Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Backpackers relax on guesthouse terrace, on less than scenic Boeung Kak Lake
“I have to go support my heroin habit.”

I never expected to hear those shocking words in Cambodia. I heard this on the street, in the Lakeside neighborhood of Phnom Penh. The young man who said it was a British English teacher, on his way to work. To this day, I don’t know if he was kidding or not.

Lakeside is where all the cheapest accommodations are for the thousands of foreign backpackers who come visiting the city. It’s also where many of the foreign drug addicts live. Here there are cheap restaurants, cheap bars, and cheap guest houses. Plop down your backpack, and you can have a bed for five dollars a night. It also happens to be where the drug dealers come to prey on gullible backpackers.

I originally came here this morning looking for cheaper lodging, on recommendation of my buddy Kenny. He's a former US Marine, and Vietnam War veteran I met in Saigon. As he's a Southeast Asian nomad, I had run into him downtown on one of his swings through Cambodia to visit his Khmer girlfriend. Kenny recommended to me a hotel in Lakeside. But I’m finding this borough isn’t what I expected.

Most of the guesthouses here are built on stilts, backed up on Boeung Kak Lake. That sounds ideal, but the lake itself isn’t very picturesque, mainly because it’s so polluted.

This lake north of the downtown is one of the main destinations for area drainage during the rainy season. Unfortunately, developers have taken over much of the area's land. With money on their minds rather than good sense, the developers plan to fill in the entire lake. Environmentalists are concerned that this will cause even more flooding in Phnom Penh during the rainy season.

The shady Lakeside neighborhood of Phnom Penh
After a spaghetti lunch in a local restaurant, I step out in the street, to be greeted by a drug dealer. Then another. And another. It seemed that about every ten steps, somebody was trying to sell me drugs. I politely decline. I recall that Kenny likes to smoke marijuana now and then; now I know why he stays in this neighborhood.

I shouldn't be surprised that local pushers throng to Lakeside, since there are plenty of  hippie backpackers that stay here. Unfortunately, a few of them don't leave Cambodia alive.

Backpackers who smoke marijuana occasionally decide to try something new, with tragic results. They’ll ask the corner pusher for cocaine. Eager for money he agrees to get them cocaine, although he doesn’t know much about anything except marijuana. So he goes to look for a white powdery drug, and he ends up bringing back pure heroin. The backpacker goes back to his cheap guest house, and is dead by morning. The next morning, the hotel cleaning lady enters the room, and screams when she discovers his cold dead body. More than one foreign backpacker has ended up dead this way.

In another incident, the body of a backpacker was found floating out in Boeung Kak Lake. But this wasn’t a drowning accident, it was an overdose. My expat friends tell me that local police charge a guest house hundreds of dollars to remove a corpse. After the hotel staff found the foreigner's body dead from an overdose, they wanted to avoid this expense, so they dumped the corpse in the lake. So much for respect for the dead.

Back in the 1990’s there were occasional deaths of foreign backpackers, kidnapped and killed by the Khmer Rouge. Thankfully, they are no more. Today, backpacker deaths in Cambodia are self-inflicted.
View of guesthouses on Boeung Kak Lake

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