This Cambodian Backpacker Haven is Beckoning Travellers Again

Siem Reap, known as the gateway to Angkor Wat, has a brand new face and a slew of new attractions after a multi-million dollar makeover.

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Expect Pub Street to retain its evening-hour jazz in the post-pandemic Siem Reap. Photo by: Wang Sing/Shutterstock

For decades, Cambodia has been synonymous with Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument. Over the years, thousands of travellers have flocked to the city of Siem Reap, the gateway to the 12th-century temple complex, to stand in the midst of the ruins and gawk at the ancient enormity of the site, or to find the perfect spot to view a sunset. Nearly five lakh tourists visit the 200-acre complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, every year. That’s why when visitor numbers were reported to have crashed by 99% in June 2021, even the most pandemic-hardened soul must have felt shocked.

But recent visitors to Siem Reap, the resort town that is the nodal point for travellers headed for Angkor, report an impressive transformation of its previously chaotic self. The city has recently undergone a $150-million makeover as part of a new urban infrastructure upgrade started in the pandemic-enforced lull in tourism. The riverside has been embellished with a spanking-new boulevard with distinct attractions and the parks have undergone beautification. After two years of the pandemic and multiple travel closures the city has re-emerged, in a modern avatar of sorts, with 38 new roads and pavements on the side, spruced-up bicycle lanes and the like.


Also Read | Near Angkor Wat, A Maison of Memories


All these measures are part of the ongoing 2021-2035 Siem Reap Master Plan, at the completion of which the city hopes to have taken yearly tourist numbers to 7.5 million. The project is also aimed at generating 9,40,000 jobs and taking the local economy to $6 billion, reports Nikkei Asia. Soon, the highly anticipated Siem Reap Angkor International Airport, will also come up, 50 kilometres from the existing air head, which is much smaller. Expected to open to tourists in 2023, according to reports, the airport is projected to see 10 million arrivals yearly by 2030, and help safeguard Angkor Wat’s World Heritage Site status by eliminating the noise pollution in the vicinity.

Experts opine that these steps indicate a much-needed shift away from the region’s traditional tourist appeal. Historically, Siem Reap in conjunction with the Angkor Wat complex, has been promoted as a cultural throwback to Khmer history, which preceded the notorious Khmer Rouge rule in the kingdom. Steeped in ancient history and spirituality, the city and the adjoining archaeological sites have been an enriching destination for travellers from the West. After the pandemic, the authorities and city officials wish to develop Siem Reap as a modern city and a sought-after destination for digital nomads.

In the two years since the pandemic first forced closure of foreign arrivals in the country, the sleepy town has also seen new additions to the travel roster. Be it weekend markets exhibiting local crafts, concept-driven restaurants in the downtown and a thriving coffee scene, responsible wildlife experiences in the Kulen mountains (an hour’s drive away), or newly introduced extra days on passes to Angkor Wat—Siem Reap is surely poised for a comeback.


Also Read | Dark Tourism: The Killing Fields of Cambodia


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Fully vaccinated travellers to Cambodia don’t need to carry a negative RT-PCR test or undergo quarantine. 

Those who aren’t fully vaccinated are required to carry a negative RT-PCR report no older than 72 hours, for entry into the country. A lateral flow test will be administered upon arrival and in case of a positive result, the traveller will need to undergo a 14-day quarantine. Those who test negative can travel further without restrictions. 

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  • Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.


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