When Cambodia’s political situation became more stable, in 1998, travelers started pouring into Siem Reap, in the northwest, due to its proximity to Angkor, a complex of magnificent ancient temples, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. An area that in 1993 attracted 7,000 people annually now draws two million. As such, ramshackle Siem Reap morphed into a whistle-stop resort town. Now the city is so overstuffed that one has to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to get to Angkor before the hordes of selfie-stick-wielding tourists infest the place like ants on an anthill (though a good tour operator can get you off the grid). However, scratching beneath the surface shows that in Siem Reap, tourism is actually what has allowed an emerging cultural revolution to take hold. Says photographer John McDermott, known for his black-and-white Angkor photos taken between 2000 and 2001, “The light is different, even if the stones are the same.” While he’s referring to shooting Angkor now versus when he first got to town, his statement somehow best encapsulates the city’s atmosphere today.
Shopping: Three Special Boutiques
Expats are behind some of Siem Reap’s top stores. The couture house of Eric Raisina (75-81 Charles de Gaulle; ericraisina.com) shows off the work of the delightful Madagascar-born fashion designer, who is praised for using silk and raffia (a palm-tree-fiber textile from his homeland) to create stunning featherlight, soft frocks, shirts, scarves, and more. While Raisina is the country’s main style establishment, the flagship is less than two years old. In the Old Market, above Laundry Bar, is Christine’s (29 St. 9; christines-store.com), a newer concept shop with fashionable purses and jewelry curated by Raisina’s former assistant manager Christine Gleizes, a Parisian. And across the street from an Australian coffee shop, The Little Red Fox (order a flat white), is Louise Loubatieres (7 Hup Guan St.; louiseloubatieres.com), a colorful home store named after its British owner. One-of-a-kind lacquered coconut-shell bowls are one of its signature items.
Gallery Watch: Old Modern Art
“There is a gap between the temples and the Cambodian people of today,” says artist and designer Lim Muy Theam, who sells his crafts at Theam’s House (25 Veal Village, Khum Kokchack; theamshouse.com), his workshop and residence, which opened to the public as a gallery in 2011. “We want to show visitors another side of Cambodia—the artistic and cultural part, which is very forgotten.”
Theam was born in Cambodia but relocated to France in 1980 as a child refugee. He returned to Siem Reap 15 years later and started thoughtfully reinventing lost Khmer craft. He now employs 55 artisans to help him create contemporary objects that nod to the past. For example, Theam’s artisans use lacquer, a traditional Khmer medium, to decorate clay elephant sculptures in funky neon colors, and they turn silk, another customary Cambodian material, into scarves with stylish flair. Theam is also the former artistic director of Artisans of Angkor (Chantiers-Ecoles, Stung Thmey St.; artisansdangkor.com), which started in 1992 with a similar mission and now has 48 workshops, 800 artisans, and six shops around the country.
“From my Western point of view, people here do by their feelings,” Theam says. “Energy is the source of our inspiration, and there is a common point of emotion. I started to understand this, and I feel this is the way our new culture can rise.”
Philanthropy: A Night at the Circus
The biggest non-temple attraction in Siem Reap is the Phare, the Cambodian Circus (Lot A, Komay Rd.; pharecambodiancircus.org), a Cirque du Soleil-like event that has been running nightly since 2013. The performers are at-risk Cambodian youths who are transforming their lives through art. The show, set to energetic Cambodian music, mixes theater, dance, and circus acts (acrobatics, juggling, contortion) to tell modern and traditional Cambodian stories. The circus sells out, so book tickets in advance. Reserved seats are available, although not necessary.
Where to Stay: Aman, Still Got It
The last big opening on the town’s hotel scene was in 2013, when the modern Park Hyatt Siem Reap (rooms from $230; Sivutha Blvd.; 85-56/321-1234) replaced the old Hôtel de la Paix on a bustling downtown street. While it’s a good new option, that doesn’t change the fact that the secluded-feeling 24-suite Amansara (rooms from $950; 262 Krom 8, Phum Beong Don Pa; 85-56/376-0333; amanresorts.com), around since 2002, remains Siem Reap’s hotel du jour, thanks in large part to its fabulous general manager, Sally Baughen. Aman junkies say it’s one of the most authentic Amans. Request a pool suite. For years, the historic Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (rooms from $295; 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle, Khum Svay Dang Kum; 85/56-396-3888; raffles.com), which debuted in 1932, was the only hotel game in town. But we say stay at the Aman and save the Raffles for Phnom Penh.
Temple News: Angkor's Tech Invasion
Damian Evans, a personable Australian archaeologist who works for École Française d’Extrême-Orient, a French institute that studies Asian societies, is pioneering using Lidar (aerial laser photography) to map Angkor’s grounds in order to understand how people used the complex from the 9th to the 15th century. While Evans is not for hire per se, tour operators can sometimes persuade him to accompany travelers and their authorized Cambodian guides around the temples.
Photo Credits: Kim Hak; Courtesy Aman