History of Siem Reap’s Tourism

From the Very Beginning

In the 13th century, Siem Reap was little more than an expanse of empty countryside but with the first Hindu and then Buddhist mega settlement, it began to boom with the building of hundreds of temples. Many years later, (as shared by Sacchin and Manish in their post of the History of Siem Reap) the École Française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO) began a long association with Angkor as the French became Cambodia’s colonial master in the 19th century. The EFEO funded an expedition into Siam to the Bayon and Siem Reap was still little more than a village when the first French explorers re-discovered Angkor in 1901.

With the acquisition of the Angkor by the French seven years later in 1907, the EFEO cleared and restored the whole site and in the same year, Angkor received its first wave of tourists- an unprecedented 200 people in three months. Siem Reap was the beneficiary of these early waves of tourism as it then began to be developed beyond the huts that previously made up the town. Infrastructure and buildings began to grow with the arrival of tourists, with many French colonial buildings that can still be seen till today. For instance, The Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened its doors in 1929 and with the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap attracted even celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Kennedy.

Then, the Kingdom of Cambodia gained independence from its French protectorate and despite the French pulling out of the country in the 1950s, Siem Reap remained one of Asia’s leading tourism draw. In fact, Cambodia used to be one of the most famous tourist destinations with annual tourist arrivals from 50,000 to 70,000.

However in 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge took over the country and literally drove the entire population of Siem Reap (along with the rest of the population in other cities and towns in Cambodia) into the countryside. Meanwhile, Angkor lay dormant and there was not a single visitor that visited the site as Siem Reap remained off-limits to tourists.

Siem Reap was the scene of heavy fighting that remained sporadic for much of the next decade as the Vietnamese army entered Cambodia in 1979. Decades of civil war, insurgencies, isolation and particularly the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, the tourism industry was almost totally destroyed.

Siem Reap and Cambodia Today

After conflict resolution in the early 1990s and with strong support from the international community, Cambodia returned to peace and socio-economic reconstruction. Cambodia began to stabilise and with a rejuvenated tourist industry, Siem Reap emerged from a long slumber became one of the biggest Cambodian beneficiaries, taking small but important steps to an important journey to recovery. Tourist arrivals have increased dramatically from 1993 to today, with an annual average increase of about 30 percent. Since, Siem Reap has emerged as the fastest growing city in Cambodia and remains a gateway to the famous heritage site of the Angkor temples.

With these attractions serving as its main draw, Siem Reap has managed to transform itself into one of Cambodia’s fastest growing city and into a major tourist hub. In fact, tourism has become one of the most important industries contributing to the overall economic recovery and development of Cambodia, with Tourism is one of the largest contributors to the Cambodian economy after the agriculture and textile industry and is the second largest income generator after the garment industry. For example, tourism generated tourism receipts of US$1.56 billion in 2009 with more than 2 million visitors.

Today, Siem Reap has emerged as a vibrant and exciting city with hotels and modern amenities, and it has pretty much continued to conserve much of its distinctive image, culture, traditions and architecture. In fact, besides its economic advantages, the Cambodian government views tourism as an effective tool to promote the cultural values and identity of Cambodia which had been lost given the excessive external interventions. An example of which is the Angkor temples. While the Angkor temples have always existed, the Khmers have always regarded it as a religious site and never thought of it as a symbol of national pride. Today, Angkor has become the symbol of nationalism and Cambodian identity, with a recent UNESCO/Trip Advisor survey declaring the Angkor as the most recommended World Heritage site.

Tourism Statistics For the Geeks!

If you want to find out more about their tourism statistics such as mode of arrivals, visitor arrivals by country of destination, top 10 arrival markets, average length of stay and hotel occupancy, etc, download Cambodia’s tourism statistics (2010)

View This Documentary on Angkor Wat!

Do spare some time to view this BBC documentary. It is an hour long but is such worthwhile investment in return for a solid education of Angkor Wat and its wonders. I didn’t even know that the water tributaries that lead to the Mekong River will actually reverse in direction for certain months of the year and back up into the Tonle Sap Lake. In fact, the video even shared how the ancient Khmers would even carve the images of gods into the river beds, including lingums (symbolic of the male phallus) to bless the waters.  Such a showcase of their mastery over their craft of stone carving as an act of devotion to their gods. Watch this YouTube documentary on Angkor Wat. After all, the Angkor Wat is so integral to Siem Reap’s tourism, so make sure you watch it!






Chheang, V (2008). “The Political Economy of Tourism in Cambodia”. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, Vol 13 No. 3

Chheang, V (2009). “State and Tourism Planning: A Case Study of Cambodia”. Journal of Tourism, Vol 4 No. 1

Chen, C.Y., Sok, P., Sok, K., (2008). “Evaluating the Competitiveness of the Tourism Industry in Cambodia: Self- assessment from Professionals”. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, Vol. 13. No. 1

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