NEARLY two million visitors will find their way to Cambodia’s north-west frontier this year, almost all coming to view and be amazed by the awesome 12th century temples of Angkor.
They’ve been trekking there by bus, car, motorcycle, bike and plane for 100 years and for all that time they’ve agreed that seeing the ancient temples is the experience of a lifetime.
Even Titanic survivor Helen Churchill Candee, after viewing Angkor Wat, was moved to write: “The tale of it is incredible; the wonder which is Angkor is unmatched in Asia.”
Even the worldwide financial meltdown of the past several years has failed to make much of a dent in Angkor tourism. After a record number of visits in 2007 (two million plus) visits to the area have rebounded to some 1.7 million in 2010, and may return to pre-crisis levels next year.
Several factors have contributed to the continuing popularity of Angkor over the past decade, certainly including the success of Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2003 and aided by the Cambodian government’s investment in new roads that make reaching Angkor a more manageable task.
Bangkok Airways offers 5-6 flights from Thailand every day, and air connections from Singapore, Seoul and Ho Chi Minh City have made a visit to the area much easier than in years past. Regular service from Phnom Penh is also available from a number of air con bus companies running more-or-less hourly.
But contributing, too, has been the growth over the past decade of the picturesque town of Siem Reap, only a few miles from the temples.
Tourists need a place to stay, and Siem Reap is now home to more than 100 hotels and guest houses, ranging in price from $1,400 a night 5-star resorts to as low as $3 a night backpacker hostels, and everything in between. Many of the hotels provide pools – some lavish – for cooling off after a hot day of climbing up and down the temples’ stairways.
Tourists also need places to eat, so Siem Reap now offers dozens of the best restaurants in Cambodia, with an amazing variety of ethnic cuisines ranging from Khmer to Indian to Chinese, Italian, Mexican and French.
There’s even a KFC fried-chicken emporium, although none of the international fast-food burger joints are to be found. Whether that absence represents a “plus” or “minus” for Siem Reap is left to the reader’s discretion.
Tourists need places to shop, so chic boutiques and local market stalls stand side-by-side with everything from original art from local painters and sculptors to low-cost, mass-produced souveniers imported from Thailand, popular with the flocks of tourists and honeymooners on package tours from Korea, China and Japan who make up a major portion of visitors to the area.
The bustling Night Market near the Old Market is a warren of pathways packed with small shops selling fabrics, artwork, food and drinks after 5pm.
And tourists need somewhere to go at night. Siem Reap’s Old Market area, the hub of the new town centre (the old French Quarter), hosts a vibrant variety of music and drinking establishments that keep the pedestrian-only Pub Street and its adjoining alleyways and lanes full from dusk until well after midnight.
There are even “adventure” oriented businesses offering quad bike tours and horse riding for those who’ve “been there – done that” with temple tours.
If there’s not “something for everyone” (there aren’t yet any casinos, and if there are any “girly bars” those are distinctly low key) there’s a great deal to see and do in Siem Reap, even beyond the temples.
Jonathan Helms and his wife Jenny live in Siem Reap, where he serves as Secretary of the Skal International Siem Reap club for travel & tourism professionals.