Sweat glistening on her face, Marj Arnaud carried an armful of water-damaged particleboard and dumped it on the growing rubbish pile against a graffitied wall. A rainstorm during the week had left Boeung Kak’s Street 93 a mess, and for about four hours the 25-year-old Frenchwoman, along with about 30 of her Cambodian neighbours and foreigner friends, had been busy picking up litter, sweeping rubble off the street, and piling bags of household refuse ready for collection.
Every Saturday morning for the past month, a growing number of residents of the street, once a thriving backpacker district on the edge of a lake but now little more than a ghetto bordering a desert wasteland, have participated in group clean-ups as part of a concerted effort to rejuvenate the area.
Initiated by Arnaud and her business partner, Ludi Labille, 36, who are opening a new street art-themed French bistro this week, the clean-ups are the first stage of a plan to lure visitors back to the street – despite the regular flooding – by turning it into a graffiti-filled “art village”.
Arnaud said the area was already improving following the construction of a wall around the lake, with some businesses coming back: the Blue House guesthouse reopened about three months ago, and the Sisters II guesthouse about seven months before that.
Meanwhile, the Cambodian owners of the famous Magic Sponge guesthouse are renovating the building to reopen later in the year; another French national is about to open a clothing and cap shop later in the month; and Arnaud has at least two more friends wanting to open shops. She is also looking for someone to open a tattoo parlour.
“We really just want to turn it into a cool street, like a creative district,” she said.
Back in the mid-2000s, Boeung Kak was an internationally famous tourist destination, the first port of call for backpackers arriving in Phnom Penh, attracted by the scenic views over the lake and chilled-out vibe.
While the scene had its seedy side – cannabis was freely available and smoked openly – the tourists created jobs for hundreds working in about 30 guesthouses and assorted restaurants, bars, travel agents, laundries, shops and other business.
That all changed when the 90-hectare lake was filled in with sand in 2010 following a deal between the government and property developer Shukaku, owned by the wife of Cambodian People’s Party senator Lao Meng Khin.
Thousands were evicted from their homes, and with the main drawcard gone, the tourists stopped coming. Most businesses shut up shop or moved away. Only two guesthouses, the Lost and Found bar and a couple of others remained open.
The conflict between angry residents and the government has continued ever since, with a protest movement of mainly women staging regular demonstrations.
Filling in the lake has also severely exacerbated flash floods caused by even short periods of heavy rainfall, which have become a major inconvenience and a health hazard, residents say.
Arnaud never got to see the lake but, after ending up at Boeung Kak purely by chance during a visit to Phnom Penh nearly two years ago, the 25-year-old French fell in love with the neighbourhood and decided to stay.
“This area really is like a village within the city, with the original wooden buildings and community spirit,” she said, adding that rents were also cheap.
After leaving her job as a nurse at the Naga Clinic earlier this year, Arnaud decided to start up a business in Street 93 with her friend Labille. The bistro and art centre, called Simone Bistrot and Art, is set to open this coming Wednesday.
“The area was still very dirty though, so we thought, what would be the best way we can help the community?”
The village leadership were keen on the idea of the clean-up days, and over successive weeks, more and more Cambodians have been getting involved – especially the women, who Labille said were more receptive to the idea.
“The men who did join in at the start only stayed for 10 minutes or so,” said Labille. “I think they were concerned about being seen cleaning up with foreigners. I don’t know.”
Touch Narom, the owner of the Number 10 Guesthouse which remained open after the lake was filled in, said that Arnaud was not the first to try to clean the street, but she inspired others to get involved.
“They tried so hard to help us,” Narom said. “Even though we belong to this country, we haven’t done enough – we just think only about the individual, which is not right. Seeing their participation to clean makes us happy and so we join with them.”
Arnaud said the next step was to set up an association for street art to paint houses in the neighbourhood and the wall that surrounds the former lake.
The first painting session will be on October 26, with about 10 Cambodian and foreign street artists including Greg Mo, from France; Peap Tarr, from New Zealand; and Lisa Mam, from Cambodia. The sessions will take place once every couple of months after that.
“What we’re hoping is that we will have at the end a colourful art village that people will want to come and visit,” Arnaud said.
Tarr said he was enthusiastic about the “cool project”, which could also bring needed attention to the poverty in the area.
“Plus, no doubt it helps liven up the place and gives a creative spirit to the community, which may one day inspire the youth to pursue a career in art or something creative.”
While continuing to protest for secure land titles and compensation for affected Boeung Kak residents, activist Yorm Bopha, 34, who lives nearby, said she supported any efforts to improve the area.
“When I heard about these women opening a restaurant, I felt it can show visitors to feel the life of living in Boeung Kak, and it is a good idea to push other villagers to get jobs, and it encourages people to have hopes,” she said.
However, not everyone has confidence that tourists will ever return in numbers to Boeung Kak.
Thann Tong Freng, who owned the Oh My Buddha! restaurant in Street 93 for more than six years before relocating to Street 172 in 2010, said he had many fond memories from his time there.
“I remember times sitting on the floor of a house with people, having some drinks and food and watching the sun go down and the fishermen and the flowers. It was cool,” he said. “Lots of good memories. It felt free, you know.”
Bringing tourists back would be a challenge even though rents were cheap because the floods made living there uncomfortable, he said.
“It will be really hard to bring them back there, because there’s nothing to see, just the sand, and now there are the floods every time it rains,” he said.
“My friends live there, and it’s hard, because they get sick all the time.”
While the floods were a pain, Arnaud said she didn’t believe they would keep people away.
“The community is really getting behind these clean-ups and the businesses are even putting money in to get Cintri to take the rubbish away, so I think it will be fine,” she said.
She also wasn’t concerned about the possibility of being evicted down the track.
“When we rented the restaurant, at first people said: ‘In five years, everything in this area can be finished’. So we are just thinking: if in five years or two years we can make something fun – and we don’t really know what can happen in this place and how it will go – that is interesting.”
Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dimanche told Post Weekend he was unaware of any plans to evict more people from the area.
Last Saturday, standing in the shade with a bamboo broom in hand, deputy village chief Sat Sarom, 64, said she supported the initiative and was happy to see the “solidarity” shown by her neighbours.
“I want to attract [tourists] again in order to maintain a living, especially for our poor villagers, so they can work as motodops or tuk-tuk drivers to earn money and make a living into the future,” she said.
“The villagers are extremely happy to have foreigners from all over the world sharing our feelings and helping us to overcome these difficulties – such as hills of garbage and dirt – to have a clean village.”
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong and Tat Oudom. For more information check out the “Develop Boeung Kak Art” Facebook page.