The once sleepy provincial capital of SIEM REAP (pronounced See-um Ree-up) is Cambodia’s ultimate boomtown, its exponential growth super-fuelled by the vast number of global tourists who now descend on the place to visit the nearby temples of Angkor. The modern town is like nowhere else in Cambodia, packed with wall-to-wall hotels, restaurants, bars, boutiques, tour operators and massage parlours; its streets thronged day and night with tourists, touts and tuk-tuk drivers in a giddy bedlam of incessant activity, with endless quantities of hot food and cheap beer, and a nonstop party atmosphere.

It should be tourist hell, of course, but what’s perhaps most surprising is that Siem Reap has somehow managed to retain much of its original small-town charm. It’s easy to spend much longer here than planned, wandering the city’s lively markets, colourful wats and peaceful riverside walkways by day, and exploring its restaurants, bars and boutiques by dark. Major attractions in the town itself may be thin on the ground, but there’s much to enjoy apart from the oligatory temple tours. The nearby floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake shouldn’t be missed, while there are plenty of other activities and attractions to keep you busy, from horseriding and quad-biking through to cookery courses, apsara dances and shadow-puppet shows.

Brief history

Little is known about the history of Siem Reap, said to mean “Siam defeated” in commemoration of a battle that possibly never happened. Sprawling to east and west of the river of the same name, the town has only recently grown large enough to acquire its own identity. Visiting in 1935, Geoffrey Gorer described it as “a charming little village, hardly touched by European influence, built along a winding river; the native houses are insignificant little structures in wood, hidden behind the vegetation that grows so lushly… along the river banks.” The only hotels at the time were the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, then “a mile out of town” according to Norman Lewis, who stayed here in 1951, although it’s now been swallowed up by the expanding town, and its sister establishment, the Bungalow des Ruines, opposite Angkor Wat. Siem Reap remained relatively undeveloped during the first tourist rush of the 1950s and 1960s, and much was destroyed when the town was emptied under the Khmer Rouge, although the Grand, the shophouses of the Old Market, Psar Chas, and the occasional colonial villa escaped unscathed.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Cambodia features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

The truth about elephant tourism in Asia

The truth about elephant tourism in Asia

Elephants are born free, but are everywhere in chains – and it’s tourism which is increasingly to blame. Riding an elephant used to be on every visitor’s …

25 Nov 2016 • Gavin Thomas insert_drive_file Article
11 gorgeous pictures of Cambodia

11 gorgeous pictures of Cambodia

This beguiling country in Southeast Asia has captured the hearts and imaginations of travellers from all over the world. Travel photographer Fiona Campbell is …

11 Jan 2016 • Fiona Campbell insert_drive_file Article
How to see Angkor Wat without the crowds

How to see Angkor Wat without the crowds

The sky is lightening. Squint and you can just about make out a change in the colour of it, a shift from inky-black to blue-black. As the sun rises further it c…

03 Jun 2015 • Helen Ochyra insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month