What No One Tells You About Visiting Siem Reap: My personal reflections

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!

9 thoughts on “What No One Tells You About Visiting Siem Reap: My personal reflections”

  1. Omg me and my partner felt exactly the same! We loved our short time here but everything you said is what we felt and experienced.
    I would love to go back to Cambodia though and experience some different areas.

    1. Hi Aimee,
      Thanks for sharing your experience! Always comforting to know I’m not the only one that felt that way! Agreed – will need to do more research next time.
      Happy travels!

  2. I guess I was lucky going way back in 2005. Angkor Wat itself was pretty crowded and Phnom Bakheng for sunset was also busy, but other than that it was great. Some temples I went to I was the only person there, except for a few of the Buddhist monks, who wanted to sit and practice their English. Siem Reap was also small – looks very different to the pictures I’ve seen of it these days.

    This was also back in the days when selfies didn’t exist. Definitely think that helped!

    I guess it is like many places though, that the more popular it gets, the more tourists will flock there. The only way to manage that is by restricting access numbers each day – but in a country that needs tourist money, I can’t see that happening.

    1. Hi Paul,
      Thanks for sharing! Very jealous that you were able to experience the temples in relative peace and quiet.. must have been a completely different experience to the one I had! Haha, yes – cannot stand all the selfies being taken! I often question what people actually do with all those photos of themselves?!
      Agreed. Sad, but the unfortunate truth.

  3. I find it refreshing to read someone’s true and honest account of their travels around the world, especially to places where I’ve been to.

    My first travel to Cambodia was in 1993 when PolPot was still alive and the Khmer Rouge was still operating. I still vividly remember the streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap lined with armed UN military vehicles and soldiers patrolling the areas, and the contrast of the peace and tranquility entering the premise of Angkor Wat. There were virtually no body except our guide and my family and once in a while a monk will appear and locals repairing the temple. There were no barriers, there were no ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ signs anywhere and you could explore every nook and cranny of the temple, but with respect. That was the moment, at age 13, when I decided I wanted to see more, to visit the worlds’ ancient ruins.

    I would love to take my son one day to see the Angkor Wat, to let him experience it all but sadly as you mentioned it has become such a touristy destination that I am not in a hurry to go back.

    1. Hi Em,
      Thanks so much for sharing your experience! Wow.. I can only imagine what it must have been like in Cambodia in 1993. Would be fascinating to see photos from that time period.
      Yes, I think you really need to pick an unpopular time of year to visit, though that’s likely in the summer and would then present its own issues thanks to the relentless heat.

  4. I just came back from Siem Reap last week, and it was coincide with Khmer New Year.

    The worst thing is local tourist was swarming the city and Angkor, as it is the main place for celebrating new year. I can’t even reach some of the temples due to heavy traffics and… peoples.

    The good (and perhaps not) is the festive feeling, whereby they have this tradition of water wars. All locals ready with their water gun (and even water PIPE!) and have a the wars all over the city, similar to the Songkran Festival in Thailand. They shoot water just everywhere. You will be wet for sure if you take tuk-tuk at night. Haha, it was a plesant and unplesant feeling at the same time.

    Overall, I regret that I could not visit all the temples. But I love Ta Phrom the most because it is not too crowded and I can enjoythe beauty of original ruins with tree roots engulfing some parts of the temple.

    Not sure if I want to go back there, though…

    1. Hi Yuliana,
      Thanks for sharing your experience! Definitely sounds like you were in Siem Reap at a bit of a crazy time! Must have been really interesting to see what it’s like in Cambodia during a national celebration, but also frustrating if it affected your time seeing the temples. Sounds like you were able to make the most of it, given the circumstances! Ta Prohm was one of my favourites too!

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