21 May 2013

Siem Reap, Cambodia - minus the temples

A few months ago, I published a post entitled "Angkor Wat; more than just an icon" in which I spoke of my visit to Angkor Wat in 2008.  Whilst many of you will have at least heard of the famed temples of Angkor in Cambodia, you may not have heard of the nearby town called Siem Reap (pronounced "seem reep").  The name literally means "Siam Flattened (or Defeated)" - a crude reminder of the ancient conflict between the armies of Siam (now Thailand) and Khmer for control over the territory.  Located in the north-west of Cambodia, Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor complex, and it is through her small, unpretentious airport that nearly all tourists and pilgrims intent on visiting the temples enter the kingdom.

In this post, I will introduce to you the town and her people - but not her temples.  I will also touch briefly on Cambodia's recent history for a better understanding of Siem Reap's present-day socio-economic situation.  My photos follow thereafter.

Map of Cambodia

The Town
Siem Reap is exactly what you'd expect of an underdeveloped Indo-Chinese town that's overdue for a cosmetic makeover.  Despite what I can only imagine to be HUGE the amount of revenue generated each year from temple tourism alone, the town is in obvious need of some serious development which she so richly deserves.  Most of her townhouses, for example, are very old, and the general state of her roads can only be described as acceptable at best.  Here you'll find, for instance, the posh Hotel de la Paix looking out of place sitting beside a row of tentatively-built, unpainted concrete shops where barbers and hairdressers ply their trade in cigarette smoke-filled "salons", or a grand colonial-era mansion with its frontal drainage all clogged up probably since the last monsoon.

But I'm not here to talk bad about Siem Reap; this couldn't be further from the truth.  One must understand that, economically speaking, Cambodia is still in her infancy (see "Recent History" below) and is therefore no different from any other country that is likewise only now beginning to see the dawn of development.  What this town lacks in modern infrastructure and amenities, she more than makes up with her old-world charm.  Yes, the buildings may be old but they are full of character as you shall see from my photos below.  The town itself may look a wee bit tired but it is vibrant.  Give Siem Reap some time; I have little doubt the developments will come - albeit belatedly.

Recent History

Unfortunately, Cambodia's recent history has done far more harm than good to her economy.  As neighbouring countries were undergoing frantic economic growth in the 80's and 90's, Cambodia was just taking her first steps on a slow road to recovery following the Khmer Rouge's bloody rule which lasted 3 years 8 months and 20 days until 1979.  For reasons they'd rather not have, all - and I mean ALL - Cambodians remember these infamous digits for they represent without doubt the darkest chapter in the country's history - a chapter they look back on with both disdain and shame, and one which they are uneager to repeat.  Many Cambodians who are in their mid-40's and above today have been hardened by the hardships of the era, and it is small wonder that the country registers one of the highest rates of PTSD in the world.

Equally sad is Cambodia's relatively low literacy rate (she ranks 131 out of 194 in global literacy standings).  The Khmer Rouge regarded traditional education with undiluted hostility and thousands of educators were clamped down and executed during their rule.  It took years for the education system here to be restored; it was as if an entire generation had been deprived of proper, structured education.  But the signs today are good.  Except for the abjectly poor, Cambodian parents now healthily place importance on education for their children above everything else.  Never mind her history - the country's future is looking bright. 

Her People
...are supremely nice folks.  Economically, they may be disadvantaged but they are honest and hardworking.  Many may lack proper education but they are extremely refined in mannerism.  Their minds may be scarred by memories of The Killing Fields but they are not spiteful or hostile.  In fact, I find the people of Siem Reap to be amongst the warmest and sincerest I have encountered on my travels.

While you'll find that many of them readily tell visitors of their hardship during the Khmer Rouge's rule, they seek not sympathy from anyone (they're too proud a people for that).  What they want is merely for the world to know of the atrocities that took place and of the people's suffering during that time - much like a lesson, if you will, for all to learn so that such dark episodes of history do not repeat themselves.  I remember our driver, Mr Sari, telling me over a ciggy, almost teary-eyed: "No one should have to go through what we went through".  I felt for the man; he was a teacher of mathematics at the time, you see.  Respect.


With that, it's now time for me to show you around Siem Reap town.

Baggage claim, Siem Riep Airport

Groovy meet-and-greet service

Tuk tuks - the best (and cheapest) way to get around
Siem Reap town centre.  Haggle, and pay no more than the
equivalent of US$1 per passenger to anywhere in town.

Old Market, Siem Reap - from fishmongers to fruit stalls
to vendors selling local arts and craft; they're all here

Stalls selling fabric within the Old Market

Siem Reap town centre

Siem Reap town centre

Siem Reap town centre

The town itself is usually quiet  between late-morning
and early-evening as tourists will be at the temples
during those hours

Typical street scene in Siem Reap town centre

Road traffic is relatively light here

Charming shop facades add to the old-world feel of the town

The famous Pub Street by day - a good place
to find your bearings in Siem Reap

By night, Pub Street absolutely bustles.  As its name implies,
this is where it all happens after sundown - from family
ice-cream parlours to fine restaurants to go-go bars;
they're all on this single strip.  Oops, did i say "strip"??

The other end of Pub Street

Siem Reap's night market - again, haggle

Restaurants galore in Siem Reap.  Many of these
are actually owned by European expatriates who've
made Siem Reap their home.

One of Siem Reap's many restaurants

More restaurants...

...and more restaurants.

As you can see, beer is dirt-cheap here; and they're good too!

The Red Piano, Siem Reap's second claim to fame after her temples;
this premium restaurant proudly boasts having hosted Hollywood
A-list Angelina Jolie during the filming of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider"

Me (with the cap) and our gentle driver, Mr Sari

It is impossible to talk about Siem Reap (and Cambodia) without making some reference to the Khmer Rouge's bloody rule in the 70's as it's so deeply ingrained in her history.  Despite this big, dark smear in Cambodia's history, her people have admirably picked themselves up and moved on.  They are a tough and proud people.  Instead of begging, they have chosen to open their doors to foreign visitors as an honest avenue to better their livelihoods.  That infamous chapter from the country's history books cannot be erased and will always be there to remind everyone that such atrocities must never be allowed to happen again.  As long as this remains the case, I am confident the country will remain on track towards recovery and, hopefully, long-overdue prosperity.

Let not the notion of Siem Reap being an underdeveloped Third World town deter you from visiting because she has so much to offer to visitors like you and me.  From her temples to her food, her culture to her arts and craft, there's something for everyone here.  Last but not least, there are her genuinely warm and welcoming people who'd go out of the way without a second ask to make sure you enjoy your stay, however brief.  I had a great time there; I'm certain you will too.

Have you visited Siem Reap before?  Did you have a good time?  Do you agree with what I've written?  Please share with us your experiences and thoughts in the "Post a Comment" field below.

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  1. Sylvia, you were in Siem Reap last year. Has it changed much since I visited in 2008?

    1. Hi Vincent, it doesnt change at all! i like it stay the old fashioned way better :)

    2. Thank you, Sylvia. Wll probably make a return visit a few years from now. They may have mega-malls by then.