Angkor Wat is world-famous, but Siem Reap is practically unknown for the world. Most the millions of annual visitors for Angkor, though, use Siem Reap as a base for their visits of the medieval necropolis.
The French Quarter
Downtown Siem Reap, the French Quarter, nowadays the center of tourist Siem Reap. Image by Asienreisender, 9/2015
The town of Siem Reap is certainly the most representative place in Cambodia, and also the most expensive. The gap between rich and poor is much more visible here than in most other places in the country, where no or little wealth is. A lot of luxurious villas are to see in town, and some really expensive cars are around here.
The place lies some 10km north of the northern shores of the huge Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The famous temple of Angkor Wat lies another six kilometers north. Siem Reap is divided by the Siem Reap River (Stung Siem Reap).
Rampant growing Siem Reap is another carcinoma in Cambodia, which is destroying the nature particularly along the NH6 in both directions, all along the riverbanks of Siem Reap River and additionally spreading out in all other directions. Between the center and the shore of Tonle Sap Lake are non-stop dwellings and traffic. Also at the shores of the lake is an urban nightmare growing, mostly consisting of slums built on muddy ground.
Siem Reap means 'Siamese Defeat' and points to an alleged battle which was lost by the army of Ayutthaya. The historical authentity of the battle is highly in doubt. In a popular oral narrative king Ang Chan (1516-66) had named the place Siem Reap after fending a Siamese invasion army in 1549. The Thai's call the town 'Siam Nakhon'. In the Siamese time there was also the name 'Siemmarat' in use, what means 'Siamese Territory'.
One of the oldest temples in town is Wat Bo, about 200m away from the left river side. It has two old buildings and a number of pretty bombastic, new buildings, partially under construction. Image by Asienreisender, 9/2015
Until the whole of the 19th century there was not more than a few buddhist temples and rural villages around here. It was a completely insignificant place which belonged to the kingdom of Siam, until the French forced the Siamese government to exchange it together with Pailin and Battambang for the provinces of Trat and Chanthaburi in 1907. The French then started the archaeological examination of the Angkor site with it's many temples. They also created the town center with the old market and the colonial houses around (the French Quarter). Still, at the end of the 20th century Siem Reap did not have more than 60,000 inhabitants. Now, in 2015, it's probably almost 200,000. The number rose considerably in the last few years and is still, due to demographic factors and to immigration from other places in Cambodia on the rise.
Siem Reap is also a province of the same name. In the whole province are about 900,000 people living.
In Democratic Kampuchea (1975-79), the people of Siem Reap were, as all the inhabitants of cities, driven out of town and forced to work on the rice fields. After the Vietnamese invasion was the region still not safe. The Vietnamese controlled mostly the Cambodian cities, while the roads were unsafe and the countryside still very vulnerable to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge faction. In these years there were still large forests in the area, where the guerillas were safe from the Vietnamese army. They repeatedly attacked Siem Reap, last time in 1993, when there was already the UNTAC peacecorps in here.
There are still land mines found in the fields around Siem Reap, one of the long-living heritages of the Khmer Rouge.
The Killing Fields of Siem Reap
Whereever you go in Cambodia, chances are high to encounter one of these skull towers with the bones of those who were killed in Democratic Kampuchea. Vietnam and maybe also Laos suffered more under the American Vietnam War, but the great genocide happened here. That requires explanation. Cambodian culture, if you want to call it so, is a very necrophile one, all over it's history. The country was from the beginning of history on ruled in a tradition of brutality and selfishness. Angkor Wat itself can be seen as a monument of insanity, where hundreds of thousands died to built a site which had the central purpose to merely serve as a private graveyard for a 'godking', Suryavarman II.
In contemporary Cambodia all the blame for the genocide is put now on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. What is never said is that the Khmer Rouge are still in power. They just changed. From abolishing markets and currency to a radical neoliberal market regime, in which they got superrich on the cost of the surviving Cambodians and the country's nature. That is acknowledged by the United Nations and the western powers, who were themselves deeply involved in the warcrimes since 1970.
The killing fields of Wat Thmey nowadays serve as a tourist attraction where busloads of foreigners are poured out with their guides. The place is not too clean, noisy, busy and there are tourist booths who sell souvenirs. Genocide is business. Cambodian kids play at the skull pagoda cards, they laugh and show no awareness for the site. Their parents, as usually in Cambodia, let them do whatever they want and teach them nothing, for they have nothing to teach.
Image by Asienreisender, 10/2015
In the times of the Angkorean empire was the region rich due to the fertile plains, the sophisticated irrigation system and the Tonle Sap Lake, which provided such an abundance of fish as the major source of proteins for the Khmer People of the time. The medieval Khmers harvested three times rice per year.
The Plains of Angkor
The plains of Angkor with their lucrative rice fields, seen from Phnom Krom at the shore of Tonle Sap. In the background right the Kulen Mountains appear. They consist of sandstone and were the sources of Angkor's building material. Image by Asienreisender, 9/2015
Since the early 21st century the Angkor tourism is increasingly on the rise. A number of the old hotels built in the early 20th century have been restored and reopened, additionally a great number of new expensive, luxurious and bombastic hotels and stylish resorts has opened. Also plenty of middle-range and cheaper and cheapest accommodation has been made up.
The city center is crowded with tourist shops of all kinds, selling souvenirs like Angkor paintings, silk weavings, massage parlours and many more businesses related to tourism. There is also no shortage of drivers - at any steetcorner are some tuktuk and motorbike drivers announcing their services and additional services as drug procurement or 'ladies' for sale. There is some trouble with these guys, though. To call them incompetent is still an euphemism. In all cases I used a tuktuk in Cambodia, the driver didn't have the faintest clue about the place he is working and living and did a poor job. When I went with one at the bus station in Siem Reap, he knew only two guesthouses in town, both who had no free rooms anymore. However, the place has dozends of guesthouses and smaller hotels... Whenever I can, I avoid using a tuktuk and rather walk, even for kilometers with my bag. However, it's better these guys do a stupid job instead of being bandids, what was so over many centuries in this doomed country.
Restaurants are abundand, and the streets are crowded with people from all over the world. At night there is always high-life in the party scene.
The French Quarter is full with tourist shops. Many of them sell a variety of paintings with Angkor motives. Image by Asienreisender, 9/2015
There is a huge 'Angkor National Museum' in town with some of the finest pieces from Angkor. Two other museums are the 'War Museum Cambodia' which is focused on the time of the civil war in the last three decades of the 20th century and the 'Cambodia Landmine Museum'.
The Angkor National Museum
The Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is big and shows artefacts of Khmer history in eight galleries. It costs 12 US$ entrance for foteigners (3 US$ for the phantastic Khmer) and, very, very bad, they don't allow their visitors to make photos. The rights of filming and photographing are certainly marketed exclusively. Cambodia's historical heritage is private property in the best neoliberal manner.
The interiour of the museum reminds pretty much to a shopping mall. That's probably so for it's the best the makers of the building could imagine, and it represents contemporary Cambodian culture perfectly. At the end of the walk through the museum the visitors are lead through a large shop with high-priced replicas and folklore. Even in the shop are no photos allowed. Several watchdogs are around.
The artefact left in the photocomposition is a lotos petal with many details in pink sandstone. It's from the 10th century and was found in Banteay Srei, a temple some 30km northeast of Siem Reap. Banteay Srei was a private Angkorean temple known for it's distinctive style of decoration.
The lion and the lion's head represent Bayon style and were found in Kaseng temple, Praeh Vihear Province. They date back to the time around 1200 CE and are also made of sandstone.
These are just two examples of the museum pieces. The artefacts who are still in or around the temples in Angkor Park are all of minor quality. Due to their value the museum pieces wouldn't last out there for long.
All images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 9/2015
Actually there is no need to mention that there are plenty of markets in town. The central market is an interesting and, so far I see, in Cambodia unique one for it's combining many tourist shops in it's southwestern section and a common local meat and fish market in it's northeastern part. In regards to the international tourists it's by far not so filthy as the most Cambodian fresh markets, of which that of Kampot is merely one example.
A stuffed crocodile in a shop with crocodile leather products, mostly handbags. The owner runs a crocodile farm around Siem Reap. Image by Asienreisender, 9/2015
There is an international airport a bit outside of town. It alone counts millions of arrivals annually.
It's almost needless to add that this is a very expensive place. Everythig costs more than elsewhere in Cambodia, what is anyway not a 'cheap' country. An example are the food prices, who are generally high in the country. Here it's higher. When you pay in Thailand 30 baht (about 1 US$) for the usually simplest dish, a fried rice, here you pay 105 baht for the same. And so it goes on. Getting a decent dish big enough that one does not get hungry an hour later again costs at least 5 US$, rather more, between 5 US$ and 10 US$. One has to look around for a while to find a niche. The Khmer food itself is, unfortunately, a great failure.
Water costs in many restaurants more than the double price of petrol. Also some street vendors or neighbourhood minishops demand a dollar for half a liter (normal price is 12 cents). It comes in one-way plastic bottles who end up in masses in the green.
To rent a motorbike, what is possible in Kampot e.g. for 4 US$, often for 5 US$, in bad cases for 6 US$, here it's at least 13 US$ or 15 US$. How to explain that? Well, an employee in a travel agency told me that the government charges an extra tax for that. Do they do that to prevent visitors to do their own tours to the temples, not using the package tours of the operators or the tuktuk option with the stately entrance fares? Is there a specific corruption behind it?
Siem Reap River
This river comes from the Kulen mountains some 50km north of Siem Reap, comes close to Angkor Wat and is connected with it's moat as a water source. Then the river crosses Siem Reap on the way into Tonle Sap Lake. It might have been used as a transport way for parts of the building materials for the huge temples. Here it looks rather like a canal. Image by Asienreisender, 9/2015
An expat explained me, driving motorbikes were forbidden for foreigners in Siem Reap. The governor decided that after there were masses of accidents in which Westerners were involved. In fact I dubt that. This man rents himself electro motorbikes out as an alternative. He has reason to make people such things believe. This information wasn't confirmed anywhere else. By the way, with the same argument, too many accidents, it would make a lot of sense to forbid the Khmers to drive any vehicle except maybe bicycles in some qualified cases.
The elector motorbike promotion labels the bikes as 'green'. There are three charging points in the Angkor Park. However, they are slow and one can not drive long distances without recharging the thing, what takes a longer time. Moreover, the 'green' argument is a fake. For the production of electricity the magnificent Mekong River with it's large biodiversity is killed by the construction of dozends of hydroelectric dams...
As it is since a very few years now in many places in Southeast Asia, traffic is rampant. Not all the roads are paved, and despite all the booming richness it looks often shaby. The roads are uneven, what makes large pools appearing after rain. Some roads are completely under water then. There is no sufficient fundament layed, what makes poholes appearing quickly on new roads. Most of the roads have no sidewalks, and to the right and the left every space is crowded with parked vehicles and other bulky things. On the remaining middle of the street is an immese traffic. It's not safe, particularly for pedestrians and bicycle drivers.
Siem Reap is, apart from being a bad, dirty, noisy, crowded, chaotic place, nothing real. It's mere business, illusion, fraud.
The weather is shaped by a tropical monsoon climate. Since Siem Reap is located on a large plain, it's a hot place insofar that the average temperature in no month of the year drops below 30 C. Rainy season starts in April / May and ends in Ocober / November. Visiting the nearby temples of Angkor requires a lot of walking and climbing of stairways. It's a sweatdriving activity in the heat and the humidity...
The Kulen Mountain Massif is an isolated mountain range some 45km nortnortheast of Siem Reap, still within Siem Reap Province. It stretches for some 40km through the surrounding plains. The average height is about 400m.
There are four different kinds of sandstone and laterite underlying Phnom Kulen. In the foreground grows cassava, which seems to be the dominate crop in the region. Image by Asienreisender, 10/2015
This area played a key role in Angkorean history insofar as king Jayavarman II, the founder of the empire, declared himself king (devaraja) in this landscape and declared the independence of Angkor from Java. In this time the mountain was called Mahendraparvata.
Moreover, the Kulen Mountain served as the source of all the building material of Angkor. All the sandstone and laterite blocks were transported from here to the building sites of the Angkorean temples. How that was organized, particularly concerning the very large blocks, remains still uncertain.
Besides the mountain is declared a national park, there are some sites to visit here, as the Valley of a Thousand Lingas, where carved stone lingas cover the ground of a tributary of the Siem Reap River. There is also the medieval city of Mahendraparvata on the mountain's slopes, a necropolis which was discovered by the LIDAR revelations in 2012. There are some Buddha statues, temples and waterfalls as well in the area.
Phnom Kulen is also seen as a sacred mountain. That does not prevent the Cambodians to make business with it. On the contrary, that's a great price accelerator. The entrance road at the foot of the mountain is blocked by a bar and a bit apart from the road is a primitive ticket booth placed. They want stately 20 US$ entrance for visiting the mountain. This fee is exclusively for foreigners. When you stay there for a few minutes, you can see that all the Cambodians who come and go don't even stop.
The Kulen Mountain Range
Phnom Kulen Massif seen from the distance of a few kilometers, approaching from Siem Reap. Image by Asienreisender, 10/2015