A Mosque, a Lake and an Amazing Sunset

When our tuk-tuk first dropped us off near Boeng Kak Lake in Phnom Penh, it looked like a standard backpacker ghetto – cheap restaurants, internet cafes, guest houses, tattoo parlors, and travel agencies selling discounted bus tickets. We wondered why we had even bothered. But we persisted in a search for a perfect sunset promised by our guide book.

A Portal

Children Preparing for the Chinese New Year Celebrations - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Chinese New Year Celebrations – Phnom Penh

In a fit of spontaneous exploration, we turned off the main road and followed it as it snaked around behind a mosque. What we found was a portal, a village outpost in the middle of the city. A Muslim outpost in a Buddhist land. No tourists. Naked kids walked on top of walls and hung from palm trees, children played cards on the front stoop, and parents rushed around inside to prepare offerings and a feast for the coming Chinese New Year celebrations.
Sunset at Boeng Kak Lake - Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Sunset at Boeng Kak Lake – Phnom Penh

After poking around, ogling, marveling, and making the kids laugh, we rounded the corner to exit the portal, following signs for cheap bus tickets to Siem Reap and happy hour specials.

In all fairness, Boeng Kak Lake is the most pleasant backpacker ghetto we’d found in Southeast Asia. People are friendly, and the air isn’t stale with a murky, shared cynicism like other backpacker haunts. The food is still tasty and inexpensive and an element of authenticity still exists.

The guidebook was actually right this time. Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake does make for a perfect late afternoon stop. Go there, seek out the portal, and catch the sun in late afternoon and you just might forget that you’re in the middle of a backpacker ghetto…and in the middle of a big city.

Video: Boeng Kak Lake Side Streets (Phnom Penh)

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  1. ariella says

    how cool…
    i don’t know when you posted this, but i spent a year living at boeng kak lakeside, between 2006-2007, running a backpacker- volunteer project at the mosque for about 200 of the local kids.
    The kids in your video were all a part of our project (named KLC- Kids at the Lake Creations), 3 times a week for that year… i know them all by name and i miss them so much…thanks for posing this and giving me a chance to see “my kids” again.

    happy travels…


  2. says

    @ariella: We love stories like this. You must have had an amazing time. Those kids were terrific. The neighborhood was so welcoming, the setting so fabulous. It’s great to meet someone who not only enjoyed that neighborhood, but who actually worked there!
    Unfortunately, we’ve heard reports that Boeng Kak Lake was about to be filled in (last year). It may already be there. Have you been there recently?

  3. annmarie says

    i stayed at the lakeside last year and loved it, and loved the kids selling the books id always buy them dinner, one little lad called wee hes such a cheeky little git but him and his sister are lovely kids and so happy, i wudnt be if i had to sell a heavey basket of books from 11am till 9pm at 7 years old but every one around lakeside seemed to look after all the kids…… and the sunset is the nicest iv seen yet … id go back tomorrow if i could …

  4. says

    @annmarie: It’s so great to hear that Boeng Kak Lake was still a lake when you were there last year! The kids were fun and we have fond memories of drinking gin and tonics while watching the sun go down. A very peaceful place. I hope the reports of that it will get filled in for a housing development is incorrect.

  5. says

    I’m sorry to report that the Lake is virtually gone. I was there this afternoon, having a beer on the deck at No. 9 Guesthouse, and you can almost throw a rock across the stretch of water that’s left. So sad. I stayed at No. 9 in Feb. 2005 and it was a wonderful sunset-viewing spot. Soon it will be all high-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls. No lake, no sunset, no view.

  6. Alicia says

    @Ariella, you did such an amazing job with KLC, I was in Cambodia in 2007 and kept coming back just to PP just to hang out with you guys and the kids. They are fabulous children and KLC was a wonderful idea. Thank you so much for that! I have some photos of the kids, if you get this, would you like them?
    Hope you’re well.
    Haha, thanks for posting this article!

  7. Matt C says

    Was there in November 2009 and it wasn’t much of a lake at all. The area would have been great if there was actually a lake, but it was a sorry excuse when I was there. I never knew that it ever was a nice lake though, that makes it much more of a shame. I stayed at the Lonely Island guesthouse, a real dive, but cheap. There is an amazing Indian restaurant down the street though, 2.50 for the best curry I’ve ever had! Will be back there in Jan 2011, maybe it will be all sand now…

  8. says

    @Paul C: Just realizing that I never responded to your comment. Thanks for the update. Really sad to hear this. Not only that Boeng Kak Lake has been filled in, but the reason why: high rise and shopping mall development.

    @Matt C: Of all the places we’ve visited (and enjoyed) over the last four years, Boeng Kak Lake stands as one of the biggest casualties of rampant over-development. Really sad.

    I’m glad to hear that the curry was good and cheap. A silver lining, I suppose. Safe travels.

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