Angkor 20 years later

I visited Cambodia and the temples of Angkor in the mid to late 90s. I don’t know which exact year – my “timeline” is hazy before it began to be meticulously documented by social media. Any photos I took back then (on actual film and developed the old fashioned way) will be in a box buried deeply in my parents’ shed.

My powers of recall are poor but this trip has brought back some memories of that past visit. I’ve noticed several changes in Siem Reap and the temple complex between then and now.

  • There were no luxury spa hotels in Siem Reap.
  • “Pub street” did not exist.
  • The roads between temples weren’t paved.
  • There was no massive hall for ticket purchases.
  • Gift shops and restaurants at temple sites didn’t exist – I remember a few drinks stalls but that was it.
  • Nobody had heard of Angelina Jolie and Tomb Raider was just a Playstation game.
  • The fancy public toilets in wooden chalets (Bernd is proudly posing at one of these above) definitely weren’t there.
  • A lot of restoration work has obviously occurred at the temples in the past 20 years – they are a lot more accessible and ‘sanitised’ with roped off areas and wooden ramps.
  • The wooden steps and hand rails did not exist when I was here before – I remember a terrifying climb up steep, narrow steps using both my hands and feet.

The level of poverty is a big change. In the 90s I remember tiny malnourished children coming into restaurants to beg for our leftover food – scraping our plates into plastic bags until the owners chased them out. I was in tears several times during that trip because of incidents like that. I didn’t witness anything similar this time.

I can’t comment on the crowds in high season because we’re here in low season and it’s quiet – for several days we only saw one other guest at our hotel. We had the pool completely to ourselves! But I know that in the mid 90s Angkor had 7,500 visitors annually. Now it’s 2.5 million. The high season between Nov and Feb must be absolutely rammed. If anyone reading this wants to visit Cambodia, go in September.

Something that has remained the same is the persistent hawkers, especially children. The kids have become more mercenary though (Bernd prefers to think of them as “more professional”). I remember in the 90s I saw one particular little girl on several days and she would draw pictures for me and call out to me – not for money, just being sweet. Now kids won’t even give you a flower without demanding a dollar. To be fair, they see a lot more tourists now and I’m also a lot more cynical and jaded and less open to friendly interaction with local kids (sad but true).

All in all the changes have been positive (as Bernd says “I like a bit of infrastructure”). I wonder what will have changed in another 20 years? I’d like to see an audio guide containing information about all of the temples included in the pass – the ones they have at the Killing Fields and S21 in Phnom Penh are excellent.

Bernd would like a toilet at every temple (he values convenient ablutions). He was also deeply disappointed by the newly health & safety conscious Ta Prohm and would like to be able to risk his life again clambering over the rubble. He thinks the only signs should be the ones warning of land mines. The one above notifying visitors of a sheer drop off a ledge is superfluous in his view.

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