These are the same dusty roads, the same French colonial houses, and the same tree-lined boulevards. The meandering Siem Reap River runs right through it as always, yet in a way this is not the same place I remember from my previous visits. Not too long ago, the city of Siem Reap in Cambodia was the bustling tourist gateway to the ancient ruins of Angkor. It was a lively town with countless bars, restaurants, and hotels awash in visitors—prepandemic, the count was 6 million annually.
After landing here on this cool February morning, I find that this place I know well has turned into a sleepy, small-town version of itself. It’s decidedly prettier, too: The riverside, once host to a largely untended park, is now a picturesque promenade with colorful art displays, mini plazas, and public exercise areas. On its streets, two-, three-, and four-wheeled vehicles buzz by at less frequent intervals. And there are hardly any tourists in sight. I travel often to this city—at least once a year from my Singapore base—and have seen it grow from a laid-back haven of bicycles and backpackers (c. 2003) to a tourist party town merely a decade later. By 2019 it had all but succumbed to mass tourism, its ancient ruins frequently crowded by hordes of noisy, selfie-stick-toting tour groups. Like everywhere else, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the pause button on this tourist magnet, sending it into a state of limbo.