12th April 2019
Siem Reap is a boom town.
If you’d been lucky enough to come here 20 years ago, you’d have found a quiet backwater, with a few dirt roads off which were located a handful of hotels and hostels catering mainly to intrepid backpackers. How things change.
With the rise in the tiger economies, the birth of no-frills airlines and the ever-increasing urge to travel by increasingly inquisitive Western travellers, the town has been transformed. With over 4 million visitors a year, Siem Reap, and the UNESCO World Heritage sites that are located here, is now one of Asia’s biggest tourist attractions.
But that said, it is still a great place to visit and you don’t have the be swamped by the selfie-stick wielding tourist all the time. Indeed, having been here for the past five days – ostensibly working in our regional office – I have managed to have four great experiences that all took me well off the beaten path where other tourists were rare. Here’s a brief description of them…
What an experience this was.
In the very capable hands of Eddie, a pilot from Richmond Virginia, I was whisked up high above the town to get a bird’s eye view of the temples, lakes, villages and forests around Siem Reap. Flying over the Tonlé Sap, the giant lake that has played such an important role in the life of the region, we saw the floating villages, the fishing nets and the communities that live nearby.
We swooped low over the forests, saw giant cranes feeding in water holes, farmers ploughing their fields with oxen, an old man raking snails from a muddy bog… he waved to us. From above you really get a sense of the scale of the Angkorian Empire. Here you can see vast city walls, dried out canals that would have fed the ancient citadel and sites of temples destroyed long ago; things you would never notice from ground level. And of course, we saw temples.
Flying over the Rolous Group, Benteay Sam Rey and the spectacular hilltop Phnom Krom, we could see there were no tourists at all. We finished the hour-long flight by flying up close to Angkor Wat. My only experience of this kind of view is usually through flying a drone… today I was the drone!
And you don’t have to be flying at 500 feet to avoid other tourists.
With my wonderful guide, Saravy, we rode our bikes through the busy Victory Gate and then up on to the deserted outer wall of Angkor Thom. From here, cycling around the moat in the shade of lush vegetation, we explored five Buddhist and Hindu shrines, dating back to the early 12th century, where again there were just a handful of other travellers.
I was beginning to think there simply were no tourists in town, that for some reason we were travelling so out of season that I was the only person there. But when we arrived at Ta Prom of Tomb Raider fame, I realised I was not. There were the crowds – sticking to the beaten path.
Just after seven in the evening, with Nathan from our London office and Makara and Narla, from our Cambodia office, we visited the local night market.
This is not traditionally a place for foreign travellers, where the usual tourist tat is sold. It’s a place for locals to meet their family and friends, to browse the various food stalls, enjoy dinner, and relax after work. Here we sampled various delicacies such as roasted quail, spicy mango and crab salad, and drank a beer (having both tried them before Nathan and I avoided the deep-fried scorpions and tarantulas).
From here we went to a local restaurant where we had dinner and a few more beers, all the while entertained by our eloquent guides. Everyone in Cambodia has a story. It’s fascinating to hear them.
And finally, I met Bumtha, a local lad studying to be an IT technician.
As part of our business set up, we have an amazing charitable arm called Journeys Within Our Community, or JWOC for short. JWOC educate 600 people from underprivileged homes, partly teaching English, but mainly driving a university scholarship programme. As a new experience to offer our clients and help some of these kids practice their English, we have devised an excursion where we, the tourists, go and spend time at their centre talking to some of the students.
Encouraged by the charming Keisha – JWOC’s communications director – Bumtha, in his second year at Uni, told me his story. It wasn’t particularly dramatic, just a tale about life growing up on a small farm, growing rice and corn, with an elder brother who encouraged him to study. One day he wants to set up a small business as an IT technician with his own shop.
Coming to Siem Reap as a tourist it’s easy to indulge yourself by staying in fabulous hotels, eating at great restaurants, and feasting your eyes on some of the greatest monuments the world has ever known. But sometimes it is also a pleasure to just sit with someone from a different world and share stories. And what a pleasure it was.
Siem Reap is a great place to visit, and if it’s your first time, you will have to see all the great sites and deal with however many tourists are present at that time.
The Angkor complex is one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions; it cannot be avoided. But if you give yourself enough time, there are many other things you can do here which will be equally impressive, give you a real sense of travel and get you away from the madding crowds.