A deadly blaze ripped through a popular Siem Reap night market killing eight people and leaving two hospitalised with serious injuries over the weekend.
On Saturday morning at about 2am flames that authorities say originated with an electrical fault decimated market stalls before engulfing a housing complex above.
One woman died while clutching a child.
Authorities are saying that the tragedy at Siem Reap Night Market, a collection of more than 100 stalls located on Sivutha Boulevard in the centre of the town, resulted in the highest death toll ever from a fire in recent memory. Four of the victims were children.
According to Siem Reap Provincial Governor Sou Phirin, initial estimates place financial damages from the fire at more than $1 million.
Of the 106 stalls, 92 were completely burned out, deputy chief of the fire department Chheun Chhang said, and 10 fire engines responded immediately to a blaze that took firefighters some two hours to get under control.
But Lau Sowong, the owner of a hotel next door, disputed the account, saying it was more than an hour before firefighters arrived at the scene. He was coming home from a wedding party at 2am when he first smelled the smoke.
“I checked the front of the market and the fire was just starting,” Lau said. “I called to my receptionist to get all the guests out. The fire just kept burning more and started coming over the wall separating us.
“The firemen didn’t have enough water to stop the fire and they were too late. It burned for nearly an hour before they came,” Lau said, adding that the hose was too short and wasn’t spraying enough water.
The deputy chief of the fire department did not return phone calls asking about the alleged hour-long delay. The owner of the Siem Reap Night Market could not be reached for comment.
Of the men who were seriously injured in the fire, one was sent to Vietnam for additional burn treatment.
The other, whose condition was improving yesterday, was recuperating at the Jayavaraman VII Hospital, Siem Reap district police chief Thoeung Chendarith said.
Guests at the Angkor Wall Hostel next door, which is separated from the night market only by an alley about two metres wide, recounted fleeing into the street after waking to a commotion.
A Taiwanese national who declined to be named said she was on the first floor of the hostel when shouting roused her. She then heard a number of “bangs” as lights blew out.
“I was the most scared I have been in my life. I thought I was going to die. There was only one exit, past the night market. We covered ourselves in a wet towel and went out one at a time,” the woman said.
“The heat was intense. I was thinking: what if the fire comes over here? This is the only exit from the building.
“The smoke was thick, but it was all going up. Down here, it wasn’t too bad.”
It only got worse. The fire destroyed the market, leaving a mass of burnt-out stalls, twisted metal and charred goods at a time when Siem Reap is at the height of its tourist season and visitors from around the globe stream into the northwestern province to see the Angkor temples.
The deaths and damage also struck a painful chord at the end of an otherwise momentous week for the provincial capital.
Siem Reap International Airport celebrated its two millionth visitor, and the town was dotted with visual exhibitions while it hosted the Angkor Photo Festival, which ended on Saturday night.
For the market vendors who rely on the seasonal tourist influx every year to survive, the blaze was disastrous.
As usual, Radi Koe had locked up her shop of wooden souvenirs and gone home around midnight.
Koe’s phone rang with news of a fire, but she had already left her shop and decided to return later.
“I came here this morning,” she told the Post on Saturday, “and I’ve lost everything. I lost my shop and around $5,000 of stock. It’s very difficult.”