It’s 8pm in Phnom Penh. The bars are full of beautiful young women who are selling their bodies. The streets are full of lone, white, middle-aged men, who are in Cambodia because they are weak-charactered, here to fulfill their lust at the cheapest price.
This is a normal evening in the city, and it not only reminds me of how fucked up South East Asia is, but it also reminds me of how fucked up and sexist England is. We live in a disgracefully sexist society. As girls, we grow up learning that being attractive to men is everything, and if men find us good looking, it gives us a greater sense of self-worth. It validates us as women. We are conditioned into objectifying ourselves from a young age, and we compete over who is the most attractive to men.
Our culture legitimises this objectification of women. Popular culture (lads’ magazines, women’s magazines, TV, celebrity stories etc.) teach all of us that a woman’s role is to satisfy a man’s desires (and boys’ desires are not even his own any more: they’re moulded by the media from a young age). Because it’s legitimate in our western society to view women as objects to letch over, it’s also seen as legitimate for western men to come over to South East Asia, completely disrespect Cambodian culture and use their wealth to satisfy their sex drives (which they will probably say that they have no control over).
But some of these men may not even be here to have sex with adults. They may be loitering on the streets to have sex with Phnom Penh’s vulnerable children.
When I first visited Phnom Penh in 2007, I loved it. The city was gritty, different and exciting. This time, through more realistic (and maybe jaded) and more sober eyes, I’m not enjoying it. If a city is gritty then it means that people are suffering or being exploited. I’m now seeing Phnom Penh as sordid, and I’m seeing the government as disgustingly corrupt. At the start of 2014, anti-government protesters were silenced with extreme violence and bans on protesting, and four people were murdered by military police at a garment workers’ protest in Phnom Penh.
One of the main reasons that I loved Phnom Penh in 2007 was because of the time I spent lazing in a hammock at Boeung Kak lake. It was the main backpackers’ haven in the city. I spent many happy days there, lounging around in a beautiful traditional wooden Khmer guesthouse, which sat on the water: paradise in the middle of the city. The Travelfish website sums up the old Boeung Kak experience:
“Boeung Kak (Green Lake) is the stuff of myth and legend. There were $2 rooms, suspicious herbs in bowls on bars, rats so large they seemed to have mutated, and glorious sunsets best admired from wooden decks. And ready to pick up the pieces from all-night benders and countless missed buses were some wonderful family-run businesses.”
It’s now 2014 and Boeung Kak lake literally no longer exists. The whole lake has been filled in with sand, supposedly for development! I revisit the area, and feel desperately sad as I walk around the little lanes, memories coming flooding back to me. I stand in the same place where I bumped into old travel friends who I’d met in other parts of the country. I walk past our old favourite bar, the Magic Sponge, which has long since closed. I recall countless games of pool and listening to Queens of the Stone Age in the Lazy Fish guesthouse. And I laugh as I remember the night when Emma and I screamed as rats ran over our beds as we tried to sleep. And the sunsets over the lake! They were incredible. And I remember the locals who were not only kind to us, but who also tolerated our drunkenness.
Here’s how the lake looked in 2007:
And this is what the lake, its surrounding area, and the now-derelict Lazy Fish guesthouse now look like:
As I walk around the old backpacker area, I’m surprised to see that a few guesthouses are still hanging in there and doing business, and there’s still a sense of community as I wander the streets. The locals have lost the fight to keep the lake and their houses, and thousands and thousands of people have been evicted from their family homes. But even though the lake has gone, they are still fighting, and there are still demonstrations in Phnom Penh. There are thousands of families living around the lake who are negotiating for fair compensation, and there’s calls to release seven Boeung Kak lake women from Prey Sar prison. They were put in jail for blocking a road with a bedframe as an act of protest (seriously!):
“The women were sentenced last month to one year in jail a day after they blocked the road outside City Hall in protest against the routine flooding of their homes. Four others, including one more woman from Boeung Kak, were tried and imprisoned a day after,” says the Phnom Penh Post.
And there are still more communities being threatened with eviction right now. Villager Horn Hou said in the Cambodia Daily: “We are really worried about the eviction, but we are willing to die on our land and in our homes.”
Surprise surprise, it is a corporation, Shukaku Inc, that is behind the lake’s destruction. Cambodian People’s Party senator Lao Meng Khin and his wife, Choeung Sopheap, just happen to be owners of Shukaku Inc. The couple are also linked to Sinohydro Cambodia, the dam corporation that is wrecking the Areng valley in south west Cambodia, where activists are trying to resist the destruction of one of the last places left in Cambodia where indigenous people are still living in harmony with their surrounding environment. (And Synohydro Corporation Ltd are the company behind the devastation of Laos’ rivers which I previously wrote about).
Having seen the result of the “development” of Boeung Kak lake with my own eyes, a feeling of foreboding grips me as I walk down the big, traffic clogged roads of Phnom Penh (the chaotic roads of swerving scooters and old carts are now gone, having been replaced by the Cambodian elite’s car of choice: the Lexus). Unbeknownst to me, I’m about to have a dinner date with the Filipino Mafia, whose intention is to extort lots of money from me….
– For more info about Boeung Kak lake and to support the protesters and prisoners, see Save Boeung Kak.
– This is an amazingly well-written but harrowing post about Boeung Kak and the Cambodian people’s struggles.