A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Siem Reap’s Tourist Appeal Blossoms Beyond Angkor Wat

By Simon Marcus Gower | The Jakarta Globe December 04, 2012
The Angkor National Museum. (JG Photo/Simon Marcus Gower) The Angkor National Museum. (JG Photo/Simon Marcus Gower)
When you mention the city of Siem Reap, most travelers automatically think of Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples.

But there’s more to the city, located in northwestern Cambodia, than just being a transit to the temples.

Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination where travelers can expect a warm welcome from the locals and a high level of service and comfort.

On this visit, my driver, Brach, described how facilities at Siem Reap had grown to accommodate tourists. “About 10 years ago there were about six hotels in town, now there are maybe more than 80,” he said.

While the scale of development has been considerable, local authorities have made an effort to restrain excess development. For example, skyscrapers are prohibited.

Much of the town’s layout derives from its French occupation, with wide tree-lined boulevards creating pleasant areas for both cars and pedestrians.

The part of town known as the Royal Gardens is an attractive green park with open spaces and a sense of grandeur. This is partly because the royal residence is hosted within this area.

As dusk falls, thousands of bats awaken and begin their nightly forage for food. They are big and noisy, but add to the exotic feel.

A short walk north of the gardens is the Angkor National Museum. This is a relatively new building that is spacious and well laid-out. It has a considerable collection of Khmer art, mostly stone statues and wood carvings. A particular highlight is a large room filled with hundreds of Buddha figures. The Angkor National Museum also has several audio and visual programs that introduce Khmer art and the Angkor Wat temple.

Further south is the Old Market area, which features a night market. The market is full of items appealing to tourists, with a range of souvenirs — from cheap T-shirts to expensive art.

It’s quite normal to barter at these markets and most sellers are pleasant and outgoing — as long as a deal is in the works.

Some of the more economical items on offer are Khmer scarves known as krama. Locals generally wear these scarfs around their waist or neck and they can also double as a baby carrier for mothers. The checkered and colorful scarfs are very much part of Khmer and Cambodian culture.

The market areas have expanded to both sides of the Siem Reap River. Undercover bridges provide people with easy access to both sides of the market and at night, these bridges light up and lanterns are placed in the river.

The center of the town’s nightlife is known as Pub Street. There are several bars, clubs and restaurants along the street in the old French quarter. Some of the bars even play on the surrounding sights with names such as Temple Bar and Angkor What?, both offering good food at reasonable prices.

Pub Street is by no means too noisy or ugly, but rather a fun and relaxing area with a multicultural mix of cuisines. Like most of the town’s highlights, Pub Street is on the west side of the river, but that shouldn’t stop you from venturing to the eastern side.

A highlight to the east of the river is Wat Bo — one of the town’s oldest temples.

At its center is a main building that highlights a fine example of Khmer architecture.

Inside the building, the walls are almost entirely covered with intricate paintings illustrating the Cambodian interpretation of the Ramayana.

Today Siem Reap welcomes many visitors from all around the world. Travelers are welcomed and encouraged to visit the surrounding temples, but they are never hassled or harangued. It’s definitely worth a visit.


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