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.
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.