The talesofasia guide to travel in Siem Reap and Angkor
updated May 19, 2011
You've heard about the accidental tourist? Siem Reap is the accidental tourist town. A now not so small town that in fact has more residents than it appears to have (which really is a lot), it's claim to fame is that it happens to be located a few kilometers from a huge temple complex that boasts several of the world's most significant ancient structures as well as dozens, perhaps hundreds of lesser monuments. These temples were mostly built between the 9th and 13th centuries and are certainly some of the most amazing monuments from antiquity on the planet. The centerpiece of this is Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious structure and the only man-made structure in the world that has the honor of adorning its nation's flag.
Siem Reap is both a province as well as the name of the provincial capital, though the government has plans to make an official name change of both the province and city to "Angkor" at some point, well, soon*. Siem Reap town has a French colonial center and then spreads out for a half dozen or so kilometers to the northeast and west. Most of the commercial activity is centered around the Old Market (Psah Chas), along the Airport Road, along Sivatha Blvd., and along Route 6 to the east of the river from the stone bridge to Psah Leu.
(*In Cambodia, the word "soon" is defined as referring to an unspecified period of time not less than later and not more than much much later.)
The Old Market area is the tourist ghetto as it contains the highest concentration of businesses here catering to the tourist market (restaurant, bar, craft/boutique, massage, travel, etc.), with a majority of the businesses western-owned. Contrary to common belief, the Old Market is not "The Market", nor is it the "town center". If you want to see a local Cambodian market, go to Psah Leu, it's the biggest and best. If you want a "town center" there really is none. But if you want a tourist center, then this is the place for you.
The Airport Road area is the domain of large hotels the majority of which are lacking in any sort of personality, predominantly Cambodian or other Asian-owned and geared towards package tourists, mostly Asian. The commercial area along Route 6 is less tourist-oriented with many businesses serving the local community: hardware stores, furniture shops, repair shops, etc. Sivatha Blvd is the main north-south road west of the river and has a good mix of businesses catering both to tourists and locals alike. However, don't take these divisions too seriously, there are numerous exceptions on every street in town.
Angkor Wat is approximately six kilometers from the town center and the temple closest to Siem Reap. The temple park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site officially designated as the Angkor Archaeological Park. There are many misconceptions as to who "owns" the temples and you can find more information about that in the Temples section as well as in the Additional Stories section.
While the Angkor temples are the main attraction, like any major tourist destination, there are other things to see and do here and each year new businesses spring up offering new ways to separate you from your money. Some are worth every penny, others, well... they're there. The section on Other things to do and places to go will tell you more.
Siem Reap is developing rapidly and the demand for some services is exceeding the ability to provide them - particularly things like water, electric, and sewage. So if your guesthouse temporarily runs out of water or it smells like sewage when you walk down the street (maybe after a big rain...!) don't go on Trip Advisor blaming your guesthouse. It's not their fault. But chances are you won't encounter any glitches but if something doesn't work out as you hoped, be patient. Many of the Siem Reap residents are still new to this tourist thing and have had only but a few years to adapt to all this international attention.
Most visitors to Siem Reap have a very positive experience here. Yes, it can get annoying sometimes to have someone try to sell you the same t-shirt twenty times in a day, or have a simple walk downtown include a dozen motorbike taxi drivers offering you a ride to anywhere. But what do you expect? This is a small town in a third world country that sees over a million wealthy tourists each year spend millions of dollars in cash that is anything but spread around evenly. And Siem Reap is in the midst of a gold rush and the San Francisco 1849 mentality is definitely in evidence here. Many people, foreign and Cambodian, are jumping in with both feet seeking to exploit this new tourism boom for as much as they can, as quickly as possible.
That said, by and large Siem Reap and Angkor is a stress-free destination and much of what goes on behind the scenes is of no concern to the average tourist other than whatever exclamations you might make as you come in from the airport and see thirty hotels in various stages of construction. Whatever hassles you might experience will most likely be on arrival - either at the border, airport, or bus, if you have no one meeting you. Once you get past the initial "welcome to my country, let me hassle you and rip you off" exercise, things tend to go quite well here and you're not likely to be troubled, scammed, or otherwise mistreated.
This is not the Cambodia you read about in Off the Rails, or saw in some Khmer Rouge documentary, or were warned about by a friend of your father's second cousin. This is a Cambodia that is remarkably safe. Forget about the war, lawlessness, Khmer Rouge, kidnappings, etc. That's all for the history books now. Siem Reap and Angkor are well on their way to taking their rightful place as one of the world's premier tourist destinations.
And that leads to another point. Things are changing rapidly for tourism, too. The days of climbing the walls at Ta Prohm and smoking a joint when you get there are over. Angkor Wat at 5 pm is a zoo. The Bayon and Banteay Srei are logjams of humanity every morning. At some point, some of the smaller temples, Banteay Srei in particular, may become subject to timed visits for crowd control.
If a visit to Siem Reap/Angkor is in your plans, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later. The temples will always be magnificent, no matter how many visitors they receive, but the experience in visiting them is changing. While Angkor may becoming less of an "experience", the ease at which tourists can see Angkor will in the long run lead to greater visitor numbers which can be only of greater benefit to Cambodia and its people. Tourism in 2011 is still far and away the country's number one product and in Angkor it's a five-star offering. Thus, don't expect much sympathy from anyone living here, Cambodian or expat, about there being too many tourists, that things are too commercial, etc. If you care a hoot about Cambodia and its recovery from the insanity of the 1970s and 1980s, you'll understand how vital it is that they develop their tourism industry to the fullest extent possible.
Welcome to Siem Reap. Do enjoy.
Siem Reap index page
Eating and drinking
Other things to do and places to go in and around Siem Reap
Additional stories on the Siem Reap area
Guesthouses, restaurants, tours and more
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