A Self-Guided Walk in Lakemba
Download the Walking Map and Notes
People question whether Lakemba is safe. Some say it’s a “no go zone”. One way to find out is to explore Lakemba for myself. As the train approaches the station, my anxiety increases.
Descending the station stairs and feeling very conspicuous with my camera, backpack and clearly Anglo appearance, I take a deep breath. I am way out of my comfort zone. Over the road people are opening the roller doors to their shops. There’s a Halal butchery, Banoful Sweets, Egiptian [sic] Gifts, and Bangla Bazaar.
A Cultural Mix
Lakemba is a real mix of cultures. Many residents are Muslim (59.2% according to the 2016 census), and the highest percentage of the almost 70% born overseas are from Bangladesh (15.4%) with those born in Lebanon a low four percent.
Lakemba Shops and Community
Slowly, I start to feel more at ease. Two women cross the road side by side pushing identical empty grey strollers. Covered from head to toe in black with one hand drawing a black scarf across half their face, they are totally absorbed in their conversation.
The Bangladeshi woman in Kawran Bazaar smiles hesitantly when I enter the shop. Initially wary, she relaxes after some small talk and lets me look around.
Next door in Abou Cham Bakery, a young man puts Lebanese pizza in a fiery oven while his father looks on. A waiting customer tells me that as long as I make the bakery famous, the proprietor won’t mind me taking photos. His breakfast order is a pizza with cheese, oregano and olives.
Women here dress modestly. Words like hijab, chador, burqa and niqab spring to mind. Most women cover their head and hair. Some wear long skirts in bright colours while others are all in black. Some only wear the headscarf with modest western dress.
Feeling More Relaxed
As the scene becomes more familiar, I relax. These women are going about their daily lives like all women in Australia. Apparently, women who dress according to their Islamic culture and religion feel safe in Lakemba as they don’t stand out. Many feel less safe in other areas of Sydney.
The people I approach are friendly and happy to chat. Others go about their business taking little notice of me and my camera.
Kushboo Sweets and Restaurant specialises in Bangladeshi cuisine. The sweets, while similar to Indian barfi are different. Shondesh is made with ricotta while barfi is made with milk powder. Later, I will return to sample one.
Unusually shaped aluminium pots rest on a gas burner in a restaurant advertising Bangladeshi Street Food. A young woman tells me that the filling for a sweet Bangladeshi crepe type dessert is made in these pots. She invites me to return at night as that’s when the action happens.
Not only the women wear traditional dress. Two men wearing long white robes and kufi (skull caps) enter a nearby shop.
A family sit at a Formica table eating a traditional Bangladeshi breakfast. They drink a milky tea from a glass. Not having had my morning coffee, I decide to stop for tea, expecting it to be different. It is – it’s Malai Cha, made from brewed black tea, sugar and spiced milk taken from a large pot simmering on a hotplate. The sweet, rich and delicious cha reminds me of my trip to India last year.
Further along the road is the Tripoli and Mena Association. It provides a range of services to Arabic speaking people including reading letters, advocacy and also provides access to phones, computers and the internet. What a valuable service assisting new arrivals navigate the different rules and customs in their new homeland.
A woman wearing flowing shades of purple walks towards me. Her face is covered by a scarf and a pair of large sunglasses. As she passes me she says “Hello”.
A Community Garden
Individuals rent small numbered plots in the community garden at the back of Jubilee Park. Some plots are better attended than others. I recognise lemongrass, fennel, lots of coriander, rhubarb, spring onions, silver beet and snow peas.
The housing in this part of Lakemba consists of two storey unit blocks interspersed with workers cottages built from brick, fibro or weatherboard. Some gardens are neat and tidy with recently cut lawn while other yards are filled with junk.
Parry Park, on the other side of busy Punchbowl Road consists of a large grassed area divided by a canal as well as outdoor playing fields. The Australia National Sports Club offers Indoor soccer, taekwondo and badminton. Outside two men sit at a table peeling and slicing onions in preparation for the weekend Bunnings BBQ fundraiser.
Ali Ben Abi Taleb Mosque, otherwise known as Lakemba Mosque, stands next door to the Lebanese Muslim Association. Although I haven’t booked a tour, I hope to be able to go inside – like when I just turned up at the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque. A man hosing down fly screens in the mosque forecourt tells me to ask next door about going in.
Lakemba Muslim Association
While I wait, I look around the reception area of the Lebanese Muslim Association. A beautiful Aboriginal dot painting adorns the wall and a plaque acknowledges the original inhabitants of the land the building stands on. Recognition from one Australian minority group of another. Unfortunately, no one is available to accompany me around the mosque. I should either book a tour or come back for the open day in October.
Disappointed, I make do with photos from the outside. A passerby asks me if I want to have a look inside. He explains where to go telling me “Don’t tell anyone I told you”. As an afterthought, he asks if I’m from any organisation and says “if you can, cover your head”.
Why did I feel the need to ask permission to enter the mosque? Perhaps it’s about not knowing where to go and what to do. I have no problem entering a church uninvited.
Feeling like an intruder, I steal up the darkened stairwell. I remove my shoes put on my raincoat with its hood and enter the women’s area of the mosque. Diagonal stripes divide the purple carpet into rows. A glass partition separates the balcony from the men’s area below. This building, reportedly Australia’s largest mosque is much simpler in design than the Gallipoli Mosque in Auburn.
A woman emerges from a nearby door. She smiles and says “no problem” at my explanation for being there, takes off her boots and enters the women’s area. She picks up a Koran, and using the diagonal line as a guide to faces the correct direction to begin her prayers. I leave quietly.
Islamic Culture and Customs
There are a few charitable organisations in Lakemba which provide services with funds donated through Zakat (charity) which, like prayer (Salah) is one of the five pillars of Islam. One of the organisations I pass assists orphans in Lebanon. The other pillars of Islam are Shahada (faith). Sawm (fasting as seen in Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
St Andrew’s Church on the corner of Quigg and Lakemba Street is a brick building built in 1923. The original wooden church building now serves as a hall. Muslim women with young children in strollers come and go from the hall. I assume there’s a play group in progress, but then discover that Anglicare offers free food from a mobile community pantry once a fortnight.
Shopping in Lakemba
Looking for a scarf for my upcoming Iran trip, I enter a women’s Islamic fashion shop. The assistant asks “Can I help you sister?” and I explain that I am looking for a simple colourful scarf for Iran. Being Arabic and likely from Iraq, she asks me “Can you wear colour in Iran?”. You can. While Iranian women are required to dress conservatively, many are quite fashionable within the constraints of the dress regulations.
Another customer, whose peach coloured scarf covers her nose and mouth tells me that the blue and floral scarf I have chosen looks nice. Her son is a couple of months older than my grandson. Women the world over, despite their differences, have much in common. It is just a matter of breaking down the barriers which are often self-imposed.
Entering Al Aseel for a Lebanese lunch, a man welcomes me to Lakemba. This place is really friendly. Three young women walk in chatting in Australian English. Only their faces are visible. While their dress is different, they converse and laugh like young women anywhere.
Shelves of children’s books beckon to me from the Darussalam Islamic Bookstore. I boldly enter and page through the well-known fairy tale, Cinderella. The basic story is there interwoven with an Islamic phrases and customs. Cinderella wears a hijab and there’s a glossary at the end to assist with the Arabic terms.
Behind the counter in another Islamic bookshop an electronic board indicates the time for the five daily Islamic Prayer times. Outside, a woman dressed in black right down to gloved hands seems less strange now. The more time I spend here, the less confronted I am by the different dress code. I wonder how they feel about me.
The Bee Shop
The owner of The Bee Shop, Sayed, sits outside on a chair in the sun. He chats about his honey which comes from Yemen, Ethiopia and Tasmania. Honey is important to Muslim people because the Koran refers to the healing properties of honey. The Bee Shop also sells special oils that apparently also have health benefits. Sayed insists that I taste two types of honey, one with the comb. They are quite different. Then I taste the tiniest drop of ginger oil. It has (of course) a strong ginger taste.
I buy my favourite Arabic pastry (Ladies fingers) at King of Sweets for an after-dinner treat. Next door, Al Andolos cafe is apparently the place to go for knafeh. I am keen to taste this traditional Palestinian dessert. Unfortunately, they only make it during Ramadan which is long gone. This is the excuse I need to visit the Knafeh Bearded Bakers who I follow on Instagram. They bake knafeh from a food truck at various locations in Western Sydney and accompany their baking with dance and music.
Lakemba – a Positive Experience
Lakemba has been a real cultural experience. After initially feeling uncomfortable, I soon felt welcome and relaxed into learning more about this south-western suburb of Sydney. I’ll be back with friends so they can experience for themselves a place that has been much maligned but which has so much to offer.
Lakemba is 15km south west of the Sydney CBD
Plan your trip at transportnsw.info
Walking Map and Notes
(Note that this is a guide only and that the time indicated on the map does not allow for any stops. I take an average of 4-5 hours when I explore). You can download my day notes here for use together with the map below. Please note that they are a guide only:
Thanks Jo. An enjoyable insight into another part of Sydney.
Thanks Alex. It was a good day discovering a suburb new to me and meeting lovely people.
Thank you for your insight of Lalemba
I’ve lived in Lakemba for 46 yrs brought up 3 children in the area
Contrary to what people say and hear it is a nice place to live
I am not a Muslim or Arabic
I respect the relegion ,although I do admit it is kind of intemidating to walk through the shopping center and sadly I try to avoid it as much as possible one reason being that as you say initially you feel out of place if you are not covered ,I myself have come to
appreciate and respect their right to their relegious expression
I do however take offence to the complete covering of the face as I feel it may pose a safety issue ,not only in Lakemba but throughout Australia given the times we live in..
Relegious expression should have some limits,whatever the relegion,if it has nothing to do with the actual beliefs,
I also appreciate their modesty
Having said all that and as a long time resident who has lived in lakemba before and now , I am in a position to tell you its changes.
Multiculterism really works in Lakemba .
But as you photos ,and comments point out unfortunately the local government has allowed it to become a geto looking area with a 3rd world look .
Before I get misunderstood and labelled racist I must clarify,my only issue in Lakemba shopping center which I avoid even though I’m within a 5 min walk from IS the lack of hygiene and adherence to Australian regulations .
Eg shops open to midnight plus ,(which is not nessacerily a bad thing if all other shopps were given the same rights ,the congestion of the public foot path with merchants product ,it narrows the path considerably which makes it prone to accidents.
As far as i know you can use part of it provided its paid for, and its close to the window of the shop not both sides of the path.
And lastly the overall look and hygiene of SOME of them.
The beautifull suburb of Lakemba with its tree lined streets and a lot of neat and tidy beautifull homes which sadly you showed none of.
There are of course a lot of other cultures in Lakemba, which I beleived warranted a mention like ,Italian, Greek, Asian ect .
We respect and appreciate each other’s cultures, and relegion,and live together harmoniously. Are there a few things that can be done to give Lakemba a better image? certainly,there are .Starting with the council
The streets and foot paths in Lakemba, are left looking like jungles grass to waist height, it was never like that, home owners cut the councils foot path lawns ,which we shouldn’t HAVE TO not everyone owns a lawn mower the rest, a left,looking like its not Sydney st according to council the council doesn’t have the funding to look after their footpaths even though its council property.
Our rates go up as regularly as any other councils whos streets look good .
I must mention that the Canterbury/Bankstown council is one of the largest councils on Australia,the reason they amalgamated was to have less expense, so what’s happened ????
Loads of questions
No answers .
Thank you again for your report, and for giving me the opportunity to express my opinion regarding the Suburb ive lived and enjoyed living in, all my adult life .
Thank you Maria for your insight into the suburb that has been your home for many years and introducing me to the other cultures of the area that I missed.
Really enjoyed reading this Jo, all the best with your next adventure!
Thanks so much Cathy. I’m pretty excited about Iran. And if truth be told a little nervous.
Very interesting view from inside the mosque and so interesting to see a church in a mostly Muslim area. The inventory at the honey and healing oils shop looks wonderful.
Thanks for a good post.
Thanks Bernadette. I was pleased that I managed to get into the mosque. Now when it’s Ramadan I can picture where the people are praying. They actually close the street.
So interesting seeing a church in a Muslim area pardon me it’s Australia Muslims don’t have an area just like any other religious s…
Thanks for your comment, Stephen which I’ve edited very slightly.
Another fascinating and informative journey. This one goes to top of my favourites Jo. I love how you share feelings of vulnerability. Honest and relatable.
Thanks Becky. It was good preparation for Iran…where I am now and feeling quite comfortable.
I’m a non-religious Anglo that moved to Lakemba just over a year ago, after already having visited a number of times over the previous years and getting a true feel for the place.
So far, my experience has been nothing by positive. Warm smiling shop keepers and town folk. Friendly neighbours. In terms of price, location, and amenities it’s excellent.
If it’s a no-go zone for anyone, then chances are you’re a no-go person. Just go about your business, treat people the way you’d like to be treated and all is sweet. Just like anywhere for anyone.
Thanks Clint for sharing your experience. I had a lovely day there and hope to be back during Eid when the streets are teeming with great food and welcoming people.
We are Hindus from Fiji and India, but quite used to Muslim culture and people all around us. Can we be okay and rent a home in Lekamba? We are in late 40s and no kids.
Thanks for advice.
I feel underqualified to advise you on whether or not to live in Lakemba, but I can say I felt quite safe and welcome on my day walking through the suburb. A quick internet search has conflicting advice. Some people have lived there many years and are quite comfortable there. Others complain about racism and rubbish in the streets.
Lakemba has a convenient train station and perhaps some parts of Lakemba are ‘nicer’ than others. The crime rate in 2014 was lower than the NSW average.
There are many Bangladeshi people living there which is reflected in the restaurants and small grocery shops on one side of the station. On the other side, it is more Lebanese and Middle Eastern. I suppose it depends on where you are going to work and what particularly you are looking for in a suburb. Please contact me via email at email@example.com if you would like to discuss this further. I will answer however I can.
Really enjoyed this, thanks for capturing the Lakemba that I see, as well. We’ve just bought our first family home in Greenacre, just near Parry Park which you visited. Couldn’t believe how affordable the area is for its proximity to the city and all the amenities it offers – updated train station with metro in the works, great food, green space right near our house for the kids to play (Canterbury-Bankstown Council has a master plan for its upgrade, too, which looks fabulous). Like Clint, we’re an anglo, non-religious family and I’m looking forward to raising our kids in this wonderfully diverse and family-oriented community. Unfortunately the mainstream media seems fixated on portraying the isolated incidences of crime in this part of Sydney and I hope the area can throw off this stigma in time.
Thank you EJ for your comments. I’ll have to add Greenacre to my list of suburbs to visit, although I have been there many years ago. Do go to Iftar (breaking the fast during Ramadan)in Haldon street. I went twice this year.
Jo I have been frequenting Lakemba since the early seventies and feel safer walking there at nite even in the backstreets…safer than my native South Africa and even some parts of the Shire
Thanks Abdul, I echo your sentiments (I too came from South Africa). I feel welcomed in Lakemba, but unfortunately old stereotypes remain for years. Hopefully with festivals like Ramadan Nights, this will slowly change.
makes me want to visit… !!
thank you for the article.
I’m so pleased. I always hope my posts encourage others to explore Sydney further than their backyard.