Two decades ago, the great ruined temple complex at Angkor in central Cambodia was an uncrowded dream destination. But as the country emerged from decades of poverty and suffering, mass tourism arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. With it came sightseers by the busload and the transformation of the hamlet of Siem Reap at Angkor's threshold — an amiable but ballooning tourist trap with a new international airport, a branch of the Cambodian national museum, a trendy restaurant row and an abundance of hotels, including high-enders Raffles and Sofitel.
If the speed of transformation is any indication, 2011 is the time to visit the diminutive Southeast Asian country lodged between Thailand and Vietnam, not just to take advantage of Siem Reap's amenities but to go beyond Angkor to wonders still lost in the Cambodian jungle.
There are, for example, vestiges of the Khmer Empire as remarkable as Angkor all around Cambodia, including an older group of temples in the Sambor Prei Kuk area; Koh Ker, northeast of Siem Reap, opened to visitors since land mines, laid during the civil wars, were removed; and majestic Preah Vihear, on a mountaintop in the north where, until recently, Thai and Cambodian troops were engaged in a border skirmish.
The once-inaccessible Cambodian countryside, with its lime-green rice paddies, jungly mountains, swollen lakes and rushing rivers, increasingly is opening, thanks to adventure travel agencies that take visitors there by horse, motorcycle and helicopter. Guests at 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, a new eco-resort on the Tatai River in western Cambodia, get the chance to spot secretive rhinos and elephants in the wild, while boat trips up the great Mekong River cruise through the habitat of the rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin on their way to the friendly Laotian border town of Chhlong.
Nonprofit organizations abound, seeking volunteers to work in Cambodia (http://www.goabroad.com, http://www.journeys-within.com and http://www.cambodianlivingarts.org) — a great way to take part in the country's cultural and economic resurgence.