Tourism cynicism in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is best known for the Angkor temple complex, where the Khmer kingdom ruled from the ninth to fifteenth centuries. More than 1 million tourists flock to the main temple, Angkor Wat, each year. It’s no surprise then, that Siem Reap feels like a tourist town. Filled with an increasing number of hipster cafes, you can enjoy an organic smoothie before strolling through rows of souvenir shops and boutiques. Later, after perusing one of the many vibrant night markets, head over to Pub Street for late-night entertainment. That is of course, unless you spent a long, sweaty day exploring the temples. In that case, a cheap foot massage is in order. 

Compared to the grit of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap feels a bit contrived. It’s charming, sure, but it’s tourist overload. And not just backpackers—families, honeymooners, and retired couples, too. Colorful neon lights line the tourist areas of the town, creating a walkable complex. Streets are crowded with more resorts and hotels than residences. At the more popular temples, there are often lines of people being hoarded through walkways. If this is the only stop people make in Cambodia, I wonder how much of the local culture they’re really exposed to.

One of the highlights of my time in Siem Reap was attending Phare Circus, the product of a program that trains underprivileged youth in performance art. It’s less of a traditional circus, and more of a theater/acrobatic performance that tells the story of its founder, and the hardships she faced during the Cambodian genocide. It was informative, entertaining, and heartwarming, and their slogan “brightness of the arts” really stuck with me. (Read more about Phare’s mission here.)

Despite my tourism cynicism, Siem Reap makes it easy for tourists to give back during their stay. There are restaurants that employ local youth and give them the skills necessary to participate in the workforce. Many shops source ethical products that are made by human trafficking survivors. Even certain tour groups offer ways to contribute. If you’re planning a trip to Siem Reap, here is a list of places to visit or to enjoy a delicious meal at while helping to make a difference.

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