For most travellers to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the city is little more than a launching pad for day trips to the legendary Angkor Wat and the other enchanting temple complexes of Angkor. Few travellers linger after they’ve explored the archaeological ruins and fewer people visit simply to experience Siem Reap.
We’d heard, however, that there was more to the little city than the Khmer Empire archaeological sites – there were chic shops, a burgeoning art scene, brilliant restaurants, buzzy bars, breezy cafes, and stylish boutique hotels. Of even more interest to us, the place had friendly locals, a lively everyday life, and a cosmopolitan vibe due to the number of Cambodians who’d returned from living abroad and a population of foreigners who had started businesses or worked for NGOs.
Siem Reap warranted a longer stay than the three days most visitors gave it, we were told, so we got a couple of magazine commissions and we got on a plane, and that’s how we ended up in Siem Reap for a week before the wet season began.
While we’d had few expectations as far as Phnom Penh had been concerned, I’d already formed a fairly complex picture of Siem Reap in my head before we arrived. Travellers I’d consulted on social media forums such as Twitter had called it “laidback” and “charming”, likening it to Laos’ Luang Prabang, while others dismissed it as being too touristy and ugly. Asian travel magazines focused on its fashion stores and boutique hotels, while foreign publications concentrated on its archaeological riches.
The lush countryside we surveyed from the plane certainly excited us, as did the long, black, retro Mercedes limousine dating back to the 1960s that the Amansara hotel sent to the airport to collect us. The driver took us the long way to the hotel, via Angkor Wat, to fire us up even more. The moment I got my first glimpse of the walled city I got goose bumps.
The drive in to Siem Reap along Charles de Gaulle Boulevard, which took us by unattractive new apartment blocks, tacky souvenir shops and nondescript hotels aimed firmly at the Asian tour group market, dampened my enthusiasm a little. And a few days later when we left the Amansara to move to Hotel de la Paix, I found the main downtown street – aside from the grand art deco hotel itself – a little depressing even, with its dreadful new architecture and hideous shop signage.
Had we have taken a taxi directly into Siem Reap from the airport and not spent a couple of days scrambling around the temples and connecting with local people, and had I not have learnt an important lesson many years ago, I wonder what my first impressions might have been. But, you see, I had learnt something valuable a long time ago…
I learnt to ignore first impressions and be patient. Because sometimes places take time to discover, sometimes they take a while to reveal themselves. Because generally the road into town, the main street, and the neighbourhood around the train station do not give an indication of the true character of a place. In fact, they generally inspire the reverse, the worst impression.
The beauty of places is often found in the backstreets, in the lanes, and in the alleyways, in pockets of everyday life hidden to visitors – a suburban street that feels like a village, a shady riverside path strolled by neighbours, a quiet spot in a park shared by friends.
Mostly, the loveliness of a place is found in its people. In the friendly greetings, in the smiles of strangers, and in the heartfelt stories. And that’s exactly how it would be with Siem Reap…