As Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh has slowly vanished, so too have the budget guesthouses, bars and restaurants that once flourished in the area.
Today, the lakeside area is a dusty, rubble-strewn shadow of its former self. At night, as the streets remain largely dark, commercial activity has nearly disappeared but for a few hardy guesthouse owners and their dwindling number of customers.
But while Boeng Kak as a magnet for the backpacker market has died, life has continued for a number of the former lakeside business owners who have staked out two new tourist zones in Phnom Penh.
“People don’t want to go to [the] lakeside anymore because they know the story,” said Leak Hena Moch, who for 12 years operated the Number 9 and Number 9 Sister guesthouses in Boeng Kak.
“If they don’t know, they come up to the lakeside, and they see [the] mess…and they decide to go to stay in town,” she said.
Ms Moch is among a group of at least 10 bar, restaurant and guesthouse owners who left the lakeside last year and set up new businesses mostly on streets 172 and 258 in Daun Penh district, and have drawn tourists and local customers to what were mere sleepy side streets just a few years ago.
Ms Moch moved from the lake and became a part-owner of the Angkor Shadow Guest House on Street 172, which her sister, Hak Mithona, now owns in full.
Business on Street 172, she said, couldn’t be better.
“This year had more customers than last year,” Ms Moch said, adding that the 20 rooms at Angkor Shadow, which opened in December, are always full.
The bustling business has allowed Ms Moch to expand her enterprise: Next month, she will open a new Number 9 hotel on Street 258 as the reincarnation of the guesthouses she once owned at the lake.
The Number 9 will be in familiar company, joining the Lazy Gecko cafe and guesthouse, which moved last September to Street 258.
Even more former lakeside establishments have moved to Street 172.
La Dolce Vita restaurant left for Street 172 in November, while the former owner of a lakeside travel agency opened the Longlin guesthouse and restaurant. Longlin’s owner, Ouk Sokun, opened his first guesthouse on Street 19 in December. Business was so successful, according to Longlin manager Kimly Ke, that Mr Sokun opened a second Longlin guesthouse on Street 172 this month.
Ny Pherom, who owns La Dolce Vita, said his clientele has changed with his new location.
“I think it’s better than the lakeside, because [the] lakeside is a tourist backpacker area…. Here, more NGO people come,” he said.
Profits, though, have only increased by about 20 percent since he left the lakeside because his rent in Daun Penh is twice what it was at the lake, while his menu prices have remained the same.
Oh My Buddha restaurant, now called The Laughing Fatman, moved from the lake to Street 172 in January. And just down the road, the Golden Home guesthouse and restaurant, owned by the sister of the former Green Lake Guest House owner, opens its doors for business today.
“The lake just kept getting worse and worse, and the place next door came up for rent. So we thought we’d shut the lake and we’d move everything over here,” said Ash Eason, owner of the Lazy Gecko.
“The streets have only gotten busier since we’ve been here…. So it’s probably one of the better places to have moved to,” he said, adding that the guesthouse’s 14 rooms are usually about 80 percent full.
While the reincarnated lakeside businesses appear to be doing well, the seedier side of the backpacker scene, for which Boeng Kak was also known, is a concern for some in the new tourist neighborhoods.
“I have seen a lot of new Western-style shops,” said Seng Leng, chief of Chey Chumneah commune, in which Street 172 is located.
Mr Leng said he was worried by the influx of foreign tourists and he had read about alleged drug use that brought notoriety to the area.
“I am concerned for my area’s security, and I would not encourage them to move here,” he said.
Sieng Kimrong, 60, who has lived on Street 172 for 29 years and owns Sopor Tailor shop, said the noise was occasionally irritating.
“Sometimes it’s really loud, but we can’t complain to the police because its a business, and we cannot put blame on them,” she said.
Rin Piemony, 19, who lives on Street 172, said he was not normally bothered by the numerous bars around his home.
“I think it’s actually good because you can see many types of people here,” he said.
“But a few days ago the bar next door had a party till the middle of the night,” he said, keeping him awake.
Pheng Sarith, 51, who has lived on Street 172 for 26 years, said the increase in businesses that attract foreigners to the street is good, but he is still somewhat concerned.
“In my opinion a lot of drinking is OK, but you need to…follow the government’s instruction to avoid gambling and trafficking girls,” he said. “It can also be spoiled by drinking addictions.”
Even though most of the former lakeside businesses note improvements since moving, some miss the old Boeng Kak lake atmosphere.
“Down the lake it was a pretty good little community,” Mr Eason said. “Everyone was friends, all the business owners, and we…do different things so we weren’t exactly competition.”
Despite her current success, Ms Moch said it deeply saddened her to leave the lakeside.
“It’s not just about money or about the business,” she said. “It’s about…when you have to leave the place you love.”
(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng and Khuon Narim)