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.

pol pot is now in anlong veng camboda

Anlong Veng | Last Bastion of a Dictator

Anlong Veng And Pol Pot

anlong veng cambodia

If you visit Preah Vihear, an alternative route back to the hustle and bustle of the real world is via the town of Anlong Veng. this is a big detour along Cambodia’s northern border, travelling across Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey provinces. Now, this dusty off-the-beaten track town is not exactly on the tourist trail, but it is a place to visit and see where one of the twentieth century’s most notorious tyrants and butchers saw his last stand.

Another private taxi, another ride blazing along the roads of northern Cambodia, and another fighting cock, which if you are lucky will get plonked on your lap for part of the ride. Private taxis are one of the few ways to get to the town, as regular bus services are erratic and problematic. Of course, you could hire a motorcycle to get you there.

One other fact: for a more comfortable taxi ride it is possible to get the front passenger seat to yourself. However, the price is twice as much as you occupy space for two people. At first thought this may seem unfair then you think “you should feel lucky that you’re not charged for four or five people”.

Anlong Veng

The taxi pulls up in the centre of town, which is handy. Anlong Veng is a bit short on five-star hotels, but, apart from a few beaten up guesthouses along the main drag, there is a comfortable-looking guesthouse on the road into town, which you can see on the way in. It is on the right as you walk out of town. It isn’t the place on the left, with the nefarious name of October Guesthouse, which might allude to a certain revolution and some other more ominous connections.

The town isn’t big, in fact you could throw a stone across its width. However, it packs a wealth of history and has earned a rather dark place in the annals of history.

No matter which way you come into Anlong Veng it will have been a long trek. Stay a couple of nights and take in what the town has to offer. While sleepy during the day, at night the shops along the main street come alive and there is a lot of food to be had. All kinds of pork and chicken dishes along with rice or noodles. Most of the shops even open for breakfast. Anyway, tomorrow it’s off to see what Anlong Veng is about.

The Dictator’s Grave

resting place of pol pot in along veng

First thing in the morning was a trip to why this place is notorious. The motorcycle heads up the Dangrek Range, just out of town, into the forest of casinos that marks the Cambodia-Thai border, around a corner, down a road and nestled in a clearing is a rusty corrugated iron roof; a mini-shed with no sides. At the entrance is nobody, but as you make your move to enter this sanctuary an old lady, ninety if she’s a day, springs out of nowhere ninja-like with her hand outstretched demanding an entrance fee.

Inside there is a grave obscured by weeds and there is no indication of the activities of Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot. A shrine has been set up nearby and the grave has flowers in front of it. Here lies Brother Number One. Once the leader of the Khmer Rouge and now dust in the wind. But why would somebody place flowers at his grave.

After staying in town for a while, you start to think where people’s loyalties lie. The Khmer Rouge occupied the town for so long and the thought may cross your mind that on the surface the people are glad to be rid of the Khmer Rouge, but how many supported them and miss them. Probably few, maybe this will never be answered. Although you can bet that some of the old guard are still lurking.

Pol Pot Fell Off The Perch In 1998.

His body was torched, and the remains thrown in this shallow grave. A rather inglorious end for the former leader of the Angkar and the ‘revolution’. Even in death there was controversy. Some say he committed suicide rather than be handed over to the Americans. His second, Ta Mok, denied the allegations claiming he died of a heart attack.

Apparently, there is a Killing Fields not far from grave. However, the motorcycle man was reluctant to go there, indicating there were still mines in the area. Later on, a Cambodian said that probably the real reason for his reluctance was the man’s fear of spirits that he believed haunted the area. Who knows, maybe there isn’t a Killing Fields.

The Butcher Ta Mok

Another notorious figure who lived in town was Ta Mok (Uncle Mok), or Brother Number Five. He also went by the moniker the Butcher. The reasons for the latter become obvious when you visit his abandoned Anlong Veng house.

As you pull up in the house of Ta Mok’s front yard, there is an old wrecked truck. It is a wireless truck that has been left to rot. Maybe he used it to listen to enemies or the Voice of America.

More telling are some cages that can be seen outside his house. They were probably originally used to house pigs but then used for another function. How many people could be squeezed into these to await their fate is anyone’s guess. Most likely poked, prodded and yelled at while they cooked in the sun.

The interior walls of this house are painted with images of Angkor, a map of Cambodia, and other temples. He was reportedly likened to a little Napoleon. Perhaps these images were his thoughts of being an Angkorian king ruling over Cambodia.

One room has a hole in the floor. Apparently, Ta Mok would torture prisoners then throw them down this dark hole into a room with no windows. Using a ground-floor door to enter the dark room is eerie. It is not a place a person would want to stay in for too long.

Go out to the balcony and a great expanse of water presents itself. The flooded areas were to prevent enemy forces invading the area. The dead tree trunks that pepper the water give it a surreal and eerie quality.

Eventually, Ta Mok was caught then imprisoned in his home town of Takeo; justice was cheated by his death. Curiosity satisfied, and some questions answered it was time to leave the town.

From Anlong Veng it is possible to cross the border into Thailand at a couple of crossings. It is also possible to travel onto Siem Reap via Phnom Koulen and Banteay Srei.

Kratie Province cambodia

A Brief History of Krong Siem Reap Cambodia

Krong Siem Reap Tourist History

Not More of the Same | A Personal Story
street food stall in krong siem reap

If you were lucky enough to see Cambodia not so many years ago, then you would have seen a different place: the look of the cities and towns was from pre-Khmer Rouge occupation and civil war, during a time when the people were recovering from that group’s terror on the Khmers. Yet, and still, there was a gentleness, acceptance and generosity about the people that was alluring for a person who has lived in places where these qualities are rare. While, in general, Cambodians maintain much of these characteristics there are places where it is quickly disappearing and a condition that is spreading. One such place is Krong Siem Reap.

I first came to Krong Siem Reap in the mid-nineties, and there were few foreigners in town. Siem Reap was a small dusty outpost with Khmer Rouge forces just a stone’s throw away. It was still shell-shocked. People went about their business by foot or bicycle. A visit to Angkor meant dealing with temples surrounded by mine fields to protect them from thieves. A distant explosion could mean an unfortunate cow had just become tonight’s dinner, or worse. The ticket sellers took three days to catch up with me, but I think they had more important business to deal with than collecting a twenty-dollar entrance fee.

People were helpful and kind, strange considering their recent catastrophic history. Cambodian couples would spend romantic sunsets on the banks of Angkor Wat’s moat. People would laze about in the early evening cool. It was a place where everything moved at a different pace.

And Krong Siem Reap Now …

Let’s fast forward to contemporary Krong Siem Reap.

Nothing cool about the town now, but people think it is. The mine fields have been cleared only to be replaced by a new kind. The pace of life has changed drastically and not for the best. The new cool seems to mean clubs and bars on Pub Street and foreigners wearing tacky T-shirts and poorly made Khmer garb. Touts at places in this entertainment area launch themselves upon you as you pass by.

A gentle “no” is met with a persistent “cheap drinks” and “greats music” further rejection increases the volume of invitations to a place which is a front for an over-priced beer joint with loud music and terrible food. Eventually, you peel off this annoying fellow only to be accosted by another: Welcome to Pub Street, welcome to the new Krong Siem Reap.

Every step you take in Pub Street means that you are accosted by everything awful about a tourist town: cheap food, lousy service, diarrhea-inducing food and drink, hassly people and over-priced everything with attitude.

Which reminds me, I walked into a mini-mart and the cashier dealt with me with such derision that I had to ask her if she was having a bad day. She smiled and flicked me off.  Then, the foreigner after me spoke to her so demeaningly that it was disgraceful. No wonder that she has a low opinion of foreigners.

The Problem Or Opportunity For Cambodian Tourism

And there lies part of the problem. Tourism has turned the people of Krong Siem Reap.

The tuk tuk driver that pounces on you when you leave your hotel, the restaurant tout that launches themselves on you as you walk along Suvitha road near the Night Market are a product of the tourist industry. How ignorantly and arrogantly foreigners have informed Cambodians.

A tuk tuk driver scuttles over to you and asks, “where you go” then “Angkor, tomorrow” then in a hushed voice “girl”. This is the Siem Reap of today, the new Thailand.

Typically, you see the bad behaviour of tourists at several levels. There is the impatient version who yells at waiting staff for a menu or check. Another type talks derisively to the locals. Then there are the drunk and abusive types that prowl the streets in search of their next whiskey bar. Or, the type that yells at people to get out of the way of their picture of a temple. No wonder the Khmers are developing poor opinions of foreigners.

And it is not exclusive to Krong Siem Reap. And here lies another part of the problem, the creep.

In Phnom Pehn, this attitude towards foreigners is also moving in. There was once a time when visitors to Phnom Pehn were treated well. However, that is changing. The surly waitress, the pushy tout and the rude mini-mart attendant are in full strength in the capital.

Of course, it is easy to generalise about such matters. While the Cambodians’ deteriorating attitude towards foreigners has increased over the years in certain places, most Khmers still maintain a good attitude towards outsiders.

A Hopeful Journey To Kratie Province

Kratie Province in flood

A colleague of mine took a friend of his to a village in Kratie Province. The two of them travelled from Phnom Penh in a mini bus – no mean feat – along some of Cambodia’s unkinder roads. They were dropped off in the middle of nowhere and were met by a Khmer friend. They stayed in a house where they were given every hospitality: comfortable lodgings, friendly encounters, and meals. Nobody asked for anything from these two men but were given a lot from people who don’t have a lot to give, materially.

It will be interesting to see how the attitude towards foreigners develops in the future in Cambodia. Places such as Krong Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh will worsen as the country develops. Hopefully, other places will retain that Khmer charm.

Cyclebodia takes pride in allowing its’ meet and greet clients to experience a more wonderous Cambodia. We achieve this through using local people and re investing all our profits back into Cambodia through social enterprise and commerce. We strongly believe that Krong Siem Reap is where to start your cambodian adventure wether it be temples, eco tourism or charity. or a simple spa and relaxation holiday.

pailin western cambodia

Pailin Cambodia A Wild West Frontier

Pailin Is Cambodia’s Wild West

One of Cambodia’s out-of-the-way destinations is Pailin Province. Few foreigners get here, which is reason enough to put the province in your travel planner. The area has a long history, and although Pailin City is small with a wild-west flavour, there are plenty of places to visit in and around town.

Pailin is Cambodia’s second smallest province and is in Western Cambodia. Pailin City is nestled in a picturesque valley with magnificent sunsets over mountains that separate Cambodia and nearby Thailand. The town is also located in the foothills of Chuor Phnom Kravanh, which is part of the Cardamom Mountains making the south of the municipality quite hilly. There are also a number of smaller rivers coming from the mountain range. These places provide lots of opportunities to visit waterfalls and rivers for cool afternoon swims, nature and wildlife reserves, and local villages.

A Brief History of Pailin

Once a part of the powerful Khmer Empire, Pailin was conquered in 1558 by the Burmese under Bayinnaung and later ruled by the Siamese until 1946 when it was returned to Cambodia: it was known to the Thais as “Phailin”.

Since the war, Pailin has suffered an economic depression and the failure of most local businesses. However, since the area has recently stabilised politically, it is now seeing a new wave of tourism focused on its ancient temples, natural forests and wildlife, and the gem market.

In 2001, Pailin was officially separated from Battambang to become a province and separate administrative division: a process started after the surrender of the Ieng Sary faction of the Khmer Rouge in 1996. More on this crew later.

Don’t be Alarmed

If you’re planning a visit to the area, especially the countryside around Pailin City, land mines are a concern. In fact, Pailin is located in one of the most heavily mined areas in the world.  Land mines have plagued Cambodia for decades as a result of the devices being used extensively during three decades of war; Pailin still remains a hot zone for mines. While Pailin is definitely worth visiting, people are cautioned to stay on marked roads. De-mining is ongoing, and if you decide to visit any out-of-the-way places then check if it is safe. The locals will know.

A major cause of these mines was the Khmer Rouge.

pailin western cambodia

Khmer Rouge Invasion, Occupation and Defeat … or Not

Pailin remained under Khmer Rouge control long after they were defeated in 1979 and it served from 1994 to 1998 as the capital of the “Provisional Government of National Union and National Salvation of Cambodia.” During the 1980s and 1990s, the city was a key Khmer Rouge strongpoint and resources centre.

Pailin is known to much of the world as the area where many Khmer Rouge leaders came from and retreated to after the murderous regime fell. Even after the death of their leader Pol Pot in 1998, many Khmer Rouge leaders stayed on.

Fearing punishment for their crimes, some leaders went into hiding, while other leaders brashly lived openly in the province. Estimates are that almost 70 percent of the area’s older men were Khmer Rouge fighters: few have been brought to justice. However, Pailin’s last Khmer Rouge leaders have been rounded for their time in court. These men included Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.

Goodbye Good Times

In the early 1970s, Pailin was a prosperous town stemming from the extensive gem deposits in the surrounding countryside. Because of its resources, it was one of the first cities invaded by the Khmer Rouge. The city offered no resistance and Khmer Rouge soldiers were greeted as liberators. Meanwhile, deposed King Sihanouk had allied himself with the Khmer Rouge and most locals believed that they were fighting to restore him to power. It was not long; however, before locals were forced march to the countryside to work in rice paddies. Many of those people were never seen again.

Pailin became the major revenue source for the Khmer Rouge through the exploitation of the provinces rich supply of gems and being a prime logging area. The Khmer Rouge used proceeds from mining and logging in the Pailin area to bankroll their initial campaign and later Democratic Kampuchea once they seized power.

When the Vietnamese Army ousted the Khmer Rouge from power, the Khmer Rouge retreated to Pailin.

Not to be deterred, the guerrilla group continued the fight against the Vietnamese and even invested some money from the production of natural resources in Casinos.

Unfortunately, by the time the Khmer Rouge had been dislodged from Pailin they had almost mined out the gems and deforested the area. Nowadays all you can find is low-quality, cheap, hand-faceted gemstones at the market in downtown Pailin.

Beyond the Dark Days In Pailin

These days Pailin is a much different place. In fact, the locals seem happy to see a foreigner means that not only money is coming in but also a sense of normalcy is returning to the area.

The town has a number of interesting places to visit including Wat Gohng-Kahng, and Wat Phnom Yat and at its base Wat Rattanak Sophoan.

The people of Pailin are Kola. These are descendants of Burmese immigrants who settled in the area from the late nineteenth century. Another group of people, the Shan, arrived a bit later. As a result, the people of Pailin are different from other parts of Cambodia. This difference can be seen in the cuisine and the clothes.

The best parts of Pailin are outside the main city, and the best way to see these places is by bicycle. For more on Pailin read Cyclebodia: Wild West Pailin.

Cambodia's Recent Past

Powerful View of Cambodias Recent Past | And What Now

Cambodias Recent Past

Cambodia’s Recent Past

Knowing and understanding Cambodias recent past is essential to truly immerse yourself in your adventure. This is a personal view from Warwick’s Cambodian adventures of many years.

“No, not possible” was the reply followed by “Too dangerous.” Apparently, travelling by bus could end up being stopped by bandits, or worse the Khmer Rouge, and taken hostage then a ransom demanded, or else. It appeared my plan to visit Angkor Wat had run into a hurdle.

This was Chinese New Year 1995, and I had flown into Phnom Penh the day before: “No health card, not a problem; no visa, not a problem just pay over there,” the immigration official had said. I passed through a checkpoint and was given a good dose of radiation from a Czech x-ray machine used to scan luggage.

The broken-down taxi departed the euphemistically named Pochentong International Airport passing a destroyed tank on the way out. It was daytime, and you could see how broken the city was: years of civil war and occupation will do that.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) had recently left, its mission had had questionable results. However, UNTAC had helped to restore some semblance of order to the chaos that had resulted from Cambodia’s previous turbulent years.

Before I made my way to Angkor, it was time to explore Phnom Penh. The National Museum was my first port of call. This museum of antiquity housed a ramshackle collection of Khmer art and artefacts. Although there appeared to be no order to the museum, it gave a hint of the grandeur and monumental scale of buildings of the Angkorian period. There was a scarcity of visitors, so I enjoyed the museum to myself.

Cambodia’s Recnt Past Is Not All Khmer Rouge

Nearly everyone who is interested in Cambodia’s recent past seem to focus on the Khmer Rouge. Admittedly, this was an affront to civilisation in general. However, there is a lot more to Khmer history than this intensely harrowing period.

Phnom Penh Entertainment | Guns

Next, I ventured to the Independence Monument. While trying to take a close-up picture of the monument, a policeman wandered over and indicated that I shouldn’t be here. He had that look of a “fine” was imminent. I exited before he could figure out what I was worth.

During this time, there were a lot of people with guns: AK-47s, heavy machine guns, pistols, in fact everything that used bullets. As I was to discover, more so at Angkor.

Phnom Penh was a compact city, and still is compared to most Asian capitals, and possessed a calm atmosphere: surprising as the Khmer Rouge where still on the rampage. I visited what are still the usual sites: Wat Phnom, S-21 with its gruesome map of Cambodia filled with human skulls, and the Killing Fields.

I was made offers to blast a target with an AK-47, $10; throw a hand grenade and blow up a bush, $15; or blow up a buffalo with an RPG, $25; it seemed the price went up depending on the quantity of explosives; I politely declined.

The next day I was confronted with my bus obstacle to destination Angkor.

“So, how do I get to Siem Reap,” I asked.

“Boat,” the ticket seller said.

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

The Japanese had supplied high-speed riverboats that plied Phnom Penh to Siem Reap via the Tonle Sap. These thin and long boats were a combination of pressure cooker on the inside and furnace on the outside.

Speeding along the Tonle Sap was glorious. The river was lined with fishing booms that stretch halfway out into the water from both sides. The boat would weave with great sweeping turns on its way through the obstacles making it an exhilarating journey.

Along the way were army checkpoints perched in the middle of the water. Soldiers armed to the teeth would check the captain’s manifest, look at his cargo, then send us on our way.

 It was the dry season and the boat slowed to enter the Tonle Sap. The bottom of the hull scraped the riverbed. Once clear of the entrance to the lake the boat picked up speed. The banks of the lake rapidly receded until they could no longer be seen. The boat was in the middle of an enormous body of water.

After a while, Chon Cheas, Siem Reap’s port, appeared. This grimy, ramshackle and bustling port was the end of the journey. The boat jostled its way through the throng of boats and nosed itself into a sport next to the bank. Waiting for the boat was a mob of Tuk Tuk and mototup (motorcycle taxi) operators. Even before the boat was moored, they were swarming over the boat looking for a fare. I found an English-speaking mototup man named Vuth who proved to be an excellent guide.

Vuth found me a guesthouse on the edge of town and told me that he would pick me up at 5am for the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat Complex

By the time I was on my way to Angkor Wat Complex it was still dark, but it was pleasantly warm. A gentle breeze sprung up, bringing the thick odour of the jungle with it. As we zipped along the road, the sky had begun turning a rosy pink over the treetops. At the end of the road was a wide moat, the water an oily black, and its banks lined with sandstone steps. The other side of the moat was still in blackness and there was a dark wall. We followed the moat then turned a corner; at last, I was at the entrance to Angkor Wat.

Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time is an extraordinary experience; the overwhelming size of the temple is surprising, awe inspiring and inspirational … and there was nobody there. Then, the sun broke over the horizon and Angkor Wat was silhouetted against the sky.

Off Limits At Angkor Wat

Some other temples were off limits. A few days before some Americans had been kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge, which had forced the closure of some of the more remote ruins. Many temples had mine fields around them to deter thieves. At sunset, the army planted mines across the entrance and at sunrise the mines were removed.

“Aren’t the soldiers worried they might forget where they bury the mines,” I asked Vuth.

“It okay, they have map,” he replied.

After several days at Angkor, two uniformed men on a motorcycle approached me. They claimed to be park attendants. They looked me up and down and asked for “$20”. I gave them the cash, and they handed me a ticket. Oh well, not much money for several days of exploring Angkor.

Boom In The Night

On the last day, while on the way home, there was a loud thump from the jungle. Vuth told me that is was probably a buffalo which had step on a landmine. Guess it was steaks for dinner for the next little while.

Back in Phnom Pehn I spent my last evening on Riverside, back then a dusty patch on the Mekong levee. Couples and families strolled along Riverside in the early evening. A freighter was moored out in the Mekong, a long way from the ocean.

In my diary at the time, I had written “see Angkor while you can because, in the future, it might not be there”. It’s still there, but you must battle hordes of tourists and the entrance fee is astronomical. So, in a way, part of the majesty and magic of Angkor Wat has vanished.

It was my last night, but the beginning of a long relationship with Cambodia.

Cambodia’s Recent Past; What Now

Cambodia’s Recent Past becomes my now and my future.