SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- When people talk about vacation destinations, Cambodia, notorious for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, doesn't often come up in the conversation. But three decades later, this is a country worth considering for a distinctive adventure vacation.
Although Cambodia is still relatively off the beaten path, Siem Reap, the town nearest the iconic temples of Angkor, is quickly becoming tourist savvy. New businesses catering to travelers and renovations to the temples at Angkor are changing the region rapidly, thus visitors interested in a more authentic experience should go before the destination is "discovered."
It can be a pricey trip as airfare is expensive and first-class accommodations can send the total cost into several thousand dollars. But it is also possible to stay in more modest but completely acceptable lodgings for $20 a night and to have decent meals at a nice restaurant for about $5.
If you're traveling on a really tight budget, $1 will get you a bunk for the night in a dorm-style room at some guest houses and may include free Internet access. Also, basic stir-fry can be found at street-side cafes for about $1.50. Many places accept U.S. currency as well as the Cambodian riel.
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Temples and tourists
Siem Reap serves as a starting point for exploring the spectacular ancient temples in the region including Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. (The latter was featured in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.) It costs $20 for a day pass to visit the temples in the main Angkor complex.
Architecture and history buffs may want to spend multiple days on guided tours of the Khmer temples, which were built between the ninth and 13th centuries. More casual tourists may find that one day is enough.
The heat, crowds and vendors can be overwhelming at these temples. However, you may opt for a trip to the less-visited temples about an hour from Siem Reap.
I visited Cambodia on my own for three days before joining a tour group in Bangkok, Thailand. Because of my crammed schedule, I decided to spend one day at the Angkor Complex, one day at Beng Melea -- a more remote temple in the jungle with a $5 entry fee -- and the last day enjoying the shops, local markets and inexpensive massages in Siem Reap.
I hired a driver from my guest house for the day ($15). His knowledge of the temples was rudimentary, but since I was mainly interested in seeing and photographing their most striking aspects, I didn't need much of a history lesson. However, I did see other visitors listening intently as guides explained enigmatic gigantic carved faces and yards of bas relief depicting Hindu mythology.
I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site, taking photos and seeing a variety of temples, often referring to my reference book, Marilia Albanese's The Treasures of Angkor. To my driver's chagrin, I set a punishing pace and we visited five temples in six hours with a one-hour lunch break.
I was worried that my hiking sandals might not be enough protection from poisonous snakes, but my driver assured me that snakes were scarce since they were on the local menu. He added that we might see monkeys, which were protected by law.
Since I visited the temples the same morning I arrived, there was no chance to see the classic shot of Angkor Wat silhouetted at dawn. Instead, we started at Ta Som, a relatively small temple that is not as crowded as many others. Ta Som is famous for one of its entrances, which is wrapped in the roots of a giant sacred fig tree. It has a similar feel to the more popular Ta Prohm but without the crowds and wooden walkways.
Next, my driver suggested I might enjoy the East Mebon, which has some impressive statues of elephants and lions as well as other interesting architectural features. We stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants near the temples and then continued to Ta Prohm, Bayon and finally Angkor Wat.
A market to avoid
My adventure continued the next day with the same driver, who chauffeured me around on a slow-moving tuk tuk, a cart pulled by a motorcycle. I think we reached a top speed of 30 miles per hour in a vehicle that seemed to amplify every bump and dip in the road.
However, the two-hour journey was more productive than a one-hour trip in an air conditioned van because I could take photos as we went and interact with the locals, who would smile, wave or shout "hello" as we passed.
We spent the morning at Beng Melea, set off from the main road by a short walk into the jungle. From online photos I had the impression that it was more remote and overgrown than it was, but it still had less tamed feel than the temples at Angkor.
After a brief lunch at a restaurant across the street, my driver asked me if I wanted to see a floating market. Later, I learned this is a common scam where they take you to the market, charge you an exorbitant fee for the boat rental and then guide you to market stalls owned by their friends, who urge you to purchase overpriced goods.
Unaware, I agreed. When we got to the boat launch, I was told it would cost me $35 for four hours on one of the boats. I tried to bargain for less time and money, but the boat operators wouldn't go below $30. Instead, I left the tuk tuk for a walking break and toured a small fishing village on Tonle Sap Lake called Kompong Khleang.
To thank the local kids for posing for photos, I bought each a mandarin orange from a nearby stall.
After a long day and a bouncy ride back to the guest house, I visited the night market in Siem Reap, which caters to tourists. Almost everyone at the market speaks some English and classic American rock music blares from the bar. I ate at an Indian restaurant and then got a massage for about $6 while relaxing in the open air.
Buying fair-trade goods
I had reserved my last day for touring the local markets and shopping. Given the subsistence-level farming in the town outside of Siem Reap and the obvious poverty in the region, shopping seemed frivolous.
But a new type of boutique has surfaced in Siem Reap as well as other parts of the world. They are fair-trade stores, which cost a little more but their goal is to teach their workers how to make a living and create a sustainable product that meets public demands.
My favorite was Bloom, where seamstresses are taught to make cute, trendy bags from mainly recycled materials such as rice sacks. You can shop from the comfort of your own home online and read more about the initiative at www.bloomcambodia.com.
The local markets were filled with exotic fruit and vegetables, decorative temple offerings, jewelry, cuts of meat and live seafood. Since I wanted to explore the markets on foot, I had to stride purposefully past tuk tuk drivers with a determined expression on my face.
I was as much a novelty to the people in the markets as they were to me since most travelers don't venture so far on their own. I had managed to master one phrase in Khmer, "thank you," which sounds like "ah-koon," and I used it liberally.
That one word earned me many friendly smiles and perhaps some good will.
On my way back to the guest house, where my ride to the airport awaited, I visited some of the upscale art galleries and cafes. You could easily squint and think you had landed in an art community such as Santa Fe. The prices were slightly less than what you'd expect to pay for original artwork in the U.S., but not by much.
Similarly the lavishly appointed cafe charged Starbucks prices for iced coffee and fruit with yogurt. Still, I didn't mind paying a little more to be able to sit on the shady veranda and gaze across the river -- a view that reminded me that I was in a truly exotic setting.