Sitting outside the shuttered Boeng Bopha restaurant on a recent Sunday afternoon, singer Lon Virak Dara’s stylized sideburns and slicked-back hair didn’t quite fit the profile of the security guard he has become lately.
Just months ago, he was headlining an act, but now he and his three dogs protect the lakeside restaurant in Russei Keo district’s Prek Liep commune from vandals.
“We used to make $5,000 to $6,000 a night but in the past few months we make $500 to $1,000 night,” he said of the restaurant. “We closed last month…the owner may reopen in September.”
Five years ago Prek Liep was the major place in Phnom Penh for a big Khmer-style night out. The beer-gardens and restaurants featured singing, dancing and some well-known comedians.
Boeng Bopha, Asean 10 and Rainbow—three of the most popular restaurants in Prek Liep—have closed in the last year, Prek Liep restaurant workers said this week.
Those in the Prek Liep restaurant business said there has been a steep decrease in local patrons recently, putting financial pressures on owners.
They blamed a variety of factors for the decrease: more beer gardens in Phnom Penh; more traffic and accidents on Prek Liep’s main road; and the filling-in of the wetlands that once drew patrons but now cover the area in a fine dust.
“It is very shocking how much business has decreased,” Meng Kieng, 25, brother of the owner of Mekong Lamb Soup restaurant said Sunday. “It started a-year-and-a-half ago, after the elections, but our restaurant is doing a bit better than the others because we have unique soup to attract customers.”
There are now large restaurants in Phnom Penh, and people are dining in town, he said.
On Aug 24, the Ministry of Tourism hosted the first gathering of Prek Liep restaurateurs to formulate a strategy to increase tourism there.
“They told us to be more sanitary to attract tourists,” said Mekong Lamb manager An Taonn, 24.
“It was a mistake to fill in the land here, now there is less water. Tourists like to see nature,” he said. “[The ministry] said that there are more and more tourists in Cambodia, but not at Prek Liep.”
Across the national road from Mekong Lamb Soup, a similar restaurant has filled in part of a pond to make a parking lot.
An Taonn said it is hard for passing tourists to see the charm of the area now.
“They said that they will work to widen the road to make it safer. They will ask the garbage trucks to come early in morning so the tourists do not have to see them,” he said.
He said the restaurant now has only 100 customers on Saturday and Sunday.
“Two years ago we had customers come at 3 pm and stay until 12 am or 1 am,” he said. “Now they come at 5 pm and they do not stay late.”
One exception to the apparent decline is Tata, a stylish, high-end restaurant that opened in November. Tata’s parking lot was filled with new Sport Utility Vehicles on Monday night.
Roeun Sokha, a front desk worker at Tata, said the restaurant is owned by the adopted son of Senate President Chea Sim and is booming while others flounder.
“We are not affected by the decline because we serve a wealthy clientele,” he said. “We take in $2,500 a night.”
Next door at Reatrey Sok San restaurant, cook Sok So Thol, 23, said his owner is now losing $2,000 to $4,000 a month on his business but is still holding on.
“My owner wants to thoroughly renovate. At Tata they have a lot of customers because it is nicely decorated,” he said.
One does not have to wonder why some may choose to stay in Phnom Penh, as the dust on the road in Prek Leap was intense on a recent visit, and a lack of lighting seemed to deter all but a few motorcyclists.
“People who drive out here have to wash their cars afterwards. There are a lot of accidents, at least one every day,” Chea Thon, 26, the proprietor of the small Nary Restaurant said.
Minister of Tourism Lay Prohas said he called the first meeting of Prek Liep owners because he had noticed that there are too few tourists making the trip across the Japanese Bridge.
“I don’t know that there has been a decrease in local patrons,” he said. “But there are more beer gardens in Phnom Penh and they provide competition for these places, so my idea is to give them an added advantage.”
Lay Prohas said he has instructed the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents to urge tour groups to include sunset meals at Prek Liep in their packages.
“This is part of a new campaign to invite tourists to enjoy Cambodia the way Cambodians do,” he said, adding that he has met with the publisher of one guidebook as part of an effort to get Prek Liep on more tourist maps of Phnom Penh.
Nhem Saran, director of the Municipal Public Works and Transportation Department, said the city would soon hold public bidding for a company to install streetlights in Prek Liep. The renovation, repair and revival of Prek Liep cannot come soon enough for singer Lon Virak Dara.
Two cars crept up to Boeng Bopha’s gates while the singer talked to reporters last week. As their drivers read the closed sign and pulled slowly away, Lon Virak Dara said: “We were one of the most well-known places in Prek Liep, the parking lot used to be full.”