Sisophon, Battambang & Angkor Wat received by King Sisowath, 1907
The name "Siem Reap" can be translated to mean "Defeat of Siam" (siem in Khmer), and is commonly taken as a reference to an incident in the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and Khmer kingdoms, although this is probably apocryphal. According to oral tradition, King Ang Chan (1516–1566) had named the town "Siem Reap", meaning "the defeat of Siam", after he repulsed an army sent to invade Cambodia by the Thai King Maha Chakkraphat in 1549. However, scholars such as Michael Vickery consider this derivation to be simply a modern folk etymology, and maintain that while the names Siem Reap and Chenla (old Chinese name for Cambodia) may perhaps be related, the actual origin of the name is unknown.
The traditional tale claims that King Ang Chan of Cambodia tried to assert greater independence from Siam, which was then going through internal struggles. The Siamese King Chairacha had been poisoned by his concubine, Lady Sri Sudachan, who had committed adultery with a commoner, Worawongsathirat, while the king was away leading a campaign against the Kingdom of Chiang Mai. Sudachan then placed her lover on the throne. The Thai nobility lured them outside the city on a royal procession by barge to inspect a newly discovered white elephant. After killing the usurper, along with Sudachan and their newly born daughter, they invited Prince Thianracha to leave the monkhood and assume the throne as King Maha Chakkraphat (1548–1569). With the Thais distracted by their internal problems, King Ang Chan decided the time was right to attack. He seized the Siamese city of Prachin Buri in 1549, sacking the city and making slaves of its inhabitants. Only then did he learn that the succession had been settled and that Maha Chakkkraphat was the new ruler. Ang Chan immediately retreated to Cambodia, taking his captives with him. King Maha Chakkraphat was furious over the unprovoked attack, but Burma had also chosen to invade through the Three Pagodas Pass. The Burmese army posed a much more serious threat, as it captured Kanchanaburi and Suphanburi. It then appeared before Ayutthaya itself.
Nightlife in Siem Reap
The Thai army managed to defeat the Burmese, who quickly retreated through the pass. Maha Chakkraphat's thoughts then turned to Cambodia. Not only had Ang Chan attacked and looted Prachin Buri, turning its people into slaves, but he also refused to give Maha Chakkraphat a white elephant he had requested, rejecting even this token of submission to Siam. Maha Chakkraphat ordered Prince Ong, the governor of Sawankhalok, to lead an expedition to punish Ang Chan and recover the Thai captives. The rival armies met, and Ang Chan killed Prince Ong with a lucky musket shot from elephant back. The leaderless Thai army fled, and Ang Chan allegedly captured more than 10,000 Siamese soldiers. To celebrate his great victory, King Ang Chan supposedly named the battleground "Siem Reap", meaning "the total defeat of Siam".
Pub Street in Siem Reap
In reality, surviving historic sources make this folk tale appear very unlikely, since they date the decline of the Angkor kingdom to more than a century before this, when a military expedition from Ayutthaya captured and sacked Angkor Wat, which began a long period of vassal rule over Cambodia. The 1431 capture coincided with the decline of Angkor, though the reasons behind its abandonment are not clear. They may have included environmental changes and failings in the Khmer infrastructure.
From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, infighting among the Khmer nobility led to periodic intervention and domination by both of Cambodia's more powerful neighbors, Vietnam and Siam. Siem Reap, along with Battambang (Phra Tabong) and Sisophon, major cities in the northwest of Cambodia, was under Siamese administration and the provinces were collectively known as Inner Cambodia from 1795 until 1907, when they were ceded to French Indochina. In fact, during the 18th century, under the rule of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, it was known as Nakhorn Siam (Siam's city), not as "Siam's Defeat".
Re-discovery of Angkor
A part of Sivutha Blvd in the downtown area
Siem Reap was little more than a village when French explorers such as Henri Mouhot "re-discovered" Angkor in the 19th century. However, European visitors had visited the temple ruins much earlier, including António da Madalena in 1586". In 1901, the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO; French School of the Far East) began a long association with Angkor by funding an expedition into Siam to the Bayon. The EFEO took responsibility for clearing and restoring the whole site. In the same year, the first western tourists arrived in Angkor, a total of about 200 in just three months. Angkor had been 'rescued' from the jungle and was assuming its place in the modern world.
Grand Hotel d'Angkor was built in the mid-1920s.
With the acquisition of Angkor by the French in 1907 following a Franco-Siamese treaty, Siem Reap began to grow. The Grand Hotel d'Angkor opened in 1932 and the temples of Angkor became one of Asia's leading draws until the late 1960s. when civil war kept them away. In 1975, the population of Siem Reap, like all other Cambodian cities and towns, was driven into the countryside by the communist Khmer Rouge.
Siem Reap's recent history is coloured by the horror of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Since Pol Pot's death in 1998, however, relative stability and a rejuvenated tourist industry have revived the city and province.
Royal Residence, Siem Reap
Siem Reap now serves as a small gateway town to the world heritage site of Angkor Wat. It is a vibrant town with modern hotels and restaurants, still managing to preserve much of its culture and traditions. Siem Reap ranked fourth in the World's Best Cities of Travel and Leisure survey in 2014.
The Wat and the river
A covered pedestrian bridge over the Siem Reap River, next to the Old Market in Siem Reap
The Town is a cluster of small villages along the Siem Reap River. These villages were originally developed around Buddhist pagodas (Wat) which are almost evenly spaced along the river from Wat Preah En Kau Sei in the north to Wat Phnom Krom in the south, where the Siem Reap River meets the great Tonle Sap Lake.
The main town is concentrated around Sivutha Street and the Psar Chas area (Old Market area) where there are old colonial buildings, shopping and commercial districts. The Wat Bo area is now full of guesthouses and restaurants while the Psar Leu area is often crowded with jewellery and handicraft shops, selling such items as rubies and woodcarving. Other fast developing areas are the airport road and main road to Angkor where a number of large hotels and resorts can be found.
Tourism is a very important aspect of the economy of Siem Reap - it was estimated in 2010 that over 50% of jobs in the town were related to the tourism industry. The city has seen a massive increase in tourist trade in the couple of decades after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, and businesses centered on tourism have flourished due to the tourism boom. Visitor numbers were negligible in the mid-1990s, but by 2004, over half a million foreign visitors had arrived in the Siem Reap province that year, approximately 50% of all foreign tourists in Cambodia. By 2012, tourist number had reached over two million. A large number of hotels have sprung up in the city, these range from 5-star hotels and chic resorts to hundreds of budget guesthouses.
Most tourists in Siem Reap come to visit the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, (about 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) north of the city), and other Angkor ruins. There are many shopping opportunities around the Psar Chas area, and there are also a number of western-styled pubs and bars catering to tourists.
A large number of NGOs and other not-for profits organizations operate in and around Siem Reap, and they play a vital role in the economy, as well as helping to develop it for the future. Thousands of expatriates call the city home and they also have a significant impact on the economy.