The magnificent temples of Angkor, located on the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia, have remained a mystical and exotic attraction to tourists from all over the world since the ancient city was first discovered by Frenchman Henri Mouhot in 1861.
It was the same appeal that drew me to Angkor when I decided to put aside my annual pilgrimage to the big capital cities of the world in search of a more meaningful holiday experience.
As expected, the architecture of the ancient temples, the immaculate carvings that graced the crumbling interiors and the aura of calm surrounding Angkor were nothing short of awe-inspiring.
But trekking from temple to temple day after day could be tedious. By the fourth day, I was starting to feel a tad overdosed on smiling Apsara and Kampuchean history, and so my guide suggested a visit to the rural Cambodian countryside instead.
Curious children in a Khmer village
Huddled in the back of a tuk-tuk, I caught my first glimpse of true Cambodia, sans the touristy frills designed to cater to visitors who are used to creature comforts.
The town centre of Siem Reap, for example, has a supermarket that sells all kinds of international foods and snacks such as Pop-Tarts, maraschino cherries, pasta sauce and pickled olives. Restaurants serve any kind of cuisine you can think of - Western, Korean, Indian, Mexican.
But riding along the bumpy dirt tracks alongside never-ending stretches of rice fields was a truly different experience.
It was the tail end of the rainy season in Siem Reap, and the countryside presented itself with a refreshing palette of bright pastel colours.
Underneath the canvas of blue skies and the lush greens of the thick Cambodian jungle sprouted tiny villages with curious children, who would stop playing to stare at me in wide-eyed wonder.
Makeshift stalls by the side of the dusty dirt roads sold everything from sugarcane and pineapples to kerosene and coconuts.
Sometimes, I would spot a villager or two fishing from a shallow puddle left behind by the monsoon rain.
"How can there be fish inside?" I asked my guide, who had been my main source of information on Cambodian history, politics and culture since day one of my trip.
I had hired him for only US$20 (S$30.50) a day, the standard fee for government-authorised guides in Cambodia.
As impossible as it seemed, my guide assured me that within the little pools of leftover rainwater were plenty of tiny mudfish. "The fish eggs live in the mud during the hot season," he said. "And when the rain falls, they hatch and come to life."
No bigger than the size of your finger, the fish is puny. But to these villagers who catch them by the dozens and cook them in soup, they are delicious and are a valuable source of protein.
Floating villages along a river leading to Tonle Spa
After slightly more than half an hour coughing up dust and battling it through the dirt roads, I reached the highlight of my countryside adventure: Cambodia's Tonle Sap, meaning Great Lake. It is also the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
You could buy tickets for a boat cruise at US$20 a person for an hour's ride on a self-rigged motorboat and a glimpse into Cambodia's floating village, home to the country's poorest people.
For a city dweller, this was an eye-opening experience.
For many years, Tonle Sap had been a major source of sustenance for the Khmer people, so it was inevitable that many had set up home there. There were floating petrol stations, a floating school and even a floating church.
The lake was also a huge playground for children who seemed to delight in floating on the waters inside large pots, rowing themselves along with makeshift oars made from fallen tree branches. Most of them basked in the attention that the tourists inevitably paid them, and they smiled gamely at every camera that pointed their way.