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The karaoke bar that no one claims to own

The karaoke bar that no one claims to own

Angkor Zone 2 is a supposedly unspoiled area within the 400 square km World Heritage Site in Siem Reap, established by UNESCO in 1995. A decade-old royal decree charged the Apsara Authority with maintaining and protecting the zone, a serene territory encompassing Angkor's titanic temples.

And the Cambodian government appears intent on preserving the region's pristine beauty: In 2004, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated a ban on the building of "hotels, restaurants, karaoke etc." in the zone via a circular letter.

All of which makes the clamorous - and evidently illegal - presence of Boeung Bopha Angkor Restaurant in Zone 2 something of a mystery.

It's not a mistake: The restaurant, a beer garden and karaoke joint, sits about 200 meters within the zone, which is clearly demarcated by a sign on a bright blue pole. Boeung Bopha Angkor's location is the source of increasing controversy among neighboring homeowners - like Danish ex-pat Thomas Weber, who has circulated a petition to shut down the apparently illegal restaurant.

"As a local resident, I'm obviously interested in preserving the natural beauty and tranquil qualities of this place," Weber said. "But as a foreigner I also feel morally obligated to do something about this, because most of the locals are too scared to interfere."

Boeung Bopha Angkor is open seven days a week. Its patrons dine and drink in bamboo huts encircling a long stage. At nightfall, strings of colored lights and brightly-lit neon palm trees are switched on - and so is the loud music.

Boeung Bopha Angkor's karaoke is deafening, and some nights it is followed by a disco that is even louder.

Suy Vuth, 29, a Buddhist monk residing at Wat Attikmosan across the street, said the music sometimes goes on until 2am, just a few hours before the monks rise. His was the first signature on Weber's petition to have the restaurant shut down.

"They play loud music every day and every night," Vuth said wearily. "This is a big problem for people living next to the restaurant. They are tired from work but cannot sleep because of the loud music."

Vuth claimed that in addition to the noise, the restaurant attracted unsavory characters to the neighborhood, including a group of "con artists" he said are running a scam on tourists visiting the pagoda grounds. According to Vuth, the swindlers chat up unsuspecting tourists, and then solicit for money for charity projects like new school buildings.

"But instead of giving the money to the schools, they go to the karaoke and spend it drinking," he said.

To date, local authorities appear to have left Boeung Bopha Angkor alone.

Rumors of patronage swirl around the zone: Several residents claimed that the restaurant is owned by the brother of Siem Reap's Governor, Sim Son. Others said the owner is Deputy Vice Governor Ung Oeung. Both men denied any involvement in Boeung Bopha Angkor, though Oeung said he was told its owner was living in the United States.

Governor Son said none of his brothers could be the owners of the restaurant, because "every time I go there, they always charge me."

The local Apsara Authorities are responsible for monitoring illegal construction and development inside the protected zone. Repeated requests for a comment from director Bun Narith were not returned. Well-placed sources acknowledged that authorities were aware of Boeung Bopha Angkor's location within the zone, as well as other illegal real estate development in the area.

Though UNESCO is Apsara's partner in conserving the World Heritage Site, the organization relies on local authorities to police cases like Boeung Bopha Angkor.

"The most important thing for us is the conservation of the site," said Tamara Teneshivil, culture program specialist at UNESCO.

"And that's why it's important for us that the core area of the site is not filled up with construction," she said, adding that any restaurant inside the zone was clearly illegal and should be shut down in accordance with the 1994 royal decree.

The decree also established territory inside the zone as public property, and stated that selling to outsiders was illegal. UNESCO estimates the population in the zone has doubled to 100,000 over the past ten years.

Although the land inside the zone is technically owned by the Cambodian government, locals are permitted to claim a plot after demonstrating an intent to remain there long-term. The land can also be traded between and inherited by the zone's residents.

Thomas Weber has lived in Zone 2 for ten years, and his property is registered to his Cambodian wife. Along with several of his neighbors, Weber said that activity in the zone has increased in recent weeks, with many more SUV-driving visitors from Phnom Penh trolling the area.

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