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.
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.
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.