Thoughts on Tourist Towns: Aguas Calientes and Siem Reap

After reading this post by Michael Hodson over at Go See Write, I got to thinking about tourist towns. Some places get on the tourist map thanks to their proximity to major tourist attractions rather than for their own merits. These places then get slammed with criticism for being ‘tourist towns’ that don’t offer any authentic travel experiences.

After visiting Aguas Calientes in Peru, which sits at the base of the mountain under Machu Picchu, and then Siem Reap in Cambodia, just outside of Angkor Wat, I will ignore the gripes about such places and judge them for myself in the future.

Aguas Calientes

A certain guidebook described Aguas Calientes as ‘the ugliest, most overpriced small town in Peru’. Yes, everything was overpriced there, but it wasn’t so horrible a place to spend a night or two.

This is the ugliest town in Peru? I don’t think so.

The town was nestled into lush forests in the Andes, with a nice river running through the center of town.There were walking promenades. There were talking parrots, kids playing in the street, and flocks of chickens on the loose, including a rooster that read over my shoulder in the park. I’m not saying it was a favourite place, but it wasn’t terrible.

Siem Reap

I was told similar things about Siem Reap: that it was a tourist trap; that there was nothing worth seeing in town; that it was only useful in order to get to Angkor Wat.

Fact: I loved Siem Reap. A lot.

One memorable experience in Siem Reap was touring the craft collective Artisans D’Angkor, a nonprofit project for job training and employment in stonemasonry, carving, silk painting and silk weaving for disadvantaged and differently-abled Cambodians. The arts centre in town was impressive, as was the outdoor silk farm just outside town where we watched the dead silkworms being boiled and strung. A single scarf takes 3 days to weave because the workers still use looms to weave by hand in Cambodia.

photo courtesy of e.t. on flickr

Weavers hard at work at Artisans d’Angkor

It was hard to leave without spending too much in the glorious silk gift shop at the end of the tour.

Other sites Siem Reap has to offer include: the Landmine Museum, the Kampong Phluk Floating Village, the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre, the spas, and the markets.

Plus, there’s the food. So very much of it. I ate my face off along the Alley with platefuls of lok luk beef, chicken stew, palm platter with curry, mango salad, fresh spring rolls, and so much more. For those with non-adventurous palates, there were decent French baguettes around town, plus the greatest milkshake that I have ever had: the Banana Vanilla at the Blue Pumpkin. For those whose watches read beer o’clock, Pub Street is sure to please.

Siem Reap and other tourist towns have become what they are for a reason. Being close to a major tourist attraction, the residents know their main industry will be tourism and they develop their services and infrastructure accordingly. They may not always succeed in pleasing all of their customers, but they are trying to offer tourists a positive visit, with easy access to amenities.

So keep an open mind, would you? That Blue Pumpkin milkshake may not have been authentic Cambodian cuisine, but it was freshly made from scratch and tasty as heck. Who’s to say that sipping that glass of ice cream heaven wasn’t a real travel experience?

What are your thoughts on ‘tourist traps’? Have you ever gone somewhere with low expectations and then been pleasantly surprised by what you found?

One thought on “Thoughts on Tourist Towns: Aguas Calientes and Siem Reap

  1. Pingback: Things I Will and Will Not Miss About Southeast Asia | Same Skies Above

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