When travelers return to Cambodia’s most popular destination, they will find a much more walkable city transformed by wider roads and cycle lanes, as well as a host of long-overdue improvements at the nearby temples of Angkor. A resident writer reflects on the changes — and on the many things that remain gloriously the same.
Photographs by Terence Carter
If you haven’t been to Siem Reap lately — which, given the pandemic, will apply to most people — you wouldn’t recognize the place right now. As I write this, much of the leafy riverside city in northwestern Cambodia looks like a colossal construction site — or a city rebuilding after a natural disaster, depending on how you look at things. Yet while so much has changed, some things, reassuringly, remain the same. This thought occurs to me on the road to Angkor Wat as I rub the goose bumps forming on my arms and pull my windblown hair back into a ponytail. I’d forgotten how crisp the forest air can get at 4 a.m., especially in the breezy carriage of an old-fashioned Cambodian tuk tuk. I chide myself for not bringing a cardigan along for the 20-minute ride.
My photographer husband Terence and I are on our way to take in sunrise at the country’s star attraction, just as we’ve been privileged to do scores of times since 2013, when we made Siem Reap our base from which to bounce around Asia for work. Only this time is different: we will have Angkor Wat pretty much to ourselves. The sun will rise behind the majestic 12th-century temple without the hundreds — and at peak high season, thousands — of tourists who once crowded around the lotus-filled reflecting pond out front to witness one of the world’s most captivating spectacles. The thought makes me shiver in anticipation.
This is the first time we’ve ventured out to the temple in over a year. As much as we adore Angkor Wat and the other monuments of the World Heritage–listed Angkor Archaeological Park, the pandemic has kept us mostly at home, as it has so many of our neighbors. Soon after news of the coronavirus arrived, Siem Reap, the launching pad for excursions to Angkor, emptied of tourists virtually overnight, transforming it from the bustling “temple town” we loved to a ghost town. As businesses reliant on tourism — hotels, hostels, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars — closed, most of their Cambodian staff, along with out-of-work tour guides, returned to the countryside they knew could sustain them, just as it had their families and ancestors for centuries before them. Without work, unable to travel, and unable to return to our homeland of Australia, we moved to more affordable accommodation in a village on the edge of Siem Reap to wait things out. There we watched our resourceful Cambodian neighbors, who live in a wooden house on stilts, forage their land for herbs, roots, and leaves, start a vegetable plot, and pluck green mangoes from trees.
The Cambodian government took advantage of the quiet time to commence another ambitious endeavor: a major infrastructure upgrade called the 38 Roads Project, which aims to build and renew more than 100 kilometers of roads in Siem Reap as part of a grand tourism development master plan. Most of the city center has been dug up to install new drainage pipes and sidewalks with proper curbs and guttering to prevent flooding during the wet season; roads are being widened and concrete laid to create new pavements, parking areas, and bicycle lanes. Slated for completion by December, the project will make Siem Reap a much more walkable and manageable city. Architectural renderings depict sleek contemporary public spaces that wouldn’t be out of place in Bangkok or Singapore.
Yet for now, the restaurants, bars, and clubs on and around the onetime nightlife hub of Pub Street in Siem Reap’s central tourist zone remain closed, FOR RENT signs plastered on doors and windows in place of menus. The only place still humming with life in the area is the atmospheric Psar Chas, or Old Market, which is busy with locals shopping for smoked fish, dried shrimp, and a bevy of produce from the countryside. In the surrounding streets, bridal boutiques and menswear stores have moved into former souvenir shops.
The shaded banks of the Siem Reap River along Pokambor Avenue is where the action is now, dotted with mobile coffee stands, street-food carts, pop-up bars, and food trucks with names like the Green Kitchen Cart and the Tipsy Cow, some of which are run by enterprising young Cambodians who had previously worked in now-mothballed hotels. Multicolored plastic stools and fairy lights strung between trees lend a festive vibe in a city that hasn’t celebrated one of its much-loved traditional holidays since the pandemic began. In the late afternoon, locals now power walk or jog along the waterfront paths that sunburnt tourists, weary from a day at the temples, once leisurely strolled before dawdling into restaurants for their early dinners. After dark, groups of Lycra-clad cyclists ride their flash new bikes on deserted roads once gridlocked with tour buses and tuk tuks. Beer gardens have sprung up in vacant lots.
For those looking for a taste of pre-pandemic Siem Reap, a buzzy expat enclave has emerged nearby in the Wat Bo neighborhood. Centered on Streets 27 and 26, this is the new home of vintage Shanghai–themed Miss Wong (the city’s finest cocktail bar) and the boho Laundry Bar, both of which have moved out of the Pub Street area. Across the road is Banllé, a farm-to-table restaurant serving veganized Cambodian classics; it’s run by one of the city’s most inventive chefs, Pola Siv, whose much-admired Mie Cafe closed in the early days of the pandemic. Nearby on Street 27 is The Sugar Palm for home-style traditional cooking by the so-called “godmother of Cambodian cuisine” Kethana Dunnet, and Dialogue, a colonial-chic café and bar with good coffee and great negronis.
Much has changed out at Angkor too. When the first travelers return, they’ll be able to wait in peace and quiet for the sun to rise over Angkor Wat without hawkers tugging at their sleeves, as vendors will be moved off-site to a new market space in the old car park. They’ll be able to ride between temples on signposted bike paths, stroll along pedestrianized boulevards, picnic in newly landscaped gardens, or sip coffee at the cafés that have opened in traditional wooden houses overlooking the royal baray (reservoir) of Srah Srang. And thanks to concerted reintroduction efforts, wildlife is returning to Angkor Archaeological Park, with visitors likely to spot gibbons swinging in the treetops and otters frolicking in moats.
After the Cambodian government announced an ambitious vaccination plan (by early July almost half of the country’s population had been jabbed) and its intention to open the country to vaccinated tourists in late 2021, Terence and I decided it was time to head out to the temples again. We’re doing it as we’ve always done, arriving in the darkness, with a flashlight to guide us. On previous visits we would walk briskly to ensure we were the first to reach the edge of the reflecting pond in front of Angkor Wat’s northern library. There’s no such urgency today; we have the ruins to ourselves. We’ve come so early for the arrival of nautical dawn, when the sun lies 12 degrees below the equator and the fading darkness of night gives way to the luminous blues of morning twilight. Once at the water’s edge, while Terence sets up his tripod, I sit and watch the heavens slowly transform. As the sky takes on an arresting shade of cobalt, I let out a sigh. Then I hear the slow clicks of Terence’s camera and know that this is when he’ll capture the most dramatic images. This phase of twilight never fails to move me — I find it to be more affecting than actual sunrise — and I’m not surprised that I shed a tear or two. (Rifling fruitlessly through my bag, I discover that, along with a cardigan, I’ve forgotten to bring any tissues).
Instead of waiting for dawn at the reflecting pond, we make our way to the narrow dirt road that runs along the northern perimeter of the temple lawns. There’s a freshness to the air that’s unique to this time of the morning before the humidity sets in, and I feel it again as I walk close to the edge of the scrubby low forest that lies between Angkor Wat and its moat. I stop at the northeastern corner of the lawn and turn to look back at the rear of the west-facing temple, camera in hand. As I do, shafts of yellow light beam through the forest, and as the sun rises above the canopy of trees, its glow turns the cold gray sandstone towers a luminous golden-brown that looks so warm I wish I could reach out and touch them.
The stones of Angkor weren’t always cold and gray. In A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People, Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who spent a year here in 1296, wrote of brilliant golden bridges and gleaming gilded towers, of statues of gold Buddhas and lions, and of elephants, cows, and horses cast in bronze. The king carried a gold sword and wore a gold crown inlaid with precious sparkling gems. Even the tusks of his elephants were sheathed in gold. Angkor Wat was already more than a century old during Zhou’s time; built in the first half of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, it was originally called Vrah Vishnuloka, or “the Sacred Abode of Vishnu,” in honor of the Hindu deity from whom Suryavarman derived his divine authority. As we climb the monument’s enormous sandstone steps, it’s not hard to imagine what splendors greeted visitors back when this was a living, breathing temple-city.
Terence and I first came to Siem Reap in 2011 to produce a story for a Thai magazine (we were living in Bangkok at the time) about things to do beyond the temples — shops, spas, bars, and so on. But two years later, it was an assignment about new archaeological discoveries at Angkor that captured our imaginations and kept us here. The more we explored, the more we realized there was to discover. We never got “templed out.” On the contrary, like so many expats who had become enamored with Angkor and made Siem Reap their home, we would visit the temples whenever we could. Today, as we wander among the intricately carved bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat’s empty galleries, I am profoundly thankful to be back.
We ask our tuk tuk driver, Kong, to take us the long way back home, via the ancient city of Angkor Thom and the 10th-century temple mountain of Pre Rup and thence through picturesque rice paddies to Preah Dak, a village of tidy wooden houses that is famed for its basket weaving and num banh chok noodles. We stop to visit a family we know to buy a jar of creamy caramelized palm sugar and are greeted like long-lost relatives. The husband presses bamboo cups into our hands, filled to the brim with sparkling palm juice, still deliciously warm from the early morning sun.
While we love the tuk tuks for those cool forest breezes, they’re also brilliant for the panoramic vistas, the opportunities to snap pictures, and the sheer fun of interacting with locals, as we’re reminded as a group of smiling kids peddle our way on bicycles too big for them, waving and yelling “Hello! Hello!” We shout back “Sousdai! Sousdai!” in Khmer and watch them giggle in surprise and delight. Later, we spot a family harvesting rice in the gorgeous golden mid-morning light. I can’t get enough of these scenes, even after all these years.
I’m reminded that encounters with everyday life are easily as captivating as sunrises and splendid temples. For all the smooth new concrete roads being laid, the appeal of Siem Reap for me will always be its big-hearted, down-to-earth people and the beauty of their backyard. No pandemic or modernization plan will change that. It will always be here, so take your time.
Siem Reap Airport’s international terminal—the main hub for visitors arriving from Southeast Asian destinations—was closed at the time of print but is due to reopen in late 2021. Until then, travelers arriving in Cambodia via Phnom Penh International Airport can continue to Siem Reap on domestic flights or with private taxi (about US$75 for a five-plus-hour journey).
Where to Stay
Treeline Urban Resort (doubles from US$170) combines a contemporary design with a central riverside location in Wat Bo. Due to reopen in October, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (doubles from US$195) is Siem Reap’s oldest and most opulent hotel.
Where to Dine and Drink
In the Wat Bo area, Banllé, Tevy’s Place, Laundry Bar, The Sugar Palm, and Miss Wong are all excellent choices, while on the edge of Siem Reap, Lum Orng is well worth the detour for chef Sothea Seng’s creative tasting menus of New Mekong Cuisine.
This article originally appeared in the September/November 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A New Dawn for Angkor”).