Siem Reap’s Development Remains Unresolved

siem reap – In the shadow of the famed Angkor temples lies Siem Reap town, a sleepy provincial hamlet with a river running through it. But the river is polluted, and the town seems to sprout a new, huge, garish hotel every day.

For more than a year, international advisers have battled the government over competing visions of the town.

The advisers want to preserve Siem Reap as meticulously as they do the temples, restoring the cute, colonial, harmonious character it once had. The government says these aesthetic concerns must be secondary to economic ones—allowing as many Cambodians to make as much money as possible.

Round 1 of this fight ended in a knockout, administered by Prime Minister Hun Sen in December 2001. Flatly rejecting a draft subdecree for the zoning of the town, he said, “I don’t know where these people come from who write such measures. Maybe they plan to develop the moon, which is uninhabited.”

Round 2 has just begun. A new proposal to replace the rejected subdecree has been drafted, but the fate of these recommendations remains uncertain.

Etienne Clement, Unesco country representative, said recently that the new proposal represents a compromise that the government should find palatable. “I am optimistic it will be accepted,” he said. “[Government officials] know now that if the development of Siem Reap is harmonious they will have more income.”

But Clement and other delegates at the July 2 meeting of the International Coordinating Com­mittee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor said government representatives have yet to give any indication, even privately, of the zoning measure’s chances.

“There has been no response,” Japanese Ambassador Gotaro Ogawa, co-chair of the committee, said.

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The new proposal, created with more local input than the rejected draft subdecree, is certainly much milder.

The original subdecree gave the Apsara Authority, the government body that oversees Angkor, broad powers of enforcement, including the ability to demolish buildings—even those that already exist—that violated its provisions.

Nothing could be built closer than 250 meters on either side of National Route 6, which leads from the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport into town. Hotels along this road would have to build regulation-size scenic canals by the side of the road and be at least 300 meters apart.

Some delegates admitted privately that these measures, while they would create an attractive setting, were extreme. Others stood behind them but said that now, with so many hotels already built in the zones that would have been prohibited, it’s too late.

The new proposal is not retroactive, Unesco’s Tamara Teneishvili said, so existing structures are not threatened. “It is very short, very simple,” she said.

The 250-meter rule and the canal requirement along National Route 6 have been eliminated, she said. “Each hotel should do as they want,” she said, adding that there are some restrictions on the buildings’ size.

At the conference, Minister of Cabinet Sok An refused to comment on the proposal, either to the committee or to journalists.

Last week, Apsara head Bun Narith said the draft will be considered “in the coming days,” but that it is not up to him. “It is His Excellency Sok An’s affair,” he said. “It is a political matter; we only work on the technical side.”

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Many committee delegates seem to feel they have basically given up in the matter of Siem Reap town.

“Taking into account the socioeconomic conditions and the fact that the situation has evolved in the last six to seven years, our aim now is to avoid destroying the town of Siem Reap,” Tep Vattho, director of Apsara’s department of urban development, said at the conference. In other words, transforming the town is no longer the goal.

Having acceded to the government on this issue, they have set their sights on two other goals: the cleanup of the Siem Reap river and the proposed hotel and entertainment zone, a largely unoccupied 1,000 hectare site north of Siem Reap town and south of Angkor Wat.

The hotel zone idea has been proposed since 1995, when there were only a few places for tourists to stay in Siem Reap. But political instability made it impossible to implement until recently, Teneishvili said.

The zone’s proposed name has now been changed from “Tourist City” to “The Gates of Angkor.” Access roads connecting it to the town and the temples, built by the French government, are scheduled to be completed next month.

“At first, the plan was to allocate a large space for hotels,” Tep Vattho said. But the situation has changed. “Now we are confronted with a large number of hotels [already] in Siem Reap and along National Route 6, so the authorities decided to use the space as an accommodation and leisure facilities area,” she said.

The idea is to lure tourists with resort-style hotels and sports, entertainment and cultural facilities. Hopefully, these amenities will make visitors stay longer—currently their average stay is only two days, Teneishvili said.

The challenge now is to get the project started. No investor wants to be the first to move into an empty area. The French international development agency has proposed holding an international architectural competition to design a sort of “cultural convention center.”

“This will help develop ‘business tourism,’” Teneishvili said. Regional business workshops and conferences could be held in a deluxe facility combining convention facilities with leisure activities or cultural exhibits.

The architects’ competition would aim to give the site a landmark of modern architecture similar to the Sydney opera house or the glass pyramid in front of Paris’ Louvre museum. The facility would anchor the zone, giving builders a reason to move in.

Teneishvili said Apsara has “a very big friend” who wants to build hotels in the zone.

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As for the river, the proposal calls for relocating the squatters who currently live along its banks and pollute its waters. “We will redesign the banks and clean the bed of the river,” Tep Vattho said. “Sidewalks will be built for visitors to walk surrounded by vegetation.”

The international committee’s dream of a perfectly controlled, charmingly uniform, thoroughly tasteful Siem Reap has perished. Now, focusing on the hotel zone—which is nearly as uninhabited as the moon—and the river, they hope to salvage a couple of key areas.

As Tep Vattho noted in presenting the new proposals, “The [restrictions] are less than before.”

But they are still restrictions. “Siem Reap still needs regulations for development,” Teneishvili said.

The question is whether, having defied international advice once, the government is willing to accept any controls at all when it doesn’t have to.

As Hun Sen memorably noted last year, for decades Cambodia was indiscriminately ravaged by war. ”Uncontrolled development is better than uncontrolled destruction,” the premier said.

 

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