While many deride Siem Reap for its rows of homely hotels, architects are busy giving the city a new look that mixes tradition with cutting-edge flair
Artist Sandy Shum (left) poses with Narisara Murray, who worked closely on renovating the McDermott Gallery in Siem Reap’s Old Passage.
SIEM Reap is shaking off its image of a city ruined by tourism - with its oft-referenced row of ticky-tacky hotels - and re-emerging architecturally as a new capital of cool.
Recent conventional wisdom among travel writers has been that the travel industry has killed the olde-worlde charm of Siem Reap, even though what constituted this olde-worlde charm has never been defined.
People who have lived here for any length of time describe early Siem Reap as a collection of dusty villages with bad roads - albeit with some charm - that developed into a town that's something of a sprawl.
Proeun Phav, managing director of Angkor Territorial Adventure Travel, said he can remember that, during the Khmer Rouge madness, the downtown Pub Street tourist haven was mostly a pile of noxious rat-infested rubble.
But the city is now being transformed into an urbane cosmopolitan centre with character, and while some hotel developments are tawdry and tacky, others are sophisticated and have added beauty to the city, with graceful architecture and grand gardens.
Typical of the newly emerging attitude towards Siem Reap was the prediction in June by PR.Inside.com that, by 2020, Siem Reap would become the "foremost jewel of Southeast Asia tourism".
This was tipped to happen not just because of the famous temple complex but also because of "the beautiful city, where a thriving population conducts business in harmony with the environment."
One of Siem Reap's hip social doyens, Narisara Murray, wife of new-wave entrepreneur and internationally-hailed photographer John McDermott, said that while bad architecture has certainly been perpetrated upon Siem Reap, there was also some superbly creative work and a modern Siem Reap ‘look' has emerged.
There are some cookie-cutter hotels, but there are also some big hotels that are actually beautiful.
"Some of the buildings that are going up now are gorgeous, and I think they will become future classics," Murray said.
"People will look back on this era as a period and look to the sort of signature style that's been developed.
"It's exciting to see people experiment with architecture. There are some cookie-cutter hotels, but there are also some big hotels that are actually beautiful," she added. "A lot of the entrepreneurs who come here want to make something special, whether it's a hotel, a restaurant or a gallery."
Artist Sandy Shum, whose latest work is on show at the McDermott Gallery, is a regular visitor to Siem Reap and said, "I've been coming here since 1998 and there have been a lot of changes over the years, but they are changes I've really enjoyed.
"The reviltalisation of the Old Market area has just been fantastic with those beautiful old buildings really lovingly being brought back to life. I've been watching that happening over the years and it's been wonderful."
The creative opportunities in Siem Reap attracts internationally hailed architects, the most recent being New York's Cook+Fox, which designed the new Centre for Friends Without A Border building. In May this received an Honour Award from the Boston Society of Architects/American Institute of Architects.
A futuristic temple
One of the highpoints of Siem Reap architecture is Hotel de la Paix which, when swathed in light at night, resembles a futuristic temple. This was designed by Bangkok-based, Harvard-educated architect Bill Bensley, referred to as the "king of exotic luxury resorts" by Time magazine. He has also left his trademark look in Siem Reap at other hotels, such as Shinta Mani.
But the in-vogue architects of the moment are two locals - Ivan Tizianel and Lisa Ros of Asma Architects.
They designed a group of three intertwined businesses in the Old Passage, incorporating a bar, hotel, restaurant and gallery, and the current issue of Sarika airline magazine raves about this clutch.
Epicentre of chic
The magazine refers to the buildings as a "cool cluster" and its description of the architecture is littered with adjectives such as "oh so slick", "hip", "cool quotient", and "epicentre of chic".
One of the businesses in this cluster is the McDermott Gallery, and Murray worked closely with architect Lisa Ros on the renovations.
She said, "I think Asma, the architects who designed this group of buildings, are conceptually brilliant. The work they've done is beautiful. It uses local materials, and it's respectful of the original architecture.
"Asma has just completed renovations for us. A couple of times I wanted to do something and Lisa Ros would just look at me and say, ‘But this is part of the original building, you have to keep this.'
"They changed quite a lot - a glass atrium at the back is a big change, but they respected the shape of the original building and you can see this in detail.
"Often when there was something I wanted to take out, Lisa would push to leave it, saying it's a small clue that shows people that this was once a courtyard, that this was once the interior, this was once the exterior. She has such respect for the Cambodian elements and that, of course, also comes from her being part Cambodian."
And perhaps that goes some way to defining the new signature look of Siem Reap architecture: a melange of international cutting-edge cool with traditional Cambodian and colonial influences.