only through evictions but also the end of their livelihoods. Tourism-based businesses around the lakeside, a popular area for budget travelers, are closing their doors.
Tuk-tuk driver Kim Kok Vanna, 42, originally from the lakeside, had to move his home almost 16 kilometers from the lake but still commutes back each day for work.
“I used to live right here and it was close to work and there were a lot of tourists here,” Kim says, standing at the lake’s edge in the rubble of the home of one of his friends. “Now I have to travel far to get here and the business is no good anymore.”
The actual lakeside is now littered with rubble and debris from demolished homes and hostels, and the area’s main strip is empty. Joe estimates the lakeside used to have as many as 15 active hostels, the main street above the lake had around 17 hostels and there were many shops and restaurants catering to visitors. Now, only four guesthouses remain and a handful of restaurants and shops.
A manager at Simon’s II and No 11 Happy Guesthouse at the lakeside, two of the guesthouses still standing in the area, said that occupancy is about a quarter of what is was last year.
For Sakreat, 27, from Kratie province, the development at the lake has led to a new line of work with less security. He worked for about a year and a half at the No 10 Guesthouse in the area until about two months ago when it closed and now he drives a tuk-tuk and bases himself in the lakeside area.
“It is hard for us because the hostels are closing and there are less tourists,” Sakreat says, “Also, we can’t move to other parts of town because the other hostels already have their own tuk-tuk drivers and they don’t need more hanging around.”
However, some have found the forced move to be an opportunity. Italian restaurant La Dolce Vita shuttered its lakeside location and reopened on Street 172 about a month and a half ago.
The owner, Parom, ran the restaurant on the lakeside for five years but is happy about the move closer to the riverside where he predicts business will be better and revenue higher.
“We just started so business is slow, but I think in the long term it will be better here,” Parom says, “The clientele here is higher class, more local foreigners [expats] and higher-budget travelers.”
While the move means higher rent for Parom, he says he has been able to raise prices to offset the increase in costs.
Some, however, are concerned about how the lakeside development will shift market dynamics. As budget travellers look elsewhere for accommodation, they have starting moving into tourist areas that cater to mid-range or luxury travellers.
The York Guesthouse on Street 172, which caters to “mid-range” backpackers and tourists and offers rooms at rates of US$18-25 per night, has had to lower prices to accommodate an increase in budget backpackers, according to owner Peter Spencelayk, a UK native from York.
Peter has been living in Phnom Penh for seven years and used to operate the Hope and Anchor hostel. He opened his new guesthouse about two months ago. He says it is sad about the demise of the lakeside “because it used to provide an option for the budget travellers”.
Simon Tan, a guest at York Guesthouse who has been a regular visitor to Phnom Penh since 2003, explains: “The lakeside used to separate the market because [the riverside] area is still too expensive for many of the backpacker tourists.”
But downtown, near Street 258, it appears a new area to these travelers is beginning to develop. OK Guesthouse opened its doors almost nine years ago, but until about six months ago there were few other guesthouses in the area.
Now the street is home to six hostels and more are being built. Some of these new hostels come from the lakeside. There is a No 11 Happy Guesthouse on Street 258 and the No 9 Guesthouse is in the process of building a hostel here, both used to be based at the lakeside.
Paorn, 25, a receptionist at No 11 Happy Guesthouse, which opened here about two months ago, said the hostel is fully booked.
“I used to be at lakeside but now the business here is better,” Paorn said. “The tuk-tuk drivers at the airport now tell the tourists to come here instead of the lakeside.”
Nevertheless, many smaller lakeside businesses have not been as fortunate as the larger hostels. Joe tried to organise businesses from the lakeside to move together to a new area, hoping they could secure cheaper rents if they moved collectively. He said that he was unable to generate enough interest and many businesses were simply planning to close up and leave Phnom Penh for their home provinces or other tourist destinations like Siem Reap.
For Joe the future is uncertain. Unable to afford a new location in the more popular and expensive part of town, he expresses the sentiment of many local business owners: “I just don’t know what I will do yet.”