This time last year, guesthouse owner Lao Borei was literally turning tourists away.
Now, in the midst of Cambodia’s tourist season, the Lazy Fish Guest House—jutting out over Boeng Kak lake’s eastern bank in the city’s popular backpacker area—ought to be full. Instead, Mr Borei is struggling to fill half of the 30 rooms he has available to rent.
His neighbors in Village 6 all told the same story yesterday.
They say business this year in Boeng Kak is down anywhere from 30 to 75 percent. Some blamed an increase in crime. More blamed the global downturn. But most, by far, blamed what’s happening to the lake itself—or what’s left of it—for their problems.
Since August 2008, local firm Shukaku Inc has been pumping vast quantities of sand into the lake and in the process consigning the neighborhood’s main draw for tourists to just a memory.
“The lake is dying,” said Mr Borei, seated sullenly on his empty deck.
In February 2007, the municipality announced that it had granted a 99-year lease to Shukaku to build on 133 hectares of the lake area. The deal will require filling in the lake, and the more than 4,000 families living around the lake to move.
Before Shukaku began pumping sand into the lake as part of its project, Mr Borei said his guests could watch the sun set across more than a kilometer expanse of untroubled water.
Now, a few meters of weed-choked water separates the area’s guest from a giant mound of dirt where the lake once was.
With his spare $4 rooms, Mr Borei said he’s still in the black. But where he used to clear $2,000 in profit a month during the high season, he now clears less than half that.
“The economy also hurts business, but mostly it’s because of the lake,” he said. “The tourists come to see the lake, but they see the lake and they go.”
Up the road, the #10 Guest House sells itself as the “best place on the lake” with safety lockers and a “relaxing atmosphere.” But even there, where the cheapest room goes for $2 a night, high season business is down some 30 percent over last year.
Owner Phanna Chheang blames the world economy’s nosedive as much as anything. But he is certain that the disappearing lake has played its part.
“We make a little [profit] in the high season, but we’re loosing a lot in the low season,” he said, and overall “we’re not breaking even.”
Mr Chheang said he’d like to spruce up the place. But with few details on the lakeside’s fate, and that of his business, coming from either the company or government officials, he is finding it hard to commit.
“The company should let all the guest houses know what they’re going to do so we can plan. But right now we don’t know,” Mr Chheang said. “I can’t invest my money when I don’t know what’s going on.”
He’s heard from commune officials that Shukaku will finish filling in the lake within a year, but not much else.
“We’re not getting any information, so it is very hard to plan for the future,” said Noor Ullah, who owns the Curry Pot restaurant off Street 93. “Nobody’s going to make improvements in this situation.”
This time last year, Mr Ullah was welcoming up to 30 diners a day.
“Now it’s very difficult to get 10,” he said. “It is like the off season.”
Deputy Phnom Penh Governor Mann Chhoeun yesterday declined to say whether lakeside business owners in Village 6 would have to shut down and move.
Mr Chhoeun did, however, say that the city has told all affected property owners of the compensation on offer: $8,000 cash and 2 million riel, or 2 million riel and a small apartment in Dangkao district.
“We do it phase by phase,” he said of the massive relocation to make way for Shukaku’s plans, which are also unknown bar they involve filling the lake and then building on the land.
“More than half among the people have already gotten compensation, and most of them take the cash,” the deputy governor said.
“We have the same policy toward all villages,” said Sok Penhvuth, deputy governor of Daun Penh district. “We have informed them long ago.”
Armed police guarding Shukaku’s Village 6 office yesterday afternoon said no one from the firm was available for comment. Shukaku is owned by Senator Lao Meng Khin of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party. Mr Khin’s wife if the well-known owner of the business conglomerate Pheapimex.
Village 6 chief Chan Soriya also declined to comment about the disappearing lake.
A guesthouse owner himself, Mr Soriya said his business is down about 15 percent this year. But he insists the massive pile of sand has nothing to do with the equally large slowdown in tourists to the area’s businesses.
“The decrease of the tourists is because of the downturn of the economy,” he said, before excusing himself to make an appointment.
But like to rest of the village’s business owners, Ada Thonvolak thinks different.
From a portable stall on Street 93, she sells cigarettes to locals and tourists alike. In a good month a year ago, she could almost match the $250 she used to make as an accountant. She now makes about $40 a month.
“Before the foreigners came because there was a lake,” she said.
“Now, no lake.”