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.

The Khmer Rouge history of Siem Reap

The Khmer Rouge History Of Siem Reap

The Khmer Rouge History of Siem Reap

In January 1970 as Cambodia greeted the new decade, there was little to indicate the horror that this decade would visit on the country.  Although the USA had been bombing neutral Cambodia in their “Secret War”, politically, it appeared that Prince Sihanouk was firmly in control and life in the major cities went on as normal. 

On the 18th March 1970 everything changed when a coup displaced Prince Sihanouk for one of his most loyal deputies, Lon Nol. Soon after the Khmer Rouge would control much of the country, including part of Siem Reap Province, but not the city.

Initially the Khmer Rouge was a small communist party founded by Cambodian intellectuals who had been educated in France. There they learned the Marxist-Leninist policies and made their international connections with communist leaders. Prince Sihanouk did his best to suppress the Communists in Cambodia and this forced them into the jungle.

As the Vietnamese-American War raged and spilled over into Cambodia and Laos, the USA began bombing both countries. The Americans were ostensibly going after the North Vietnamese forces using Cambodian border areas as transit along the Ho Chi Minh Trials, but the bombing maps and newly released data bring this into question. The displaced and terrified villagers in the areas bombed became ripe recruits (or they were essentially press-ganged) for the Khmer Rouge.  Most were young and uneducated, many barely teenagers.

Operation Chenla I was the new Government’s attempt to drive the North Vietnamese forces[1] out of Cambodia. It was a disaster for the newly created Khmer Republican Army.  The North Vietnamese had been held somewhat in check on the Western border of Cambodia while the Prince was in power. As soon as he was deposed, they broke out and began to take territory, with them was the Khmer Rouge. 

On the 5th June 1970 during Operation Chenla I the temples north of Siem Reap fell to the North Vietnamese/Khmer Rouge alliance.  The soldiers were wearing a badge depicting Prince Sihanouk who had turned to them to help remove the new government and re-establish his power.  Another military mobilization, Operation Chenla II, was just as disastrous and showed how badly equipped and trained the Government forces were, emboldening the Khmer Rouge. 

Initially, the Khmer Rouge were not too harsh on the people in the areas they had taken, relatively speaking. These people were mostly rural and village dwellers, the Khmer Rouge’s “Old or Base People”. The Khmer Rouge’s aim was to turn Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, and the Old People were those who had the skills in agriculture and were not contaminated by the modern world. 

However, people were disappearing and in 1971 François Bizet, a young French anthropologist living in Siem Reap, and his two Cambodia colleagues were captured by the Khmer Rouge. He is the only westerner and one of the very few to survive capture by the Khmer Rouge, but his colleagues did not. A feat more remarkable as the jungle camp where he was taken, the Khmer Rouge Camp M.13 at Anlong Veng, was commanded by Comrade Duch. This was the man who would become the director of the infamous torture and execution center of S21 Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, one of over 150 such places run by the Khmer Rouge throughout Cambodia from 1975-79.  There were at least four Khmer Rouge prisons in Siem Reap.

In 1973 things began to really change for the people in the villages.  The Khmer Rouge began collectivizing farming and introducing communal living.  The Khmer Rouge were heartened by the Paris Peace conference in which the USA began to withdraw troops from South Vietnam and ceased bombing Cambodia. For the Khmer Rouge, this signaled that the USA would not intervene in Cambodia.   By June 1973 the Khmer Rouge was strong enough to dispense with their North Vietnamese allies. In later years they would become bitter enemies.

For the village people who had little to begin with, they were stripped of all their possessions and left with basically the clothes on their backs.  Their land was taken for communal farms and many villages completely destroyed only to be rebuilt nearby to the Khmer Rouge’s direction.  However, the archaeologists and conservationists working on the Temples were allowed to continue.

From 1970 the front line of the war in the city was a kilometer north of the where the former Raffles Hotel (now the Grand Hotel d’Angkor) still stands.  The hotel was used as the HQ for the Government troops until that fateful day on the 17th April 1975 when the genocide began.

One resident of Siem Reap remembers the 17th April 1975 as the day the sound of war ceased and the city became silent[2]. However, unlike Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge did not immediately evacuate the city, they had three days of victory celebrations at Angkor Wat first.  These celebrations including local monks who held ceremonies, soon the majority of the monks would be murdered after they all had been derobed. Their Wats would be vandalized, anything valuable taken away and then these sacred spaces were used as weapons of war and terror.  

The wats became pig sties and military storage areas at best, and others torturous prisons where no one survived.  Wat Thmey became a killing field and today hosts a memorial and a stupa filled with the bones of some of those executed. 

Evidence of the vandalism and destruction can still be seen in the Wat Damnak library with the bullet holes in the mural.  Interestingly, none of the shooters aimed for anything religious or scared depicted in the mural.  Perhaps the Khmer Rouge brainwashing did not quite take fully in the young minds of the soldiers and they wouldn’t risk damaging scared icons? 

Siem Reap province had a large Vietnamese community, many living on the Tonle Sap lake in floating villages. They and the Muslim community were massacred, very few survived. The Khmer Rouge also executed former government employees, including the military and police, all those with an education and those who were loyal to Sihanouk. One group who were “protected” was the staff and their families of the temple conservation teams. They were rounded up and taken to a village near the Tonle Sap were they were treated as “base, or old” people[3].

The Khmer Rouge made a distinction between those who came from urban areas and those from the villages in the countryside.  Urban dwellers were classed as “New People” and were automatically suspected of disloyalty to the Khmer Rouge and their revolution. They came under the harshest treatment and were the majority of those murdered, starved and forced to work themselves to death. Although in some areas there was little distinction between the New and Old People, in other areas, the division was stark and New People suffered horrendously. The New People of Siem Reap city were among those who came in for the harshest treatment.

In 1976, the Khmer Rouge made invited delegates from China, Sweden, North Korea, Vietnam, and a range of other countries to witness bombing damage in Siem Reap city. They claimed the USA dropped the bombs which killed scores of people including school children, but the USA denied it. Another opinion was that the damage the Khmer Rouge displayed was from the bombing prior to 1973. To this day the mystery of that bombing remains and no country or organization has ever admitted responsibility for it.

The Khmer Rouge turned on their former allies, the North Vietnamese, and began invading border areas. The battle hardened and well equipped and trained North Vietnamese Army eventually retaliated in late December 1978.  By the 7th January 1979 the Khmer Rouge had been defeated and the Vietnamese began ten long years of occupation.

The Khmer have seen Vietnam as their hereditary enemy since the days of the Khmer Empire, more than 600 years before. Although they were liberators from the Khmer Rouge and welcomed initially, soon the old hatred returned and the country rankled under their occupation.  The battles did not stop, but now Cambodia also had new humanitarian emergencies; famine and displacement as the population fled to refugee camps on the Thai border or took to the roads trying to find the family members who survived.  The world continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia and this held up relief efforts. In 1989 after the Soviet Union could no longer support Vietnam, they withdrew, leaving Cambodia to the puppet government they set up.

The UN sent a contingent to Cambodia in 1993 to disband the fighting forces, resettle refugees, rebuild infrastructure and hold the first free and fair elections.  It failed in most of its mandate, but the elections were held. In Siem Reap, Australians and New Zealanders were stationed and built themselves the Minesweeper Bar along the River. The UN in Siem Reap were engaged in combat at least once against the Khmer Rouge and 8 UNTAC personnel were causalities, including two killed.  

Whilst they did build much needed infrastructure the UN contingent also unwittingly introduced HIV and prostitution became rampant, as it will in any area with a large number of soldiers.  Very young girls were forced into prostitution as it was believed sex with a virgin would cure HIV.   The Khmer people also suffered from the inflated cost of living caused by a huge influx of money to support the UN personnel.  However, for Siem Reap, it provided the infrastructure necessary to restart the tourist industry; the brothels and bars were ready to go.

Even after the UN sent its peacekeeping mission, the Khmer Rouge were not disbanded and continued to fight.  In 1994 they attacked a village in Siem Reap Province killing many. They would not lay down their arms until 1997 when Pol Pot finally died in mysterious circumstances.

Today in Siem Reap the former Khmer Rouge cadre and their victims’ families live side by side. Those who lived through it are loath to talk about the “Pol Pot” times. The province still contains landmines, an area outside the Siem Reap airport remains signposted and fenced off and UXO occasionally is still found in Siem Reap city.  However, as a tourist it is relatively easy to not notice the recent dark history. Rather a few tourists are surprised to learn that Kampuchea where Pol Pot murdered his people, is today’s Kingdom of Wonder, Cambodia.

[1] The North Vietnamese forces include the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, which at this time (1970) was training Cambodia guerrillas, they would form the nucleus of the Khmer Rouge Army. 

[2] Henri Locard, Siem Reap-Angkor During the War (1970-1975) and Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979): From Violence to Totalitarianism. Journal of Cambodia Research, No 10 (2008)

[3] Henri Locard, Siem Reap-Angkor During the War (1970-1975) and Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979): From Violence to Totalitarianism. Journal of Cambodia Research, No 10 (2008)