A Brief History Of Tourism In Siem Reap

A Brief History Of Tourism In Siem Reap

Siem Reap city celebrated its 1,200th anniversary in 2002, but most of the city is less than 20 years old.  Originally a series of villages that eventually merged to become a city, it has been voted one of the top tourist destinations in the world in the last decade.

Ensure you get to the end to see more amazing images.

The Villages of Siem Reap

To begin with, Siem Reap was a series of villages that sprung up along the Siem Reap river. The river is actually a hand-dug canal constructed by the Khmer Empire to connect the Tonle Sap to their Capital city at Angkor Thom.  There was most probably a river port in the vicinity of the Old Market during this time. It would have been used to collect rice and other agricultural produce from the local people for transportation to either the Capital city or the Tonle Sap.

The 11th century Wat Athvea and the 9th-century stupas in Wat Enkosa, also indicate a reasonably large population in their areas over a millennium ago. Wat Prom Rath, a modern Wat right in the center of Siem Reap city dates to the 12th century and was founded when the Khmer Empire’s Capital city was still at Angkor Thom.  This shows there was at least a village large enough to support a Wat, on the site that would become central Siem Reap city. 

The French and Siamese

The colonial French began the tourism industry in Siem Reap, but when they took over the country in 1863, Siem Reap was part of Siam, modern-day Thailand. The provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang were ceded to Siam in 1795 by Khmer King Ang Eng in return for protection.  The Siamese established a fortified town in 1867 calling it Siem Nakhom meaning “Siamese Town” featuring a citadel and city walls.  This indicates a reasonably sized center worth defending. Its strategic location between the temples and the lake was probably the main reason for its construction. 

Remains of the Siamese Citadel in Siem Reap, c 1909. EFEO Archives

Historic photos taken in the late 19th century show a mainly rural environment with some grand buildings for the Siamese elite of the town. These were taken over and added to by the French and by Chinese merchants who built shophouses around the market area.  Some of them built in 1920 still stand and are the oldest non-religious buildings in the city. The photos also show a landing point or small river port near the Old Market.

Postcard. Siem Reap River c1909. Biblioteque National de France

In 1907 the provinces held by Siam were ceded to French Indochina in the Franco-Siamese Treaty. The French immediately began temple restoration and by 1912 were producing guidebooks to the Temples.  The first hotel was a wooden building near Angkor Wat called the Bungalow which opened in 1909, it featured a huge surrounding veranda to keep the building cool.

The Bungalow c1910. DatAsia Press Archive

Initially, it was a week-long steamship voyage to get from Europe to Phnom Penh, then another boat or oxcart journey to the Tonle Sap and Siem Reap.  Due to the itinerary, most visitors had only two days in the area before they had to get the return boat to Phnom Penh.  Limited time is still a feature of tourism in Siem Reap.

In 1929, tourists could board a seaplane in Phnom Penh which landed on the moat of Angkor Wat. But the numbers of visitors were still low, only 999 in 1931, tourism was only for the wealthy.

In 1931 France held a colonial exhibition in Paris which presented a reconstruction of the top levels of Angkor Wat.  After this tourism numbers jumped and in 1932[1] the first luxury hotel opened in Siem Reap. The Grand Hotel D’Angkor was built not far from the Royal Residence and featured the first elevator in the city, perhaps the entire country. 

The Hotel Grand d’Angkor c1947. Biblioteque National de France

The French did not promote Khmer culture, beyond the Apsara dancers and the Royal Ballet. They cleared Angkor Wat of the monks’ dwellings that surrounded the Temple as they ruined the “Vue générale” and turned what was a living heritage site into a dead archaeological ruin.  The early guide books hardly mention the local people, however one did state that the monk’s caretaking for the temple was primitive and the French had taken over.

Meanwhile, Siem Reap was growing in response to the increased tourism and the needs of the French residents.  The Siamese Citadel was removed along with other obvious traces of the Siamese and the name changed to Siem Reap. Anecdotally the name of the town is said to mean “Siam Defeated”. 

In 1925 a new market building was erected near the landing place on the river in the center of town. Chinese shophouses had already been built surrounding what is now known as the “Old Market”, indicating it was a commercial center by at least 1920.

The New Market Building c1927. The Chinese shop houses in the background still survive. Biblioteque National de France

However, the French weren’t the first tourists to Angkor Wat, and it is important to understand that the temple was never abandoned and continued to be a site of pilgrimage.  It was never ‘lost to the jungle’ but many of the other temples were.   There continued to be an international community in the vicinity for hundreds of years after the Khmer Empire moved their court to the south in 1431.

Early ‘tourists’ To Cambodia

The person to rediscover the jungle-covered temples was not a Frenchman in the 19th century, but a Khmer King in the 16th century. King Satha I (1539–1596, reigned 1576 to 1584) was on a hunting trip when he came across the walls of Angkor Thom. Evidence suggests that the King restored some of the temples in 1577-78 and may have moved his court here in the 1580s. King Satha I had several Europeans visit his court at Longvek but it appears only one ever went to the former Khmer Empire Capital.  In 1586 a Portuguese friar visited Angkor Thom as part of the King’s retinue and was impressed, despite himself:

“I confess I hesitate to write this; it appears as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato. Today the city is uninhabited. A learned man supposed these to be the works of Trajan”

He was not the last European to ascribe the building of the temples to someone other than the Khmer.  Alexander the Great is another European who was given credit for their construction.

In the 17th century, inscriptions on Angkor Wat indicate there was a Japanese community living nearby.  Then the Siamese took control of the temples in 1795 when they were granted the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap by the Khmer King.  While Angkor Wat was unknown to the majority of Europeans, it was never lost and continued to have international visitors sporadically over the centuries. Local people continued to live beside and around the temples in the former Khmer Empire Capital City, and at Siem Reap. 

20th Century Cambodia

Rather than a smooth growth, Siem Reap has grown in fits and starts.  It began to grow in the 1920s and 30s as a response to the flood of heritage workers and the beginnings of the tourist industry. While World War 1 does not appear to have affected the tourist industry, there were not enough tourists coming at this time. World War 2 did – Cambodia was occupied by the Japanese under an agreement made by the Vichy French Government, the archaeologists and conservators could continue work, but tourism was completely halted.  After the War, the French began to promote Angkor as a tourist destination until Independence in 1953.

Whilst the French were in charge, they proclaimed the Angkor Archaeological Park and installed the great and petite circuits. These roads did not follow the meandering village tracks that previous visitors had used riding ox cart or elephant. They were geometric and built to impose order into the chaos of the jungle and on the tourists and the routes they used, now by automobile. The local traces of how the Khmer had used the area for millennia were being erased and tourism contained.  The French also built the road network to connect Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and an airport, and this brought more people to the city.

French Map of Cambodia c1950. Biblioteque National de France

The newly independent Cambodia continued to promote tourism and with Chinese assistance built an international airport in the 60s. Intrepid hippy backpackers began to discover Siem Reap along with the well-heeled traveler. But it all came to a grinding halt in 1970 when the coup overthrew the government and sparked a civil war. By June, the temples but not the city, were in the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  In 1975 they took over the entire country and Siem Reap became a place of terror with its own torturous prisons and killing fields.  The Khmer Rouge demolished much of the French Quarter but left the Grand Hotel d’Angkor.  They claimed the city was bombed by the USA in 1976 killing many including school children.  What really happened is still a mystery.

Khmer Rouge Soldiers at Angkor Wat c1970.

Siem Reap’s next growth spurt was in the early 1990s when backpackers with an adventurous streak started to return, but it still was not safe.  In 1990 after 20 years of neglect, Siem Reap had only two guesthouses, the Grand Hotel D’Angkor had not yet reopened.  Backpackers stayed in the guesthouses or bunked down in the local wats and temples.

In 1993 the UNTAC contingent arrived and there was a building boom as accommodation, bars, and restaurants to cater to them sprang up. Photos show a dusty town with dirt roads and small huts and bars lining the riverbank.  The contingent helped to provide the infrastructure that the tourism industry could build upon. In 1993 there were just over 100 000 tourists to Siem Reap, but this number includes the UN personnel.  After the final disbandment of the Khmer Rouge, tourism numbers soared to millions in the new millennium.  But the city continued to grow along the river, rather than spreading out until very recently.  It is only in the last decade the city has started to expand towards the east and west.

Bars along the river 1993. Australian War Memorial

21st Century Siem Reap

In the first 20 years of the new century, tourism became the largest economic earner for Cambodia and Siem Reap boomed into a cosmopolitan, vibrant city.  Arts and culture were revived and promoted, two world-class museums of the Khmer Empire opened but the city did not forget its dark past either and there are three excellent war museums. The city was hosting international golfing tournaments, marathons, triathlons, and other major sporting events as well as numerous arts and cultural festivals.

Siem Reap Marathon. Khmer Post Asia

The city was booming, until March 2020 when the worldwide pandemic closed the tourism industry. The government took advantage of the lack of tourism and began the 38 Road Project which is making much-needed improvements in the road and drainage network of the city.  Whilst the temples are very quiet, they are not completely deserted and ex-pats and locals are enjoying the peace and tranquility of these amazing buildings.  Although everyone is waiting impatiently for the visitors to return and revive our vibrant, cosmopolitan city.

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