Business owners and residents of Siem Reap’s rapidly evolving ‘East Bank’ are calling for better urban planning amid anxiety about the future of their beloved, laidback, leafy neighbourhood
A flurry of recent construction and clearing of land to pave way for developments on lively Wat Bo Road and the picturesque waterfront road on the east bank of the Siem Reap River has left residents and business owners calling for improved services and better urban planning.
This week saw the opening of Temple Lounge, a large two-storey glass bar slap-bang on the river overlooking Wat Preah Prom Rath, next to boutique hotel and apartments Karavansara.
Further along the river, work is commencing on two new sites. One is rumoured to be a faux-colonial style shop-house development that could be similar to the much-maligned Hard Rock Cafe nearby.
The other, being greeted more enthusiastically, is said to be a café and boutique hotel project by the Phnom Penh-based Brown Coffee group, well regarded for their minimalist style and garden and pond features.
East Bank business owners and residents claim to have witnessed more growth in the area in the past year than they have in the past decade, not all of which has been well received.
Their greatest concern is that the area could lose the attributes that have made it so appealing.
Viroth Kol and Fabien Martial, owners of the intimate Viroth’s Villa and the new retro-chic Viroth’s Hotel, which officially launched this month on Street 24, said they opened the Kol family-ran Viroth’s restaurant 10 years ago on Wat Bo Road because they wanted to create an open dining space surrounding by greenery, which wasn’t possible in Siem Reap’s centre.
“The beauty of the Wat Bo area is that it’s very green. It was designed in the 1960s on a grid structure, with large blocks of land and lots of space.
Houses aren’t too close together, so you can’t see into neighbours’ kitchens. And that hasn’t changed much,” Martial explained.
The abundance of greenery and authenticity of the area also appealed to architect Lisa Ros and her four partners, who founded ASMA Architects, the firm responsible for Viroth’s hotels and restaurant, along with some of Siem Reap’s most fashionable spaces, including AHA restaurant and Hotel Be.
Ros said ASMA had been looking for new offices, when they chanced upon the old ACE school and adjoining 1963 shop-house building on Street 24, which they redeveloped into Pages, a cool multi-purpose space consisting of an arty cafe, design library, accommodation and their offices, which they completed in mid-2014.
“I’ve been living in Wat Bo for over 10 years, so it’s been my neighbourhood,” Ros explained. “It’s a quiet place with still interesting buildings from the 1960s.
It’s a really liveable area, as it’s residential, still very green, and we have the facilities that make a city a city – schools, a beautiful pagoda, artisans and small shops that are not only aimed at tourists.”
The general manager of Pages, Virginie Dumas, agreed with Ros. For her, the Wat Bo Area was more about culture and leisure, and a big part of its allure was the everyday life of the neighbourhood – the bookstores, small clothes shops, pagodas, schools and universities.
“Locals still live, study and pray in this area and I hope it will continue this way,” said Dumas.
“Tourism is a huge part of the economy and life here, but people are looking for authenticity, simplicity, and new things, new encounters, something different, which they can’t find across the river.”
Madeline Green, jeweller and co-owner of Ammo Design, recently opened Wat Bo Studios with her photographer husband George Nickels on the heart of Wat Bo Road.
“I love the Wat Bo area. It’s where we first settled when we moved here three and half years ago,” Green said, explaining how the couple quickly felt part of a community and how she loved creative spaces like Pages.
“Now, there are so many new businesses in the area, I don’t feel I need to go to the centre to socialise.”
While Martial agreed, he believes development is coming at a price.
“The area is busier, but it’s not yet too busy. It’s still green, although many of the developers are pulling out trees,” Martial observed, recalling the days when Siem Reap was more verdant and arriving in the city was like entering a forest.
“Most of the traditional old houses here in Wat Bo are owned by modest families of civil servants – and there are still many beautiful wooden houses.
The identity has always been largely residential, and I wish it could stay like this, but there are few regulations,” Martial lamented.
Jeff Strachan bought the pretty boutique property Maison 557 on Wat Bo Road in October 2013 after spending a considerable amount of time looking around Siem Reap.
He said that progress in a tourist town like Siem Reap was inevitable.
“Our guests are happy to be able to walk to Kings Road and to pop over to Flow and it is fantastic to have Pages, Viroth’s and Angkor Village around us,” he said.
While admitting she doesn’t like all the businesses in the area, Ros said she believed that there was room for more development in the area, provided it was kept in check.
“Cour de Maison and Flow are renovations that I appreciate for their respect of the original type of building, and also because we can see that they were worked on and thought about.
Their architecture makes them interesting in terms of space but also aesthetics,” Ros said.
“We need proper, clever urban planning to protect and preserve the elements that make sense … not only the buildings and their functions, but also the gardens, trees
and landscape that are fundamental to the area’s development. And we should allow sensible building constructions around these.”
She said she believed the most important thing was to keep the neighbourhood’s soul for the inhabitants and “not let it become a row of non-stop souvenir shop and bars.”
Architect Stuart Cochlin, who was responsible for the sleek and sensitive renovation of the shop-house that is home to FLOW, said that there needs to be a more detailed zoning strategy for neighbourhoods like Wat Bo, which would tie into the overall zoning plan and future development of Siem Reap.
“The river road is one of only a handful of public green spaces in Siem Reap.
For me, it’s a beautiful and calming backbone running through the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap, appealing to locals and tourists alike,” Cochlin said.
“The riverside and its banks have been worked on aesthetically over the past few years, but the design of buildings and their uses that face it should be given equal consideration,” he elaborated.
“If this is not considered, the risks are higher that the unique qualities that should be preserved could be lost for good.”
Martial agreed, but he said he believed a few basic problems also needed to be addressed.
“We need better rubbish collection, more regular street cleaning, more consistent electricity supply – our area is always the first to lose power,” he said.
“But residents and business owners also need to take some responsibility if we want to keep the spirit of the area. And I want to see more trees.”