A holiday at this Khmer town may no longer mean “backpackers” or “basic accommodation”. Construction of luxury accommodations has been on the rise in the last decade.
“Bong, Angkor was never lost. It has always been here.” So asserts my conscientious guide, addressing me in the local way of saying “Madame”, correcting for the nth time, I presumed, was a common misconception that the awe-inspiring Hindu temple was ‘discovered’ by Henri Mouhot. He was a French explorer and naturalist in the mid-19th century who travelled to Indochina to collect samples of new species at then French colonies. He came about Angkor Wat : published drawings and described in most meticulous details what he saw. He had since got the credit. But as my guide say: “Angkor Wat has always been here. The monks and the Khmers have never stopped to go there to pray. We just didn’t have the means to get the word out to the world.”
Still, Mouhot’s articles attracted many explorers and adventure-seekers until the late 1930s, mostly from Europe and America. The first wave of travellers prompted the construction of Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor to accommodate the wealthy visitors. In the 1940s, wars, both in and outside Cambodia, propelled the kingdom to decades of internal struggle, going with the flow of forces their leaders believed were bigger than they are.
Thanks to Hollywood and Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider, Siem Reap is rising from its immediate dark past to reclaim the glory it buried for so long. Tourists started to trickle in 2001 after the film was released but it took another five years to develop the town into what it is today. Best of all, more and more upscale hotels and resorts are being built and considered, bearing in mind the one group of people who can appreciate both heritage and luxury.
So welcome to Siem Reap, a town that will always reveal its two faces: the solitude and quietude of temple visits to the colours and spices of the Old market; the fresh provincial air to the dusty streets on a tuktuk; the subtlety of its cuisine to the strength of its people’s hearts.
Welcome to Siem Reap and its inherent grace.