Boeng Kak Lakeside In Phnom Penn; Backpacker Bolthole or Ghetto?

Alley alongside Boeng Kak lake Credit: C Baird

Alley alongside Boeng Kak lake Credit: C Baird

Cambodia often raises questions in traveller’s minds about safety, seediness and security. So just how safe are the backpacker areas in Phnom Penn?

The Boeng Kak Lakeside area in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penn, has been a longstanding, popular refuge for backpackers for the past few years, and with good reason. This area of the city has been under a seemingly constant threat of renovation or even total removal, and this would create a huge problem for many of the small businesses, both local and expat-owned, that support the thriving budget traveller market here.

Ko Pha-Ngan without the Gulf of Thailand?

The lake itself is littered with small guesthouses along one side, many with simple decking jutting out on wooden stilts over the vast stretch of water. The tiny, dirty alley that runs parallel to the waters edge makes for fascinating people watching, and has a decidedly laid back atmosphere as the street hums with the sounds of everyday life and backpacker life.

Restaurants serving just about everything from a full Sunday roast dinner, ‘happy’ pizzas, local cuisine, Indian curries and French bread sandwiches to eat on the go are everywhere. Dress shops, CD chops, massage parlours and bars are all impossible to miss. Almost any service or item can be found there, both legal and otherwise.

A Seedy Side To Cambodia’s Capital

Which leads neatly into the not so nice aspects of this area of Phnom Penn. Cambodia, and Phnom Penn in particular, has an infamous and well deserved reputation for having a very seedy side to it, and this is virtually impossible for any tourist to miss. Whether it is people with physical or mental illnesses sleeping on the streets, children continually begging for food or money, or the continual presence of prostitutes offering their services for embarrassingly small fees, the poverty and social problems are very hard to miss.

Because of the amount of tourists concentrated in relatively few areas within the city, the Boeng Kak Lake area almost forms a microcosm of some of these problems facing the city, with locals attracted by the chance to make a living wage. The reputation of this area has unfortunately proceeded it in many cases, and many people are attracted to it purely because of the ease in which they can indulge in activities that would normally be illegal, or at the very least, disapproved of, back at home.

A Flawed Paradise For Budget Travellers?

Of course, not every back packer or budget traveller comes to Cambodia to indulge in ‘undesirable’ activities. In fact, they would be the minority. Most travellers come here for the chance to experience an ancient culture, wonderful local people, and to see some of the sights made famous by the history books.

The tourist agencies lining the alley alongside the lake all offer tours of some of the more infamous sights in Phnom Penn, S21 prison, the killing fields of Choeung Ek where over 15,000 bodies are buried, the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, and the Independence monument, to name a few.

While many tourists come to the Boeng Kak Lake area to indulge in cheap eats, lazy lakeside sunsets, a chilled vibe and a reasonable bed for the night, there are the other groups of young foreign men who come with the sole purpose of finding cheap local ‘entertainment’ for the evening and ask, mid conversation, ‘Who is Pol Pot? While trying to be as non-judgmental as possible, it is hard not to wonder what exactly their motives were for booking a visit to Phnom Penn.

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