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Siem Reap, reinventing the arteries of Angkor

Cambodia's once-thriving tourist town rises from the ashes of COVID-19

Thanks to massive reconstruction efforts, wide roads and sidewalks now line the Siem Reap River near the town center. (Photo by Tom Vater)

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- For nearly 20 years, the magnificent Angkor monuments in western Cambodia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been a magnet for millions of international travelers. As the tourists poured in, Siem Reap, the town closest to the 1,000-year-old temples, grew haphazardly from a few blocks of French colonial buildings to an urban sprawl of hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping arcades and markets.

With the arrival of COVID-19 and a two-year closure of international airspace, the tourists vanished, hotels, shops and bars closed, and Siem Reap turned into a ghost town. In 2019, 1.6 million people arrived by air. That fell to 240,000 in 2020, and to just 108,000 in 2021. In the first quarter of last year only 4,482 people visited the Angkor ruins, down 99% from the comparable period of 2020.

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