Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khymer Empire in modern-day Cambodia, is one of the world’s leading attractions, with the number of tourists marvelling at the Unesco World Heritage Site growing steadily for many years.
As a result, nearby Siem Reap – which used to be little more than a few streets with French colonial buildings – has grown to become a bustling city of around 250,000 inhabitants.
The “Pub Street” in the city centre became an attraction for party-loving backpackers, much to the horror of others who would rather have peace and quiet during their stay. Mass tourism brought with it a lot of rubbish, and a lot of noise.
Then came the coronavirus, and Cambodia closed its borders for many months. Foreigners have been allowed to enter the country since November 2021, but visitor numbers have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. In the meantime, much has changed for the better in Siem Reap.
Silence at daybreak
At 5am, a few dozen tourists wait for sunrise in front of the largest religious building in the world. Some of them sit devoutly in the grass and gaze silently at the front of the temple, whose lotus-like towers slowly stand out against the light of the morning sky.
Whether it’s the most famous complex Angkor Wat, the mystical ruins of Angkor Thom with its distinctive face towers, or Ta Prohm with its tree roots overgrowing the ancient walls everywhere, travellers can experience these unique sites as they must have appeared hundreds of years ago.
“Now is probably the best time to visit the temples because it is still so quiet,” says Dennis de Groot, general manager of Raffles Grand d’Angkor. Siem Reap’s oldest and most famous hotel celebrated its 90th birthday in June at the same time as it reopened after the pandemic.
“For two years there was almost no tourism at all in Angkor. Now it’s starting up again, but very slowly,” says Nick Ray, author of the Lonely Planet travel guide to Cambodia.
“The industry is reasonably optimistic,” says Ray, pointing out that December and January are the best time to visit the region, with dry weather and pleasant temperatures.
Those who knew Siem Reap in the years before the pandemic are in for a surprise – the Cambodian government has used the tourist-free period to give Siem Reap a makeover. The equivalent of around €150mil (RM712mil) has been invested in resurfacing roads, creating better pavements, installing new street and traffic lights, and building a modern drainage and sewage system. New cycle paths lead up to the temples a few kilometres away.
Pub Street with its bars still exists, but in other parts of town, cool cafés and chic boutique hotels await guests with more upmarket demands – precisely the sort of visitors that the authorities in Cambodia are now hoping for.
Hoteliers and tour operators agree that Angkor and Siem Reap should be more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the future. Instead, they want to transform the region into a destination where tourists return and stay longer, rather than just flying in for two or three nights and then moving on.
New attractions should help, including a botanical garden, an aquarium, golf courses, excursions into the scenic surrounding countryside and an elephant reserve.
There are also plans to improve the entrance ticket model for the temples. Until now, larger groups of visitors have concentrated on the three most important temples – Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm – and packed them all into a single day, resulting is overcrowding.
A future model which lets visitors see only one temple at a time should make them less crowded, while more overnight stays would benefit the entire tourism sector. – dpa