Pattaya versus Siem Reap – same same but different

Siem Reap’s most famous tourist street is still quiet most nights.

As both Thailand and Cambodia struggle out of the Covid pandemic, their most famous tourist venues have a lot in common. Both Pattaya and Siem Reap still have fewer international visitors than anticipated, a reflection on the continued absence of Chinese tour groups and spiraling air fares from long distance destinations in northern Europe. Both are still undergoing massive reconstruction as central areas are demolished to create five star hotels and posh villa estates. Whilst Pattaya marketing relies on beaches and a raunchy reputation, Siem Reap’s crowd-puller Angkor Wat boasts the largest temple complex in ruins anywhere in the world.

Tea Seilia, the provincial governor of Siem Reap, is confident about the future. He points out that an infrastructure project worthy US$150 million has transformed local roads from potholes to thoroughfares, whilst the ban on coaches in the town center has avoided the traffic snarls which again threaten Pattaya. Next year, a new international airport 50 miles from Siem Reap will transform international connections with direct flights from India, Europe and further afield which currently terminate in Bangkok.

John O’Leary, a British expat settled in Siem Reap, explains that living costs are much lower than in Pattaya. His monthly household electricity bill is under US$30 and cold lager is still available for 50 cents or 20 baht. “Supermarket prices are similar to Pattaya’s, but cigarettes, booze, many food items and accommodation are all cheaper,” he says. Funky Backpackers, in the popular tourist are of Sok San Road, offers accommodation for between US$4 and US$18 a night, with the promise of further discounts if you spend money in the bar.

Another building is demolished to make way for luxury dwellings in Siem Reap.

Siem Reap night life is tamer than Pattaya. Police captain Eng Seang said, “Visitors don’t come to Siem Reap for sexy girl shows and, if they do, they won’t find them. In other words, commercial sex is not on public display. We did notice a massage parlor with a notice reading, “No sex downstairs”, but were assured that upstairs was only for family accommodation. The gay scene centers around the Barcode which hosts the professional drag shows found in umpteen Pattaya clubs.

But the most obvious difference is cannabis for sale. Whilst Siem Reap’s tuk-tuk drivers offer the weed for sale in secretive tones, Pattaya is practically awash with venues offering marijuana for leisure consumption as well as for medical purposes or as a food and drink additive. The point is not lost on many Cambodian entrepreneurs. “The word is out that recreational pot is legal in Thailand, so many young European tourists are giving Siem Reap a miss this year,” says a manager at the Temple music bar. “Legalization is just a matter of time here too.”