The overnight bus trip from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap was my worst travel experience in Cambodia. A 14hour bus ride with no toilet, upright seating and a very odd Cambodian lady-boy who insisted touching legs, had left me tired and emotional.
That said things could only go up from there and they definitely did, as the charm of Siem Reap swiftly came over me. A bowl of hot and spicy noodles from the market ($2US-dollars) brought me back into a good mood and ready to explore Cambodia’s second largest city.
Siem Reap is a classic example of French colonial architecture with prominent Chinese influence, spread along a beautiful and relatively clean river.
Most will know the city as home to what is Cambodia’s (and arguably South East Asia’s) most famous temple, Angkor Wat. In what was considered even too beautiful and important for the Khmer Rouge to demolish. Angkor Wat is proudly displayed on both the countries flag and currency.
Siem Reap and the country as a whole have and continue to rely heavily on the tourism dollars that this attraction generates. With the flow on into restaurants, hotels and many other service industries, it could be said that after the fall of the Khmer Rouge this was the countries great saviour
Tourism is Cambodia’s second largest industry and since 2004, tourist arrivals have increased from one million per year to over five million per year in 2016. Of course this influx of both tourists and US dollars is a double-edged sword, with many fearing Siem Reap will become a city of service workers and nothing else.
Although the most continuous issue has been surrounding Sokimex, a private company founded by the ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman Sok Kong. Sokimex has leased Angkor Wat from the Cambodian government and manages the operations of the site, for profit since 1990. The government however disputes this claim and states they only lease the operation licence and hence not Angkor Wat itself.
They also state to have arranged a percentage of revenue arrangement with the company. The statement says that Sokimex retains 15 percent of the revenue collected from ticket sales and sends 15 percent to a conservation fund to develop the area around the Angkor Archaeological Park, while a further 10 percent is taken as value-added tax. The remaining 60 percent is go to the National Treasury within the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Although many critics have stated that both the government and Sokimex have been greatly reducing their claimed collected revenue. With many requesting a full third-party audit is required on the issue.
However, with a recent high-court decision to ban Cambodia’s main opposition party the CNRP (Cambodian National Rescue Party) and the strong ties of businessman Sok Kong to the current government. Any prospect of genuine transparency to know how your entry fee is spent, has literally no chance of occurring under the current regime.
After a day with the masses many tourists will head for a night out to Siem Reaps second most popular attraction ‘Pub Stree’. A long neon lit strip of cheap bars and touts selling 50cent draft beers and $1.50 cocktails.
Walking along the street just after midnight any notion that one may have of had of Siem Reap as the epicentre of Cambodian culture, is quickly revised. It’s a scene of tuk-tuk drivers lingering on street corners offer drugs and hookers whilst hordes of drunken backpackers dance to the latest top 40 hits.
It must be said however, if one is to venture away from the bright lights and deafening music. There are some great niche bars and restaurants down the numerous alleys that flow through the cities French Quarter, that can bring a touch of nostalgia and class to what otherwise is a very tacky night out.
Aranyaprathet / Poi Pet
P.S. Many would think it remiss of me not to mention in more detail the beauty of Angkor Wat. But honestly, a quick Google search of the name will provide much better detail that I can or care to give. Personally, I find the operation behind the temple much more interesting than the temple itself and a story that needs to be told more often and in more detail than it currently does.