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History of Siem Reap

History of Siem Reap

The name Siem Reap translates literally to the 'Defeat of “Siam” today’s Thailand and refers to the centuries-old conflict between the Siamese and Khmer peoples. Under the rule of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 18th century, it was referred to as Nakhom Siam.
According to oral tradition, the name was given by King Ang Chan (1516–1566) as “Siem Reap”, meaning “the flat defeat of Siam” (Cambodians call Siam or Thailand “Siem”). It was because of Ang Chan's victory against a Siamese invasion, slaying Prince Ong, and capturing no less than 10,000 Siamese troops.

Siem Reap City

The story was told that King Ang Chan of Cambodia tried to assert further independence from Siam. The Siamese also had been through internal trouble themselves during these years. King Chairacha was poisoned by his concubine, Lady Sri Sudachan, who committed adultery with a commoner, Worawongsathirat, while he was on a campaign against Chiang Mai. Sudachan then raised Worawongsathirat to the throne. The nobles hated Worawongsathirat and lured the usurper and his family to a place outside the city where he was assassinated, together with Sudachan and a new-born daughter, during the royal family's procession by barge to see a white elephant (allegedly just captured). The nobles then invited Prince Thianracha, who was a monk in a monastery, to give up that role and ascend the throne under the title of King Maha Chakkraphat (1548–1569). Being informed of the internal troubles in Ayutthaya, King Ang Chan attacked Prachin Buri in 1549 and successfully took away its Siamese inhabitants. There he obtained information that of Maha Chakkraphat's coronation, signaling that the question of succession in Ayutthaya had thus been settled. Ang Chan therefore retreated and did not advance any further. King Maha Chakkraphat was very angry at this, but his hands were tied, because the Burmese had just come by way of the Three Pagodas Pass; they took Kanchanaburi and Suphanburi, and appeared in front of Ayutthaya.
Because King Ang Chan refused to give King Maha Chakkraphat a white elephant when he asked for it, it is indicated that Ang Chan declined any symbol of vassalage to Siam. Maha Chakkraphat's attention was now turned towards Cambodia. He put Prince Ong, the governor of Sawankhalok and Srey’s son, in charge of an expedition against Cambodia. Ang Chan counter-attacked, and shot Prince Ong dead on an elephant’s back, and his army routed the Siamese and captured no less than 10,000 Siamese troops. It was because of this victory over Siamese that King Ang Chan renamed the battleground as “Siem Reap” meaning “the flat defeat of Siam”.

However, most sources indicate the decline of Angkor more than a century prior, when an Ayutthaya military expedition captured and sacked Angkor Wat in 1431, initiating a period of vassal rule there. This event coincided with the decline of the city, though there is not a full understanding of the reasons behind the abandonment of Angkor Wat, which may have included changes in the environment and failings of infrastructure.
From the sixteenth through to the nineteenth centuries, the feuds among the Khmer lords caused the interventions and domination from their more powerful neighbors: Vietnam and Siam. Siem Reap, along with Battambang (Phra Tabong) and Sisophon, major cities in the north western part of Cambodia, were under Siamese administration known as Inner Cambodia from 1795 till 1907 when the province was ceded to French Indochina.
In 1901 the Ecole franchaise d’s Extreme-Orient (EFEO; French School of the Far East) began a long association with Angkor by funding an expedition into Siam to the Bayon. The EFEO took responsibility for clearing and restoring the whole site, when the Angkor ruins were rediscovered. In the same year, the first tourists arrived in Angkor – an unprecedented 200 of them in three months. Angkor had been 'rescued' from the jungle and was assuming its place in the modern world.

Siem Reap was little more than a village when the first French explorers re-discovered Angkor in the 19th century. With the acquisition of Angkor by the French in 1907 due to the Franco-Siamese agreement, Siem Reap began to grow, absorbing the first wave of tourists. The Grand Hotel d'Angkor opened its doors in 1929 and the temples of Angkor remained one of Asia's leading draws until the late 1960s, luring visitors like Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Kennedy. In 1975, the population of Siem Reap, along with that of the rest of the cities and towns in Cambodia, was evacuated by the communist Khmer Rouge and driven into the countryside.

Khmer Rouge Killed the PeoplesAs with the rest of the country, Siem Reap's history (and the memories of its people) is coloured by the spectre of the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime, though since Pol Pot's death in 1998, relative stability and a rejuvenated tourist industry have been important steps in an important, if tentative, journey forward to recovery. With the advent of war, Siem Reap entered a long slumber from which it only began to awake in the mid-1990s.
Today, Siem Reap serves as a small gateway town to the world famous heritage site of the Angkor temples. Thanks to those attractions, Siem Reap has transformed itself into a major tourist hub. Siem Reap nowadays is a vibrant town with modern hotels and architectural styles. Despite international influences, Siem Reap and its people have conserved much of the town's image, culture and traditions.

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