AS hoteliers, restaurant owners and souvenir shops frantically prepare for a predicted
record influx of tourists over the coming months, the mood of Siem Reap is one of
optimism mixed with anxiety about tourism's long-term impact on the town.
If you spend some time in some of Siem Reap's many new tourist bars, chances are
you will see travel writer Nick Ray busy redrawing maps of the town for the next
of edition of the Cambodia Lonely Planet guide .
According to Ray, Cambodia's new image on the international travel circuit is nothing
but good news for local tourist operators.
"No longer is Cambodia a dirty word," Ray said. If you say 'Cambodia' now,
people say 'I would love to go there'."
This new international interest largely focuses on the temples of Angkor, which,
Ray says, are finally gaining the global recognition they deserve. As a result, Ray
believes Siem Reap is "going to go ballistic, it's going to be unrecognizable
in a few years".
Ray's optimism is shared by Belgian entrepreneur Geert Caboor. "I'm sure in
three years it could be really busy here. In the last three months five places have
opened on this street alone."
Yet despite the numerous bars and restaurants dotted around Siem Reap town's Psah
Chas area, the town remains largely quiet after dark.
Laurent Holdener, a French expatriate and owner of the town's only adventure travel
company, offers one explanation for Siem Reap's relative lack of nightlife.
"I think a lot of people come for the culture of the temples; Cambodia is the
temples ... [tourists] go to Bangkok in another spirit," he said.
As with many Siem Reap entrepreneurs, Laurent believes one of the challenges is getting
tourists to stay longer than the duration of their temple pass and explore what else
the town and surrounding area has to offer.
But residents and expatriate entrepreneurs agree that the overwhelming problem to
putting Siem Reap on the international tourist map is a lack of adequate transportation
and telecommunications infrastructure linking the town to the outside world.
While reconstruction of Route 6 from the Thai border at Poipet to Kampong Thom is
part of the Government's five year plan, there is no word on when the work might
Those tourists who do risk the overland route from Thailand on what currently passes
for roads to Siem Reap find the price and inconvenience of long distance calls and
internet access - between $7 and $10 an hour - a case of adding insult to injury.
And while the expansion of the tourist industry means an increase in employment opportunities,
local residents says the tourist boom has prompted spiraling food and land costs
that outweigh the current "trickle down" benefits of tourism.
"At the moment there is zero income from tourism for the [Siem Reap Municipality],"
said provincial government spokesperson Theam Kong Borom. "There's no money
for the provincial authority to spend on health, education and so on ... sorting
out the water supply and waste disposal is urgent."
Perhaps most alarming to local residents is the potential growth of sex and drug
tourism that has plagued tourist booms in other parts of Asia. While acknowledging
such dangers exist, local restaurateur Heng Seng Mong cautions against policies that
would actively discriminate against certain types of visitors.
For him, the budget-conscious backpackers who patronize the family run guesthouses
and restaurants play as vital a role in developing the local economy as the more
up-market visitors staying in the larger international-standard hotels.
Consequently, as many business owners look forward to a prosperous high season, it
is clear their short-term optimism is balanced by a more cautious attitude regarding
how still-sleepy Siem Reap will weather the stresses of its long-awaited tourist