When Burger King opened its doors two blocks from my apartment in January 2014, I tweeted half seriously, “There goes the neighborhood.”
Little did I know. And how much do I regret that I unwittingly had foreseen what would ensue. Burger King cranked open the floodgates that caused an inundation of fast-food restaurants — which enjoy throngs of young Khmers starting late in the afternoon — along a four-block stretch of a street that parallels mine.
Our mid-rise apartment building is, I hear, only about five years old. The lot it occupies apparently was a banana plantation prior to construction, and the greenery it provided exemplified my neighborhood. In no small part because of our building boom (soon to be bust, I think) and the growing profusion of restaurants, gorgeous tropical trees are vanishing apace.
When we moved to the Boeung Keng Kang I area at the end of 2013, one of the chief attractions was the pleasant ambiance that the profusion of remaining trees and walled mid-century villas (“McMansions” in the States) offered. As someone who had reveled in Manhattan’s abundance of commercial diversions, I concede the irony of finding offensive the transformation of my neighborhood into one sprouting high-rise condos and chain restaurants selling food that I would find distasteful were I to purchase any.
Although the area is changing rapidly from what drew me to a part of Phnom Penh that many expats favor, I feel more or less stuck in BKK I, as it is known, because of my familiarity with its vendors, its convenience and what graciousness it still possesses.
Aside from a couple of slow-food restaurants prior to 2014, there were three coffee cafés — Brown, Costa and Gloria Jean’s — on the four-block strip of Street 51, which now reminds me of Route 1 from Maine to Florida.
With regard to coffee shops, they multiply like snakefish; there are three other places luring coffee drinkers within block of my building. Yes, six of them altogether just a two-minute stroll away.
One block from an intersection that has a coffee shop on each of three (!) corners, two of the cafés bearing the same name, Starbucks already has leveled a villa and begun foundation work. Rumor has it that the chain has budgeted $1 million to develop and rent the site for five years.
College and university students from well-to-do families favor such venues to work on their homework together, and they usually outnumber patrons who fall into other categories. In fact, the founders of the Brown chain say they got the idea for their popular business when they were studying at local universities.
If you haven’t visited the developing world or Southeast Asia in particular, perhaps you are surprised to learn about the prevalence of fast-food outlets. Seeing how regularly restaurants open and then close in the neighborhood, expats assume investors use them to launder ill-gotten gains, and I have no reason to doubt the claim.
I decided to photograph the four blocks of Street 51 near me last week to demonstrate (before their late-afternoon rush period) just how intrusive are the new restaurants, a handful of them undoubtedly unfamiliar to some in the West. In a few cases, you can glimpse the remains of villas lurking behind them, but most have been obliterated. Also visible in a couple of photos are the green shrouds of uncompleted buildings that blot the neighborhood.
Krispy Kreme, which opened last month to great fanfare on a lot that a lovely old villa had occupied, is the latest addition to the strip. A couple of photos below demonstrate that it won’t be the last.