Ancient culture and illiteracy, piety and sin, luxury and poverty : Siem Reap, from one extreme to another
Siem Reap is Cambodia’s second biggest city and has approximately 170 000 inhabitants. It is the capital city of Siem Reap province, in northwestern Cambodia. It is world famous for being the gateway to the Angkor region and its temples, which are located 6 km north of the city.
The name Siem Reap can be translated as “the flat defeat of Siam” (i.e. Thailand) and might refer to the 16th century battle between Khmer and Siamese kingdoms. But soon, the decline of Angkor and the feuds between Khmer lords caused the region to be dominated by Vietnamese and Siamese forces until the beginning of 20th century, when it became part of French Indochina.
Before that, during the 19th century, French explorers such as Henri Mounhot re-discovered Angkor temples, which had been invaded by trees and jungle in the meantime. The “Ecole Française d’Extreme Orient” was created in 1901 and started clearing the temples from vegetation and making them accessible again.
The very first tourists soon came to admire the grace and impressiveness of Angkor Wat, and stayed in Siem Reap, the closest city, which at this point had become a small village. The city began to grow again, welcoming this first wave of tourism. The Grand Hotel d’Angkor, for example, was opened in 1929. It is a very typical building of the colonial era, and it still exists under the name of Fairmont Raffles Hotel. Tourism industry kept growing until the 70s and the arrival of the Khmers Rouges regime.
Siem Reap, just like all the other big Cambodian cities, was quickly emptied of its inhabitants who were forced to go work for the regime on countryside. After a long period of unthinkable horror and distress, during which the country suffered crazy dictatorship and war with Vietnam, things finally went back to normal in the mid 90s. Siem Reap started growing up again when tourists were able to visit the region again.
SIEM REAP TODAY
Siem Reap now grows up every year at an astounding rate, almost exclusively thanks to – or because of – tourism industry. Just like in many touristic cities, you can find an amazing lot of attractions and activities for any budget, as well as the usual excesses a large number of wealthy fun-seeking people generate in a poor area. But thanks to Khmers’ sense of welcoming and generosity, Siem Reap definitely has an extra touch of soul.
You will find food from all around the world and for any budget in Siem Reap. Top range restaurants stand alongside cheap street food sellers, and a whole life would not be enough to discover all the different kinds of food this city has to offer. India, Japan, France, Mexico, Korea, Portugal, Italy, Australia and so on… All these countries have brought their culinary culture in the city! At the same time, Khmer cuisine is to be discovered in all its diversity and exoticism. Even the most unusual food is present, and you can’t leave without having tried our insect delicacies at Bugs Café of course, but also a Northern Korean dinner show at Pyong Yang restaurant or a happy pizza on Sok San Road…
Nightlife is also very important in Siem Reap, and once again you’ll be able to find an impressive number of bars of all kinds, from huge night bars for youngsters who want to get drunk for cheap, Karaokes, or ladies bars to high end quality cocktail bars. Most of these are located near famous Pub Street and around Old Market or on Sok San Road. DJs, live bands, lady boys shows, all this happens daily in Siem Reap, and you’ll find a place where to have a drink whatever the time.
Fun and entertainment go together with culture and art all around the city. Not to mention the world famous Angkor temples, you can admire the remaining of colonial architecture in the Old French quarter or near Old Market, discover local handicraft and silk work at Artisans d’Angkor or in one of the many art galleries that sprinkle the town. In turn, a number of museums and pagodas provide valuable knowledge about local traditions and culture.
There is much to do in Siem Reap, but also outside of it! Discovering the floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake, exploring countryside by bicycle, tuk tuk, quad, horse, elephant or even floating balloon, microlight or helicopter, doing some trekking at Phnom Kulen waterfalls or capture scorpions and spiders with a professional hunter : all this and much more is possible around Siem Reap.
Listing all the interesting and exciting things you can do in Siem Reap would take too long. Tuk tuks, motorbikes, beer gardens, small shops and local markets, internationality, heat, smells, and most of all Cambodians’ incredible kindness create a unique atmosphere that will make an everlasting impression on the minds of any visitor.