When I came back from Cambodia, a lot of people asked me how I liked it and, likely surprising to most, I had a hard time articulating my feelings. I know lots of people absolutely love Siem Reap and for good reason – there was certainly many things I really enjoyed while I was there; the temples are beautiful, the history is rich, the food is great, and the people are lovely. But, as with any area (especially here in Southeast Asia), once it becomes popular with tourists, it tends to lose a lot of its authenticity. Essentially, the reasons why people originally fell in love with that place have been stripped away and replaced (ie westernized). This is how I feel about Siem Reap.
The reality of visiting Siem Reap’s temples
Let’s begin with the temples, since most people visit Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. Without a doubt, the temples are absolutely stunning and are well worth a visit (read about all my temple-hopping adventures in Siem Reap here, here, and here). The history behind the temples and the structures themselves are fascinating, and to see them in person is beyond impressive. However, on both days I toured the temples in Siem Reap, they were swarming with other tourists to the point that I had a hard time fully appreciating them. Between getting constantly nudged around, watching dozens of people taking selfies throughout the temples, and finding it near impossible to get a photo of the temples without other people in it, my patience level was certainly thinning. That being said, I’m well aware I chose a bad time to visit (Chinese New Year), so the majority of the tourists were swarms of Mainland Chinese. Because of this, I would highly recommend planning your trip to Siem Reap when there are no Asian holidays taking place.
When the sun sets in Siem Reap
What I found completely perplexing was the vast difference between day and night in Siem Reap. During the day you’re exploring all of these beautiful ancient temples, and are immersed in a whole lot of culture and history. In stark contrast to that, at night tourists flock to Pub Street, which, given the rather self explanatory name, turns into a giant street party. The streets are overflowing with tourists and have endless amounts of western restaurants on either side of the street, most of which offer pints of Angkor Beer for US$0.50 – $1.00 (which, let’s be real, I wasn’t exactly complaining about). As the night continues, buskers will come to the streets in various forms. I ended up seeing one who initially tried his hand at some card tricks (but then messed up [we’re fairly certain he was drunk and/or extremely high] and everyone could see that the stack of cards were not real, though we all had a good laugh about it) and later moved on to perform a fire show (which was quite nerve-racking given his state). To put it simply, Pub Street reminded me of a smaller version of Khao San Road in Bangkok, and not in a good way.
I spoke with a few locals in Siem Reap, all of whom told me that it’s the government who is pushing to turn Pub Street into a massive tourist hot spot because of the revenue it’s currently generating, and that the vast majority of locals do not want this. I just found it so sad that this beautiful country that was once (and not that long ago!) quite a “unique” and relatively untraveled place to visit is now crawling with tourists and much of that old, untouched, historical/cultural charm in the city center has dissipated and become westernized.
A few final thoughts
After taking time to reflect on my trip to Cambodia, I still have mixed feelings. On one hand, there really was so much I loved about the country; the history, culture, food, and people. On the other hand, the temples were hard to enjoy because of all the tourists and Siem Reap seems to be having an identity crisis; trying to keep their culture intact while also pleasing and catering to the increasing number of tourists (and yes, I realize many other places around the world do this, but I wasn’t expecting that from Cambodia, which was perhaps quite naive on my part). Ultimately, I would still recommend visiting the country if you’ve never been, but at the same time I feel no strong urge to return.
If you’ve been to Siem Reap, I’d love to hear about your experiences, positive or negative, in the comments below!