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Siem Reap is a city that started slowly, but has flourished in recent years as the gateway to the Temples of Angkor. And while many travel to South East Asia and rely on tour guides on the ground to provide historical context, there is something to be said about traveling with a knowledge of your destination before you arrive. history of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

You understand your destination on a much more intimate level than other tourists who plan on only half listening to their guide. You have a greater appreciation of the culture, people and place, and can let your hands explore the stone relics of ancient civilizations knowing exactly what it took to carve and chisel these wonders of the world. Interesting facts about Angkor Wat

The following is a brief history of Siem Reap (the gateway to Ankor) to provide historical context before your trip. Facts about Siem Reap Cambodia

Before Angkor

There is some evidence that the area around Siem Reap was occupied as far back as 1000 BC, with inhabitants living in much the same way as local villagers in modern Cambodia. History of Cambodia facts

The Angkorian Period

Between the 9th and 13th Centuries, the city of Angkor flourished and became one of the greatest cities in the world at the time, with an estimated million residents. Timeline of Cambodia’s history

Siem Reap, however, just 25 kilometres away, remained a small village and was still that way in 1860 when Henri Mahout visited Angkor, subsequently popularising this ancient site in the West. Facts about Siem Reap

A French Colony

In the late 1800s, the French signed a treaty with Siam and Cambodia became a French protectorate. In 1907, the French began to restore the temples and promote tourism to the archeological site at Angkor, which received about 200 visitors in the first three months of its opening. This also marked the official settlement of Siem Reap, and the French began building work in the small town. Things to know about the history of Cambodia

As tourist numbers to the temples at Angkor rose, so did visitors to Siem Reap, as this was the only place for visitors to stay on a trip to the temples. In 1929 the Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened and still exists, now under the Raffles brand.

In the 1950s and 60s, the temples of Angkor were one of Asia’s biggest drawcards and Siem Reap started to develop as the gateway city. In the late 1960’s the civil war all but stopped tourism to the temples and Siem Reaps slow growth also ceased. Cambodia timeline. Facts about Siem Reap

The Khmer Rouge Regime

Tourism ground to a halt when the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot took over in 1975, and drove the inhabitants of Siem Reap out to the countryside, as they did throughout Cambodia. Much of the town was destroyed during this period, but the shophouses in the old market and some of the colonial villas survived, along with the Grand Hotel D’Angkor.

The Vietnamese reinstated the city, but it was not until after Pol Pot’s death in 1998 that many residents returned, and with the returned stability the tourism industry began again to thrive and grow Siem Reap.

A Modern City Springs to Life

Cambodia started to grow economically and was back on the tourist map. Half of all visitors to Cambodia visit the temples of Angkor, with almost all of them staying in Siem Reap, making it one of the fastest growing cities in Cambodia. No longer a small village, it has flourished into a vibrant modern city, full of restaurants and bars, and a new breed of luxurious boutique hotel popping up all over town. Interesting things to know about Siem Reap

Not just a stopover on the way to temples, Siem Reap boasts a dining scene described as “lively and varied” by the New York Times, stylish hotels, and a flourishing arts community with designers and performers combining traditional arts with modern expression. History of Angkor Wat.

In 2006, an airport was built and these days, nearly 3 million passengers pass through it every year. Despite the fast growth in recent years, it has managed to maintain much of its culture, with the Old Qaurter retaining many colonial-style buildings. Interesting things to know about Cambodia

Siem Reap was voted the 4th best city in the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine in 2014. History of Cambodia and Siem Reap

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Megan is an Australian Journalist who has been travelling and blogging since 2007, with the main aim of inspiring others to embark on their own worldwide adventure. Her husband Mike is an American travel photographer, and together they have made the world their home.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

Follow their journey on Facebook, TwitterYouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.

Photo credits: Featured and Pinterest image by Staffan Scherz. Images of Temples of Angkor provided by Cambodia travel experts Insider Journeys.


  1. Absolutely fell in love with the city and of course the amazing temples. One thing I’d add as a must do is the Phare Circus. They use art to help homeless/orphaned children to develop skills to produce this magnificent production, showing how they survived the Khmer Rouge era.

    It will bring a tear to your eye and for us, was THE highlight of Cambodia.

    • Thanks for the tip on Phare Circus Stefan – I’ll have to make sure we visit the next time we’re in South East Asia. Sounds like an incredible production.

  2. I loved Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples. I’m with you that knowing the history of a place enriches the experience far beyond that of a guided tour. My desire to visit Cambodia came from wanting to see the temples, but also after reading the emotional In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree by Vaddey Ratner I was so interested in learning more about Cambodia’s past.

    • Happy to hear you enjoyed your time in Siem Reap and the Temples Jackie. I haven’t actually read “In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree” so I’ll have to add that to my reading list for 2016. I’m fascinated by the history of Cambodia so thankyou for the book recommendation.

  3. With 3 million passengers, it’s hard to believe it still holds its culture. I fear that if I don’t visit soon, I will miss some of that.

    • I hope you do have the chance to visit soon Lesley – I do agree that mass tourism has a way of diluting the culture of a destination, so I’m hoping that Cambodia can retain as much as possible in the wake of increasing interest in their country.

  4. Such an interesting post. I’ve always wanted to visit the temples and was hoping to do that later this year and though I did know about the effects of the Khmer regime on the area, I was not aware of the history before that time. It’s always nice to know the history, or be at least a little familiar with the history of a place- it gives invaluable context to the observation of daily life there.

    • Thanks Natasha – I’m glad that you had the chance to read a brief overview of the history before traveling later in the year. I’ve found it really does offer a much more immersive experience when you’re already familiar with the destination you’re visiting. That context is everything.

  5. I did not know it was voted 4th best city in the world back in 2014, but I do know that I would love to visit Cambodia and hoping to get there after a birthday trip to Croatia in May.

    • I hope you have the chance to visit too Melody :) Happy travels!

  6. Thanks for sharing, I don’t know too much about the area and love learning more and more about Southeast Asia. I won’t make it to Cambodia but my first trip to the area will be later this year.

    • You’re welcome Megan – glad you enjoyed the post. Enjoy your time in South East Asia. perhaps Cambodia for 2017 :)

  7. It is quite amazing how far Siem Reap has bounced back from all the damage from the years of the Khmer Rouge. I’d love to visit all those beautiful temples and try all the fantastic food that Cambodia has to offer.

    • I hope you have the chance to soon Brenda – it really is amazing how full circle they country has come.

  8. I loved Siem Reap. i’ve been there twice and on both occassions I learned something new. I bought one of their history books and after reading it, it inspired me to go hack and see it in a different light. I agree, knowing the historu of something makes it more speical when you tour the place.

    • Happy to hear it Karla! And I’m glad you returned the second time after having read more about the history. It really does mean you see a destination through different eyes.

  9. I’ve been here when it wasn’t very touristic yet, when there was no internet and you couldn’t pay electrically. we brought dollars from home which we carried all around Thailand for a month, before arriving here. Although I loved it, I wouldn’t return here because I’m afraid that it’s gotten too big – however never say never!

    • I can totally understand not wanting to return to preserve the memory of the place as it was before tourism took off. I’m sure it’s a very different place now to what it was when you were there. I do think that this is one of those places though that will stay quite special and stand the test of time :)

  10. Reads like a perfect marriage of old and new. Completely drawn by the excitement of the food and the solace of the temples.

    • I hope you have the chance to visit soon :)

  11. I went to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat a year ago and loved the area. Definitely worth spending several days there. Thanks for all of the info.

    • Happy to hear you enjoyed your time there Dan – it really is such a special place :)

  12. Siem Reap is on my bucket list so this gives us some fabulous background knowledge. I agree getting to know the history of a place really adds to the cultural experience, and should be an integral part of the whole travel experience to a place. (Found you on yTravel blog Pinterest links)

    • Thanks for stopping by Jo! Glad we could set you up with some background knowledge before your trip. You’ll have a fabulous time, Siem Reap is a wonderful destination :)

      Happy travels!

  13. Loved your brief history, thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Maddie! Glad the post was insightful for you :)

  14. Angkor is stunning. Been there and loved it :)

    • Agreed! Glad you enjoyed your trip :)

  15. Great article as always Meg.

    For a ‘similar’ Asian destination with a focus on temples and history (Buddhism / Hindu), check out the ancient Yogyakarta (Jogjakarta) city in Indonesia. Located in Central Java, it has the world’s largest Buddhist temple, the Borobudur.

    Borobudur Temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most-visited tourist attraction in Indonesia (by both locals and international tourists).

    • Thank Shelly, so glad you enjoyed the post :) I’ve heard a lot about Yogyakarta and it’s definitely on my list for when we get to Indonesia next. The photos I’ve seen of Borobudur look just breathtaking!

      Thanks for the tip!

  16. Siem Reap was wonderful but the story of the real Tomb Raiders is appalling. Read it in ‘Turning Left Around the World’.

    • Thanks for the heads up David, I’ll have to read into it.

  17. Maybe a bit touristy now. Try to look at other temples besides Angkor Wat Phnom Penh is worth a visit too.

    • Great tip Ian … sad how the experience of incredible sites like this is ruined by mass tourism. But by the same token, I’m a tourist too so can’t really complain!!

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