Peace and tranquility on
Boeung Kak Lake in 2008. ©Ohemligt - flickr.com

Boeung Kak Lake was once considered the most important green space in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Visitors from around the world gathered at this scenic site to stay in guesthouses on the lakefront, share a few cold beers, attend concerts and picnics, meet fellow travellers, and watch beautiful sunsets over the lake.

In addition to being a tourist hotspot, the 133 hectares of Boeung Kak Lake and its surroundings were also home to over 4,000 families. Boeung Kak was the largest urban wetland in Cambodia, before the lake was leased out for urban development.

PERSONAL STORY Provided by Kate McCulley – Travel Blogger

Phnom Penh is a hard, difficult city, from the trash-filled streets to the begging children to the very visible scars left from the reign of the Khmer Rouge. It’s certainly not a city for amateurs. But Phnom Penh is also quite charming, and I was surprised that the city crawled into my heart! The slow pace, kind people, cheap markets, a surprising amount of greenery and happening nightlife make me want to return to Phnom Penh again and again!

Sunset reflected in Boeung Kak Lake in 2006.
Sunset reflected in Boeung Kak Lake in 2006. Image credit: Phnom Penh Lake Sunset: ©Andrew Hall - flickr.com

My favourite thing about Cambodia was the people - the kind, warm-hearted Khmer people who greet you with smiles and waves wherever you go, who take you into their homes and treat you like a member of the family, who would give you the shirt off their backs if you asked.

Phnom Penh’s lakefront was once one of the great backpacker neighbourhoods of Southeast Asia. It was cheap, filled with cool restaurants, and it had a bit of a hippie vibe. In early 2011, I stayed in The Number Nine guesthouse in the lakefront area. It was, at the time, Lonely Planet’s top pick with a great deck overlooking the water and a nice backpacker hangout area. So popular was this neighbourhood, the streets were perpetually filled with bewildered travellers, their battered yellow guidebooks open to the same spot.

When I returned in March 2011, however, The Number Nine had been torn down, so had several restaurants, including my favourite, the aptly named Oh My Buddha.

Boeung Kak Lake is reduced to a puddle. Taken 2014.
Boeung Kak Lake is reduced to a puddle. Taken 2014. Image credit: Phnom Penh Lake with Sand: ©Mekong Commons - flickr.com
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WHY HAS IT DISAPPEARED?

Today, Boeung Kak Lake is a puddle of its former self. In February 2007, the Cambodian government struck a $79 million USD lease agreement with Shukaku, Inc., which granted the company 99-years of development rights. Shukaku, Inc. lost no time—by 2010, they'd already filled over 90% of the lake with sand from the Mekong River.

The wholesale destruction of the wetland has proven devastating for the local families that used to depend on the lake for survival. All aquatic fish and vegetation have disappeared, meaning that families can no longer sustain themselves off of the environment. The rich tourism that the lake once encouraged has shrivelled, resulting in the closure of many locally run guesthouses and cafes.

Additionally, most of the 4,000+ families that called the lake home were forced to relocate. Many residents held documentation establishing themselves as land owners under the customary Cambodian tenure system. However, these records went unrecognised under the centralised and formalised land registration process introduced by the World Bank's Cambodia Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP).

Boeung Kak residents were given three choices:
(1) $8500 USD
(2) resettle 20 km outside of Phnom Penh
(3) a flat in five-years’ time onsite, plus $500 USD compensation.

While the government did, in 2011, award approximately 750 families 12.44 hectares of land, the exact hectares had still not been outlined 1½ years later, and most families were excluded from this deal.

Though the destruction of Boeung Kak Lake has meant a rise in commercial real estate, the lake's urban development comes at a high price. Not only are we left with environmental and human rights concerns, but Vann Molyvann, Cambodia's urban planner, also predicts that filling in the lake could result in serious flooding and drainage issues for Phnom Penh during its rainy season.

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SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

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Sources

CHACALTAYA GLACIER, BOLIVIA
PONT DES ARTS, PARIS