Siem Reap has been experiencing a gold rush. A sleepy backwater until recently, it has expanded at an unanticipated speed, with hotels, resort, restaurants and spas mushrooming to match the millions of tourists who fly in every year to visit Angkor. The gateway to this ancient temple complex which is high on the 'it' list of hot destinations ever year, Siem Reap has become an international playground.
Small Town Charm
Despite the glitz of new five star resorts and restaurants, Siem Reap thankfully remains a small town at heart. It is still only 2km on the north-south axis along the gentle Siem Reap River and 3-4km east west along Route 6. Wide balconies, shuttered windows, French colonial style shop houses and villas and broad boulevards recall its colorful past. There are still more bicycles, tuks-tuks and motorcycles than there are cars. Cyclists hobble by, balancing bunches of fruit on their bikes, and ducks waddle across the streets. Bats hang on the branches of trees hundreds of years old lining the square in town.
The town has been receiving visitors for over 100 years, ever since Angkor was discovered, and in the 1960's it played host to a steady stream of the rich and famous. Near the center of town is the landmark and prestigious Raffles Grand Hotel D'Angkor, which was visited over the years by Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Its name means "Siamese Defeated" and it was really a cluster of small villages when the French explorers stumbled across Angkor in the jungles. The first tourists started arriving in 1907 and the Grand Hotel D'Angkor, now owned by the Raffles Group, opened for business in 1929 in what used to be the French Ambassador's residence. It fell into slumber during the Khmer Rouge, a sleep which it woke up from in the mid-1990s.
Looking to the Future
Siem Reap is fully embracing the future. Once it had only three hotels – today there are more than 60, spread evenly across the town. Budget guesthouses in the center of town, around Psar Chas, share the same street as unabashedly chic contemporary Hotel de la Paix, which has an iPod in every room, pre-programmed to be taken on a tour of Angkor.
A whole street is turned into a pedestrian area every night so that pub crawlers need not worry. Restaurants staffed by celebrity chefs are a stone's throw from popular street dining. Internet cafes have spread like wildfire and the top end hotels offer wi-fi access, private plunge pools and enclosed courtyards. Tuk-tuk drivers conduct business on cell phones.
Siem Reap is the hub of a drive to revive the country's cultural heritage which was dealt a near death blow by the Khmer Rouge, who killed so many of the Cambodian artists.These centers also take in poor and disadvantaged young Cambodians to teach them heritage skills. Instructors at Les Chantiers Ecoles pass on wood and stone carving techniques; elegant reproductions of Angkorian statues are sold through their beautifully decorated shop called Artisans d'Angkor.
It also runs a silk farm in which all stages of silk cultivation, from the growing of mulberry trees to the hand weaving of silk, can be seen. Exquisite silk is made into cushions, bedspreads and clothing or can be bought by the meter.
The National Center for Khmer Ceramics Revival has reconstructed an ancient high-firing dragon kiln, based on archaeological finds, as part of attempts to revive ancient ceramics methods. As these are complicated centuries old techniques, the center focuses only on stoneware, faience, raku and saltware.
Siem Reap is easy to navigate. The heart of town is Psar Chas or the Old Market and Route # 6 cuts across its northern part. Siem Reap River flows north-south and there are many bridges spanning the east and west banks. The airport is 6km from the town center, and the main temples of Angkor are between 6-8km north. While hotels are evenly spread out, there are some concentrations, with smaller hotels near Psar Chas, several upscale ones along Route 6 between the airport and town, mid range hotels along Sivatha, and budget and mid range hotels in the Psar Leu and Wat Bo areas.
The floating villages and bird sanctuaries are 20 minutes south of the town. The scenic Chong Kneas floating village is the closest, but it is worthwhile spending the extra time to explore further afield. Less visited villages on bamboo stilts look like otherworldly bamboo skyscrapers when the water of the Tonle Sap Lake recede during the dry season. Rare storks can be found at the bird sanctuaries, and the best tours are run by conservation groups.