Siem Reap: a tacky, soulless gateway to Angkor Wat?

Fish massage

We had arrived in Siem Reap in the early afternoon and made plans to visit the Angkor Wat temples for the next three days. So after a painfully slow check-in we set about exploring a little of the city.

I took a strong dislike to Siem Reap at first glance, and while I did learn to tolerate it as the days passed I would still list it as a place with few redeeming features; somewhere you have to stay to get to visit Angkor Wat. Although it is the third largest city in Cambodia it appeared to me a soulless place that has forsaken all in the name of mass tourism. There is a central ‘Pub Street’, littered with dingy bars serving cheap beer and showing live football from the UK on giant TV screens. Dance music blares out in the evening as if this was a Mediterranean resort, and touts stand by the bars and restaurants enticing prospective punters with shouts of “two beers one dollar” or “very cheap drink”. One sign even boldly declares “we encourage irresponsible drinking”. Forget the Med, this could even be Blackpool.

It is also the home of the Fish Massage. If you haven’t come across this crazy idea, it’s basically about sticking your feet into a pool of water, and the fish (supposedly imported from Turkey but by all accounts fished out of the nearby Tonle Sap) nibble away at your dead skin cells, providing you with shiny, clean feet in a matter of 20 minutes. We gave it a try of course, and while admittedly my feet did feel different after the fishy experience it may have had more to do with spending 20 minutes submerging them in dubious water.

And seemingly as with most things in Siem Reap, if one idea makes money then it quickly gets replicated; again and again. There must be 10-20 Dr Fish Massage outlets in this small area, and walking past each one you hear the cries from the touts “Fish Massage Mister, three dollar!”

The market close to the tourist centre of the town is worth a look, with all manner of live produce awaiting a sudden execution. Most of the food had been caught in the nearby Tonle Sap lake, and was no doubt very fresh. Away from the small food section, there were the countless T-shirts, scarves and wall-hangings that you could find everywhere else in the town. To complete the picture you could even order fish and chips at the British looking pubs in Siem Reap.

There were at least some good Khmer restaurants, and we did enjoy visiting the Khmer Kitchen, which has four restaurants in the city. The closest Siem Reap came to redemption was the discovery of our favourite SE Asian chain, Swensens. For those who have tasted their delicious ice-creams they will know the name instantly. On a baking hot day, after several hours of temple visits, there is nothing better than a giant rocky road sundae! The Blue Pumpkin Cafe also deserves a mention for its great bakery and ice cream shakes, and a cool upstairs where you can lounge on giant sofas in AC comfort.

All in all though, I was happy to leave Siem Reap and its tacky centre behind. I would be fascinated to know how the town looked 10-20 years ago before the advent of mass tourism. At the same time I shudder to imagine how it might develop in the coming decade if visitor numbers continue to soar.

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5 Responses to “Siem Reap: a tacky, soulless gateway to Angkor Wat?”

  1. We were there only 4 1/2 years ago and it sounds like it’s changed a lot in that time. For one thing, I have no memory of fish massages! I’m not sure if it’s accurate or not, but at the time the profits from the ticket sales were actually going to a foreign company – I think they may have been Vietnamese?

    We found people to be amazingly kind. I have a vivid memory of bargaining for a silk pillow case. I was telling Ian how he’d already spent too much money on pillows, how we didn’t need another, etc. in a pretty half-hearted effort to bring the price down since it was already very little to begin with. Well, after he bought it he walked away to go get something we had seen earlier for a friend of ours, while I continued to look at some jewlery. The lady selling the pillow cases was really upset that she might have been part of us arguing – thinking that Ian had walked away because he was angry!

    January 10, 2010 at 3:38 pm
  2. Thanks Wendy. Agree with you about the kind people. We found the Cambodians kind, hospitable and fair wherever we were. Having arrived after visiting the north of the country we feared the worst coming to a major tourist centre and were constantly and pleasantly surprised. Even our tuk-tuk drivers offered a fair price without haggling.
    The money from the entrance fee is still an issue, with various stories circulating about where it goes. Alas, it’s a payment that you have to stump up…

    January 10, 2010 at 4:19 pm
  3. I didn’t recognize Siem Reap in your description anymore. I guess tourism changes things pretty quickly. I was there 12 years ago and it was still a sleepy town, actually more village. Pol Pot had just died and tourism started to catch up again. People lived for so long in fear and unbelievable poverty, I suppose they are happy for every chance they get to make a living. I stayed with a family who had just opened up kind of a B&B – two rooms and a shared shower (clay pot filled with water). They spoiled me rotten, washed my cloth (I was almost unrecognizable after arriving via pick-up truck from the Thai border;-), served breakfast and even dinner, when I was returning late from a day at Angkor. I had a guide on a motorbike who drove me around circles, even visited his relatives in the countryside with me. Everybody was so gracious. Sitting at the busiest intersection of town was fun, even hilarious at times – overloaded bicycles and bikes I wondered how they even managed to drive. Some places were still off limits because of mines.

    January 10, 2010 at 5:56 pm
  4. Was there in ’07 and found SR to be pleasant. But I didn’t venture much into the tackiness. I can understand your sentiment about the tourist center (what is it about tourism that makes shop-owners think people want shot glasses and salt shakers?) but I didn’t feel it was different from any other town on the tourist highway. I do agree that Pub Street was “western overkill” but I felt most of the rest of the town was mellow and given to good experiences if you wanted. It easy to steer clear of backpacker central if you want to.

    Since I think the temple area is so worth seeing perhaps avoid the old town and turn a blind eye to kids and their heel-sucking fish.

    January 11, 2010 at 6:26 pm
  5. haha, good advice Nico. Having tried to man-eating fish experience once I will avoid it in the future. As you say, the magnificence of Angkor Wat more than makes up for the disappointments in the nearby town. I suspect though that you would see a change in the place even since your visit.

    January 11, 2010 at 6:58 pm