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Once Upon a Lake – The Insider’s Phnom Penh

By O.

by Craig Bowman

Cities going through a transition period, such as Phnom Penh, often are faced with dilemmas in regards to the changes in property and landscape. Going from a city with very few buildings above 5 stories to one with many city high rises and urban planning, Phnom Penh has had to make room for these many investments.
One such case happened to Boeung Kak Lake. It was originally the site of Phnom Penh’s largest and most beautiful lake. Estimates say the population around or near the lake is about 4,250 families, or 20,000 residents living on stilted houses on the lake or surrounding areas. Backpackers started coming to the city in larger numbers and Boeung Kak became the main backpacker street. It became a thriving community with hundreds of business targeted at travelers.

Boeung Kak Lake before the evictions.

Boeung Kak Lake before the evictions.

In 2007 a business owned by a ruling party senator purchased the land and the lake was filled in with the idea of building a giant commercial and residential complex. All the families who lived on the lake protested but where eventually evicted by the company and the police. The lake has since been filled and currently a road now runs through it.

Boeung Kak Lake nowadays.

Boeung Kak Lake nowadays.

Land rights in Cambodia have long been an issue of dispute, most recently due to the civil war in the 1970s. During the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia from 1975-1979 the regime abolished all ownership and land titles as well as all existing official land records in Cambodia. In doing so, the Khmer Rouge owned all the land in the country and excluded any private ownership of land. Ten years after the Khmer Rouge Regime the land was still owned by the state of Cambodia. A majority of the households surrounding Boeung Kak Lake bought the land from military and government officials during land transactions in 1989. Because of the abolishment of records during the Khmer Rouge period, it is difficult to prove ownership and titles of the homes for some of the people living around the lake. Also, water bodies, lakes and rivers such as Boeung Kak are all considered state property.

As a result of the business closings and construction, this area has become a ghost town with rubbish everywhere and no more tourists. Several years ago ideas started floating around to rejuvenate the area during this long construction phase. Every Saturday morning all the local women of the community and some local expats did a litter pickup to clear the rubbish. Then street artists started creating the colorful artwork that can be seen all over the neighborhood. Every couple of months a mixture of international and local street artists come and create new artwork. The street art movement is very small in Cambodia- there are only 6 artists so far but many of their designs are here.

Boeung Kak is one of the many hidden spots in Phnom Penh that is full of history beyond its appearance. This particular location not only has eye popping street art, but also a story of how the government and its people are dealing with a rapidly growing city in the middle of a social change. Join Insider’s Phnom Penh with Vespa Adventure to see it for yourself… while it is still here.