Obscured by shop houses, construction works, and boreys, the massive lake that is Boeung Tumpun can go easily unnoticed by those unfamiliar with the area.
The 2,600-hectare lake on the southern side of the capital less than 20 kilometres from the city centre provides a vastly different backdrop to city dwelling – families living around and on the lake itself rely heavily on the aquaculture of fishing and water farming.
But even that is dwindling, thanks to industrial waste from factories nearby being pumped into the lake on a daily basis.
Boeung Tumpun is home to 15,013 families, or approximately 40,000 people, according to the latest data provided by the commune’s police chief, Chhoeun Chamroeun. It is the largest remaining freshwater lake in Phnom Penh, albeit ‘fresh’ is no longer the best word to describe its current state.
In Boeung Tumpun commune’s Tnot Chhrom village of the Meanchey district at Street 371, where Post Property visited on Monday, an acrid smell lingers in the air – a pungence attributed to several separate mounds of floating rubbish interspersed with sparse water vegetables in the low level waters of the polluted lake.
In 2012, the lake underwent sand-filling, giving rise to rumours that it would meet the same fate as Phnom Penh’s other now-converted freshwater lake Boeung Kak. However, little information has since been revealed about the future of the area’s redevelopment.
“Some families in this area have already sold their land and moved away, but they sold it for a very cheap price,” said Am Socheat, 43, a resident of Tnot Chhrom village.
Swinging her sleeping child in the hammock in their wooden stilt house on land about 30 metres from the lake bank, she said that many businessmen had come and gone to enquire about her land.
Like all other residents in the village, Socheat does not possess a land title to her home. “We have owned this land since the late 1980s, with only a letter of land certificate from the sangkat chief.”
She added, “We are waiting for a better price should there be a future redevelopment.”
Many of the lake’s residents moved into the Boeung Tumpun commune decades ago at a time when fish thrived and morning glory vegetation was aplenty – the aquaculture that gave them a modest wage of $5 to $14 a day.
“We were only able to buy a 75-square metre plot of land. But at that time, it cost only $800,” Socheat elaborated.
Disastrous yet inevitable, the environment deteriorated after the city’s industrial boom that saw factories setting up shop further up north from the lake, and depositing their waste into the lake.
Unlike Boeung Kak, nevertheless, the Tumpun lake is not in the best of locations.
Kim Heang, Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association (CVEA), said: “It is not a prime location; it can be 2 or 3-stars [in terms of development] but not 4 or 5-stars yet.”
Investors and developers recognise the deterioration and pollution of the lake, thus exploiting cheaper prices which residents refuse to agree to.
“There are some projects there such as the International School of Phnom Penh, Borey Peng Huoth, Borey Chip Mong and a few more projects, but it is not enough yet as the land is too big,” Heang added.
While many protruding sticks from the waters stake the land that had been bought by investors, a single stilt-home sits desolate on the lake some 100 metres from the houses built on land.
“Those plots of land have been bought by rich people and foreigners,” Heang said, with many of the village residents believing that high-ranking government officials also count among those owners.
The only stilt-house standing in the lake of the Tnot Chhrom village’s territory belongs to 32-year-old Vann Sros.
“We are the only one house left in the lake after buying this land in 2000,” she said.
Having purchased the 50-square metre land for $5,000 with the intentions of fishing and water-farming, it did not take long for Sros to realise that her ambitions were in vain. Along with her six children – aged between eight months and 10 years old – husband, mother, and a few other immediate relatives, a total of 14 people live precariously in the perched wooden house.
“My children fall into the lake from time to time, and my husband has to dive into the waters to save them. We also have a boat that we use to get to land during the rainy season,” she said, although wooden planks nailed haphazardly together serve as rickety bridges from land to their home during the dry season.
Sros knows her family’s safety is far from guaranteed, not only because of the dilapidation of the house, but also because she and her husband no longer can collect as much of the aquatic vegetable morning glory as before to sell. As for fish, what little they catch is used for their own consumption and survival.
“I really want to sell this land and move back to my hometown because we don’t have any more work to do here, but people come with offers that are too cheap than what we bought for,” she lamented, adding that she would settle for $8,000.
But even that is a hard price to fetch as potential investors use the excuse of water pollution against her.
The land prices of Boeung Tumpun vary depending on size, location, terrain and accessibility, said Sovannaroth Khan, managing director of property valuation company Cozy Home Co. Ltd.
“They can fetch between $70 and $500 per square metre,” Khan said.
CVEA's Heang, however, said prices could fetch up to $900 per square metre, depending on land size and condition.
As for the area’s future, he believed Boeung Tumpun would be targeted for redevelopment as the completion of the Hun Neang boulevard linking Street 371, which is parallel to Boeung Tumpun, with the Hun Sen Boulevard looms closer.
Ratha Chan, assistant to the CEO of Borey Peng Huoth – one of the boreys along Street 371 in Boeung Tumpun commune – said the Star Natural project which started in 2014 sits on 10 hectares directly in front of the lake, but declined to reveal how much investment had gone into the borey and whom they had bought the land from.
City Hall spokesperson Met Measpheakdey was unavailable for comment on Boeung Tumpun's development progress status.