Let’s face it, Phnom Penh tends to get a bad rap among travelers, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again I love this city. Yes, I’ve had my ups and downs since moving here, but I’m still an avid booster of Phnom Penh.
There are a lot of reasons why travelers should consider allotting at least a day or two (if not much longer) to visiting Cambodia’s capital – and street art is one of them.
If you’ve been following me on Instagram you’re probably well aware that Phnom Penh is home to a pretty awesome street art scene. And if not, well it is!
I’m no artist but I am a huge fan of street art. My obsession really began after I took an unforgettable tour of Bogotá’s street art last year. Ever since then I always try to seek out street art during my travels.
Before moving to Phnom Penh I was completely unaware that the city is home to a burgeoning street art scene. And, like me, not a lot of travelers know about it.
Phnom Penh’s street art district is actually located on and around Street 93, which is part of the Boeung Kak Lake area. While Street 93 is still relatively unknown among travelers it is actually located right in the heart of the city. It’s fully possible to walk there from the riverside, that is if you’re willing to brave Phnom Penh’s brutal heat. If not, just hop in a tuk tuk – rides from the riverside shouldn’t cost more than $1-2 – and tell the driver to take you to Boeung Kak. They should know exactly where it is. (Tip: Once you see the large mosque veer left. When you start seeing art on the walls you’ll know you’re in the right place.)
The History of Boeung Kak’s Street 93
Boeung Kak Lake is a bit of a misnomer. There actually isn’t a lake there…at least not anymore.
The story of Boeung Kak Lake is a sad one. But it’s one that I really want to share here because most travelers don’t know about it. And I promise that street art really does play a role in this story!
From what I’ve heard the lake was once one of the prettier parts of Phnom Penh. Street 93, which used to be located on the lakeside, was actually the main backpacker hangout in Phnom Penh in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Back in the day Street 93 was a popular spot for travelers, hippies and creative types who would go there to hang out, smoke pot and drink sunset beers. It definitely sounds like it had its shady aspects (as many areas of Phnom Penh do) but once upon a time this was the backpacker spot in the city. Back then business was booming and Boeung Kak’s Street 93 was full of bars, hostels and restaurants.
The lake itself was surrounded by numerous villages and thousands of residents, many of whom made their living by fishing and harvesting seaweed. The lake, which was actually fairly large, was also a major source of water for the city.
But everything changed in 2010 when the lake was filled in by land developers who wanted to create more room in Central Phnom Penh for luxury housing. According to this site, thousands were forced to evacuate and were compensated next to nothing for their land. As the lake dried up so did business. The owners of all those once-popular hostels, bars and restaurants had no choice but to permanently close their doors. Between the business owners and fishermen, thousands of residents no longer had a source of income.
This highly controversial ordeal lasted years and resulted in protests, arrests and, eventually, forced evictions. Starting in 2010, the lakeside was reduced to a wasteland. Like many former lakeside areas, Street 93 became notorious for drugs, poverty and crime. Nowadays, the former lake is nothing but a large swath of sand and it’s still devoid of any development.
The story of Boeung Kak Lake is just another tragic aspect of this city’s troubling history and its controversial construction boom.
But there is a bright spot to this story, I swear!
Street Art in Phnom Penh
A couple years ago two French women – Marj Arnaud and Ludi Labille – set up shop in Boeung Kak’s Street 93. They had the (some would say) crazy idea to clean things up and turn Street 93 into an art-filled village. And, against all odds, they’re succeeding!
In Boeung Kak’s Street 93, things are changing fast. These two women kick started a whole movement to not only clean up the neighborhood but to give it an artistic makeover. They opened the doors to their French bistro and art center called Simone in August 2014. Since then they have worked feverishly to promote art and culture in the area by inviting both local and international artists to adorn walls and buildings with some pretty amazing art.
In one year’s time, the streets have become filled with art installations and colorful murals Businesses including bars, restaurants, hotels and clothing shops are now (slowly) starting to pop up. And events promoting art and Cambodian culture are regularly held in the area. There is new life on Street 93 and it is a sight to be seen.
I first learned about Street 93 through Instagram of all places. One of my favorite Colombian artists who goes by the moniker Stinkfish actually visited Phnom Penh in the spring of 2015 and graced the side of one of Street 93’s many dilapidated buildings with his colorful and unique work. He posted a photo on Instagram and I was instantly obsessed with the idea of visiting the area.
At the time I had no idea I’d actually be moving to Phnom Penh, but move here I did. And one of the first things I did when I got here was go to Street 93. If you ask me, it’s definitely one of the cooler places to visit in the city. And while it’s still small and still in its nascent stages Street 93 is well worth a visit.
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Have you heard of Street 93? Do you seek out street art when you travel?