These are the same dusty roads, the same French colonial houses, and the same tree-lined boulevards. The meandering Siem Reap River runs right through it as always, yet in a way this is not the same place I remember from my previous visits. Not too long ago, the city of Siem Reap in Cambodia was the bustling tourist gateway to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat. It was a lively town with countless bars, restaurants, and hotels awash in visitors—prepandemic, the count was 6 million annually.
After landing here on this cool February morning, I find that this place I know well has turned into a sleepy, small-town version of itself. It’s decidedly prettier, too: The riverside, once host to a largely untended park, is now a picturesque promenade with colorful art displays, mini plazas, and public exercise areas. On its streets, two-, three-, and four-wheeled vehicles buzz by at less frequent intervals. And there are hardly any tourists in sight. I travel often to this city—at least once a year from my Singapore base—and have seen it grow from a laid-back haven of bicycles and backpackers (c. 2003) to a tourist party town merely a decade later. By 2019 it had all but succumbed to mass tourism, its ancient ruins frequently crowded by hordes of noisy, selfie-stick-toting tour groups. Like everywhere else, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the pause button on this tourist magnet, sending it into a state of limbo.
“We didn’t have a lot of coronavirus cases in Siem Reap during the first year, and we joked that maybe Cambodians were immune to the disease,” comments my driver Am Saroun, who is ferrying me to my hotel on a tuk-tuk remorque—the local transport, a motorbike with an attached rear carriage.
“But tourists disappeared quickly,” he continues. “Even before government placed travel restrictions in March 2020, foreigners were already afraid to come here. Siem Reap has been quiet until recently when we began to see tourists again. You’re the first person I picked up from the airport in two years!”
While other Southeast Asian destinations like Indonesia’s Bali and Malaysia’s Melaka—a UNESCO World Heritage town—languished during last year’s global lockdowns, Siem Reap took the travel freeze as an opportunity to housekeep, so to speak. Only last October the local authorities enacted a massive upgrade of the city’s infrastructure: widening main roads, laying new pipes, and beautifying parks. All this, of course, happened while the national government raced to vaccinate its citizens. By mid-November last year, the city was proudly wearing its new clothes—not to mention an impressive 81 percent inoculation rate—just in time for Cambodia’s reopening to the outside world.
However, with only two international carriers landing at the Siem Reap International Airport these days (Singapore Airlines flies from Singapore, while Thai Smile Airways arrives from Bangkok), it seems recovery will take a bit of time. On my first trip here since the pandemic began, I am seeing for myself how this city is weathering the tourism slowdown.
Business as usual?
Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the current state of things is Pub Street. This is Siem Reap’s must-visit watering hole after a sightseeing foray to the temples. Compared to last year when the street was practically dead, its bars and restaurants have reopened—though capacity is nowhere near prepandemic levels. The normally crowded Red Piano has a smattering of people on the second floor, while the famous balcony at the Temple Bar—known for its nightly classical Cambodian dance performances—is boarded up. Down the street, many other establishments are either in sleep mode or are permanently closed.
As far as tourism is concerned, this lukewarm activity is pretty much the norm these days. I dine with some local friends at the almost-empty Khmer Grill, where the waiters have so much free time they stand around and chat with us (masks on, of course). Many of the other open establishments are running 1-for-1 deals or 50-percent-off drinks promos in a bid to attract customers.
Of course, a number of spots are doing fine. At Chocolate Garden, hot drinks and freshly made pastries are in high demand, thanks to a constant stream of patrons passing through its gates. This newly opened café is proving popular with both Siem Reap residents and local tourists from Phnom Penh. On its manicured grounds, Instagram-friendly corners share space with a trio of nicely conserved traditional Khmer wooden homes.
“We made this place with the local community in mind. Many businesses in Siem Reap were so focused on foreign tourists that people were caught off guard when the pandemic happened,” says Tu Li Chin, the Taiwanese co-owner of Chocolate Garden. “We’ve already hosted a weekend market for local crafts, and we want this to be a regular event. I think the locals appreciate having a space of their own that foreign tourists won’t overrun.”
Later I talk to Khmer French businessman David Piot, who hopes the travel slowdown will encourage Siem Reap stakeholders to be less reliant on mass tourism. “Chinese tour groups were a huge driver here in the last few years, and that supply has gone dry since the pandemic began,” he observes. “This is a rare chance to reset the industry and make room for a more responsible kind of tourism.”
Indeed, it would be great if this city finds a way to manage its tourism in a more sustainable manner. Thankfully it seems Siem Reap has a bit of time to pivot: “I think it’s independent travelers and boutique experiences that will keep this city going in the near future,” he adds.
Piot’s new enterprise offers an interesting departure from the usual cookie-cutter sightseeing itinerary of Siem Reap. At the Kulen Elephant Forest, visitors get up close and personal with a herd of pachyderms. The half-day itinerary consists of small group interaction with the animals at a community-run forest reserve in the Kulen Mountains, about an hour’s drive from the city. Here I walk with the elephants down a nature trail, then feed them bananas and sugarcane stalks. Afterwards, I watch with childlike fascination as they frolic at a nearby pond.
These formerly captive elephants were once used to give tourist rides at the Angkor Archaeological Park, until the operation was stopped due to animal rights concerns. Now retired, their presence in the woods helps earn money to fund various conservation projects. This kind of outing offers neither rides nor circus acts and will definitely not work with loud groups of selfie-stick-toting tourists.
Why go to Siem Reap
Notwithstanding downtown Siem Reap’s newfound chill vibe and the elephant forest’s feel-good frolicking, the single biggest reason to visit this city remains the same. The rest of my stay finds me on the back of a motorbike exploring the majestic temples of Angkor. To help jump-start tourism, the Apsara Authority has added free extra days to the usual one-, three-, and seven-day passes, giving visitors more time to roam the temples for the same cost. I make full use of my ticket price, heading off to chase sunsets at numerous spots throughout the vast, 400-square-kilometer archaeological park. I revisit temple ruins I’ve seen dozens of times before: the Bayon with its huge smiling statues, the massive, moss-covered walls of Preah Khan; the sublime symmetry of Angkor Wat.
At each stop I am practically alone amid the storied structures, my only company being the sounds of the surrounding jungle and the ghosts of long-dead Buddhist monks. Not in almost two decades of seeing Angkor do I bask in such profound isolation. This is as beautiful as this ancient city of ruins will ever be. With mass tourism kept at bay by the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the best time to be here.