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Lakeside Culture Fusion No Problem

By: Jamie Bennett Posted: April-29-2008 in
Jamie Bennett

The Lakeside has become the backpacker's quarters of Phnom Penh. With thousands of tourists passing through every year, it's undoubtedly one of the most Western influenced areas in the city.

However, there are still plenty of traditional Khmer families living their Cambodian lives amongst all of the craziness of the barang travellers and their party scene. It's quite a unique place. Cultures from all over the world live in such close proximity with each other, interacting on a daily basis. But what do the locals think of all this?

Thavy, 24, a worker in one of The Lakesides' internet shops, has been in the area for more than five years. In her opinion, the Westerner's are "no problem". While they may not always realize how inappropriate hot pants and a crop top can be, she says, they are mostly respectful and friendly towards the locals.

"It doesn't matter," she says. "It is normal for them in their country and if the Cambodian people want to look it's OK."

In her opinion, the introduction of Western culture into the streets of Phnom Penh is a good opportunity for Khmers to experience a culture other than their own. She also likes the idea of so many people coming to Cambodia to find out about her country's history and traditions. "They can see Cambodia and know about our culture," she smiles.

When asked about the Western-run restaurants and bars in Lakeside, Thavy explains that she feels it's a good thing for those who choose to stay to start up businesses.

"The Westerners come and the commerce is good. Everything is better." As long as they don't stay for drugs, it's an ideal situation, she says. "If they do the smoke and the drug, it's no good."

She lowers her voice as she mentions a recent fatal drug overdose of a Westerner at one of the guesthouses. "He smoked too much and he died!" She realizes, along with many of the locals, that it is a serious problem in the area.

She believes that the Westerners attract the drugs and that if there were no tourists at Lakeside, there would also be no drugs. However, she was also convinced that "if there are no drugs, the Westerners still come."

Pherom, 36, is a long time restaurant owner of La Dolce Vita on Street #93 – the area's main street amidst a maze of small lanes – and his general attitude about Westerners is quite positive and relaxed. "I don't care. They come, eat, sleep, drink and see everywhere and it's no problem."

His experience with the "barang" has been very similar to Thavy's. He had nothing negative to say at all about the expats living in the area, introducing their Western ideas into the community.

"It's good that the old people can see them." Although, he did cheekily mention that maybe the community elders don't appreciate the modern English music blearing out of every bar on the street. "They don't like it because they can't understand it."

From his shop Pherom sees the daily ins and outs of the street from early in the morning to late at night. He is witness to Westerners at their best, helping street children and donating their time to NGOs, and at their worst, drunk, drugged and completely disorderly. "I know the character of people here," he says. "Some people are bad but only small people. More people, the most people, are good."

Despite the cons of Lakeside, namely the booming illegal drug market, Pherom defended the area with serious conviction. "People outside think the people here are bad because they're poor. But they don't know. Here people are good."

And he's right. There are many good families living along the lake, trying to do the best they can with what they've got. And this statement isn't limited to the Cambodians; the local expats do just the same. They mingle in with Khmers, who often treat them as family, and integrate themselves into the Cambodian way of life, Western style.

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