Thursday, January 27, 2011

Boueng Kak

This was never my favorite place in Phnom Penh, but nevertheless had a pleasant and unique side to it. The street outside was a higgledy-piggledy track, unpaved until relatively recently, and it looked unlike anything else in the city. Of course it bore a resemblance to some of the side streets in poorer outlying areas, but it had loads of shops and restaurants with backpacker themes and English language signage, and an unhealthy proportion of foreigners too. Locals generally avoid the place like the plague, and it’s hardly surprising as just wandering through the streets will draw many unwanted offers of ganja, yamma or smack from the charming, salt-of-the-earth types who hang around there. There are of course many other little streets around the lake that aren’t frequented by backpackers, just normal poor neighborhoods.
When you were sitting on one of the verandahs looking out onto the lake, with the best sunsets in the city, you forgot all the sleazy dealers outside, and it was one of the most relaxing and quiet places to be in this busy town. You couldn’t hear the traffic way up on Monivong, and it was like you were in the provinces. There were fishermen and pig-weed collectors out in boats, a pagoda was just visible far across the lake to the west, the same pagoda Prime Minister Hun Sen stayed in as a student.
Back in the 1960s there was a park here, and also a restaurant on the island in the middle. The restaurant was connected by a bridge to the land to the south. I’m not exactly sure how this was accessed as it would seem to lead to a railway yard. The park, to the north, was still a popular spot in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was located behind the French Embassy compound, and had a small funfair with a hand driven Ferris wheel. Like many parts of the city, which had during the People’s Republic of Kampuchea period been able to exert a certain amount of control on settlements, the whole area became a shanty town during the next decade. The lake was no longer such a pleasant place to visit, and the water itself became foul and polluted, especially close to shore.
The guesthouses that later sprung up around street 93 had nice jetties but the places themselves were dumps, mostly jerry-built wooden platforms with crap paneled rooms, and one stinking bathroom out near the street for the whole place. I had some good times there, but I never stayed. No big deal, except that you had to get through one of the dodgiest streets in the whole city before you got to the relative safety of Monivong.
A deal went through a few years back, and somehow a private company got the rights to develop the whole lake and much of the surrounding land, which meant filling it in for a start, and moving the residents, who were offered various incentives such as an apartment in an outlying district, various sums of money between five and eight thousand dollars, or nothing at all. Many people haven’t moved, but the conditions due to flooding and general uncertainty have driven many residents out already.
The growing sand bank in the middle comes piped in a slurry from a floating plant just south of Chruoy Changva peninsula’s southern tip, at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. It’s growing like a big lollipop, and it’s far higher than the decks of the back-packer bars nearby, so it blocks out any view there used to be. One bar owner down the southern end complained that now thieves could just walk across a beach to nick his stereo, which they had just done, while before they would have needed a boat.
Flooding in the condemned villages has become a major problem since the filling in began, as it blocked up sewage piping, but also seems to have contributed to unprecedented levels and periods of flooding in adjoining areas in Russei Keo district. Filling in lakes is nothing new in Phnom Penh; in fact most of city was built on lakes and wetland. However, at over a hundred hectares, Boueng Kak must have had a huge volume as a catchment area for storm-water. As more lakes, wetland or even open ground become lost to construction and paving, there is less possibility that the earth can absorb water, so it runs off into already overloaded or incapable drain systems. It’s not exactly ideal to have street-water and other effluent draining off into a pond or lake in a city either, as these still bodies of water rapidly become septic cesspools. The “O” in O Russei means stream, and it indeed once was a beautiful, bamboo brook. The “Stung” in Stung Meanchey also means a stream. Luckily now most of the O Russei stream is like the River Fleet in London, or the River Styx to Hell, underground, as it stinks to high hell. The river at Stung Meanchey is unfortunately still open air. Most of the time it is a smelly, muddy, grotty and gray pathetically small-looking flow that makes you hold your breath or gag as you cross the bridge. It gets to rip a bit when there’s a storm, and it gets washed out a little, but the smell never goes away.
The future plans for the lake area are far from certain, as some rough maps and 3D plans have been shown to the public, but little information has been forthcoming from the company involved. With many of the bigger constructions around town either moving at a snail’s pace, or grinding to a halt, it would seem unwise to attempt another similar complex which there is at the current time a very limited market for.
Early projections showed a proportion of lake that was to be kept, but the method being used to fill it in would seem to make that very impractical, so I imagine they just plan to install a few shallow pond water features around the development. Otherwise it’s just the regular mixture of office blocks, skyscrapers, malls and residential units that keep magically appearing.
The color pictures of the people playing near the waterside and children playing on rides are by Jacques Baekaert, and are from around 1991. The grainy black and white photo of a Ferris-wheel and a cow grazing are from around 1993. There are a couple of stitched together panoramas I took in April 2010, when the fill was beginning to make its presence felt and little water remained in the southern end of the former lake. The aerial shot is from sometime shortly before the lake began to get filled in.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

1925 Urbanisation Plan

With Phnom Penh undergoing so many rapid changes in the current period, with many improvements but sometimes what seems like a huge lack of forward planning and imagination, but then it’s a lot easier to have grand plans when the area is semi-rural.

Back in the 1920s the city was tiny in comparison to now, places like Mao Tse Tung Boulevard were swamps on the far outskirts of town. Psah Thmei had yet to be built, and west of that was still farmland or lake.

Boueng Keng Kang was still an actual lake then, rather than a name for a very plush neighborhood. You can see how it straddled what is now Monivong, just south of the now Sihanouk. The map seems to mention filling in on the east side, and much of the water appears to be actually to the west of what was later Monivong.

You can see the canal in the location of the current Hun Sen Park, and the pond in front of Wat Botum, and although both were kept in this plan, neither would be around for much longer.

The grey lines on the plan indicate existing structures, in a very basic way. The central part of town has some more definite blocks shown in black. It’s amazing to see neighborhoods so specifically zoned off by ethnicity, you can see a European quarter in the north of the city, a Chinese one just below it, then a Khmer neighborhood, and finally, just south west, an Annamite or Vietnamese quarter. There are three Annamite pagodas visible in the nearby area, one looks to be at or near the site of the current Wat Sampao Meas, another was on the site of the future Borei Keila. Just across the road from the stadium is the “Terrain d’Aviation,” perhaps the edges of the airport reached to here in 1925, now it’s about 5 km west.

The red lines show the ambitious plans for the city, most of which got no further than being plans. The sweeping curves planned for the approach roads from the west just don’t exist in the modern area, just grids. There are some huge parks marked out at the edge of Boueng Kak Lake and on the Chrouy Changva peninsula, both predictably close to the areas most populated by Europeans.

You can see a planned bridge at the end of 106/108 St linking with the peninsula, while the canal has been left far to the north where the current Chruoy Changva Bridge is. An industrial area and port was planned for the Mekong side of the peninsula. This idea was still being considered in the late 1950s, but finally the decision was made to dredge a channel for the port on the Tonle Sap that we have today, with the semi-industrial neighborhood of Russei Keo nearby.

An added bonus to this was the creation of about 100 hectares of reclaimed land for what became the Tonle Bassac neighborhood. The Phnom Penh Center, Naga Casino, National Assembly, Buddhist Institute and Australian Embassy all stand on ground that the 1925 planners couldn’t envisage.

Many of the plans seem to have become real, Monivong Boulevard does actually stretch south of Sihanouk now, and the train station is close to where they intended it to be, and a few other features seem to have come to life. It’s a shame none of the parks ever came to much, that’s one thing the city just hasn’t got. There are plenty of well maintained-large spaces between busy avenues, but they are nothing like the huge parks you can roam and forget about city life in that you find in most cities.

I’ve included a map at the same scale of the city in 1973, at the same scale just for comparison. There's a picture of a leafy lane, a road along the Bassac river in the early 1900s, and an aerial view of the city before any of the plans came about.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Nicest House in Cambodia.

I’m sure many residents and visitors have noticed this fairy-tale style abode just off the main road on the east side of the Chrouy Changva Bridge. Far enough away from national route 6A to have avoided the recent widening of the road, it sits in a swamp, sometimes completely cut off by floodwaters. It’s one of the last rural scenes anyone will see before they hit the bridge and the big smoke beyond. It’s unusually ornate for a Cambodian house, but I have seen similarly painted homes.
As an update (October 2011) I should mention that this house no longer exists, it was demolished to build the connecting road for the new bridge. On the site are now a few workers huts, and the wetland is also due to be developed.