Fantasy Trips

A twelfth-century church in Lalibela, Ehtiopia.Photo: Jehad NGA/The New York Times/Redux

Siem Reap, Cambodia
Temple trek in the jungle, without crowds.

Hours From New York: 29

The tour buses are thicker than the mosquito clouds around Angkor, so travel northeast on the rutted and occasionally flooded dirt road into the Cambodian jungle, where you can see a real, Tomb Raider–style scene: the mossy, mysterious ruins of Beng Mealea, a twelfth-century temple encircled by a brambly moat fringed with swamp grass. Khmer historian Lawrence Palmer Briggs considers it the model for Angkor Wat, though the architecture is now barely recognizable: A giant sponge tree has taken root inside one wall, and the massive, draping roots of banyan trees have invaded the ruins. Vines and other jungle vegetation snake across the windows and inner sanctuary—carpeted with foliage and rubble that are dappled with light filtering through the forest canopy. It’s an unstable climb through the temple over fractured boulders, but ramps in the center—remainders of the 2004 filming of Two Brothers—bridge the toughest parts. The dark, vaulted inner chambers, supported by stone pillars, remain largely intact. Overshadowed by the Angkor complex, Beng Mealea is relatively unknown, but that may change now that the surrounding area has been cleared of land mines—so get there before the buses do. Exotissimo runs customizable trekking/biking tours in Angkor and Phnom Penh and around Tonle Sap Lake, from Angkor Wat to Sihanoukville (; 415-538-8687; a five-day trip in Siem Reap is $328 per person).

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Track a wild rhino. Petting included.

Hours From New York: 19

Spending your safari in the safety of a Land Rover is nice but relatively predictable. A rhino safari, however, lets you actually meet an animal. During the four-day, three-night experience at Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, you’ll help a rhino specialist and a veterinarian track and dart these one-to-two-ton animals so they can be tagged for future research. After you stalk the untagged beasts—first from a truck, then on foot—the vet goes in for the shot. When the rhino—which is about the size of a Mini Cooper—is safely unconscious, you get your up-close-and-personal moment: You drill a tiny hole in the massive horn, where the ranger will insert a microchip for tracking, then cut notches in its tough, leathery ear so it can be identified by sight. You should stroke its nose—it is incredibly soft, an odd counterpoint to the gigantic, terrifying horn. While you’re doing that, rangers are measuring the animal, taking blood, and recording other vitals. It’s all over and done in fifteen minutes. The rhino stays under until a reversal drug is administered, which takes effect in one minute, so take your pictures and get back in the jeep, pronto. For game viewing right outside your door, book room six at Vlei Lodge, where elephants routinely drink out of the plunge pool (safari is about $1,975 per person; accommodations from $338 per person per night;

Go back to biblical times, by airplane.

Hours From New York: 16

After years of war and famine, life has returned to relative peace in remote Ethiopia. Fly to Heathrow, and pick up a connection there to Ethiopian Airlines for the flight to Addis Ababa. The oldest independent country in Africa, and second-oldest Christian country in the world, is packed with amazing, infrequently explored sights. Go now, and you will have them virtually to yourself. Follow the Historic Route. Don’t even think of driving; take Ethiopian Airlines, which connects to each city daily. Start at Lake Tana, the headwaters of the Blue Nile, its islands dotted with 29 colorful, still-operating fourteenth-century churches and monasteries. Tour the complex of castles in Gondar that look as though they were airlifted from medieval Europe. In Lalibela, a labyrinth of twelfth-century churches hewn out of bedrock rivals Petra for architectural drama. In the ancient capital of Axum, see the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace (circa 1000 B.C.) and visit the church that, according to Ethiopian Christians, houses the original Ark of the Covenant (don’t expect to see it, though; only one monk has that privilege). In the Historic Route cities, book rooms at the government-run Ghion Hotels, which vary in quality but are the best available (ask for a lakefront room at Lake Tana). Be sure to try the local favorite, doro wat, a spicy chicken stew that you scoop up with a spongy sour pancake called injera. At the end, treat yourself to a bit of modern-day luxury at the Sheraton Addis (from $276;, complete with a vast swimming pool, lush gardens, and great Western-style restaurants; it consistently ranks as one of the best hotels in Africa.

Brazil's Iguacu Falls, bordering Iguazu, Argentina.Photo:

Harbin, China
Skip the Forbidden Palace for a neon-lit ice palace.

Hours From New York: 15
TYPE OF VACATION: Family Friendly

The temperatures around Harbin, about an hour and a half north of Beijing by plane, are subzero for most of the winter, making it the perfect location either for mass depression or a psychedelic frozen compound that looks as if it was created by Las Vegas ice carvers. There are two parts: the Snow Sculpture Art Fair, with its mammoth, almost Constructivist alabaster-white sculptures, and the flashy, neon-lit Ice and Snow World, where you’ll see achievements like Beijing’s Summer Palace re-created in ice, with a built-in slide. It’s dramatic during the day but spectacular at night, when the whole area is illuminated by a breathtaking spectrum of reds, blues, yellows, pinks, greens, and oranges. A fireworks display pushes the drama over the top. Pile on the fleece and get there in the early afternoon to see it all by daylight; pass the time ice fishing, or slipping down an ice slide, until the nighttime display. Book a room for the night in the north wing (it’s newer) of the massive Songhuajiang Gloria Inn (from $40; Back in Beijing, thaw out in a Diplomat Deluxe Room at the St. Regis (from $200;, and make sure you stop by Din Tai Fung’s sleek, modern dining room for Beijing’s best dumplings ( If you can stand more outdoor activity, make a trip to the Ghost Market, outside the Second Ring Road, where merchants sell everything from cricket cages to what they will tell you are Ming-dynasty ceramics.

Puerto Iguazú, Argentina
Go into the jungle, and get off the grid.

Hours From New York: 13

Leave your converter at home because you won’t find any electrical outlets at Yacutinga Lodge, an eco-resort in the middle of nowhere, Argentina. Hop the 90-minute flight from Buenos Aires to Iguazú Falls, where a guide will pick you up for the two-hour ride deep into the dense jungle of the Misiones Forest. Over the next five days, you’ll see 2,000 kinds of plants but no phones, no TVs, and no lights after 11 p.m. (that’s when the electricity goes off). Take advantage of the early nights, because that 6 a.m. knock on your private forest bungalow is your guides Gustavo and Corino, fetching you for a morning nature stroll to catch glimpses of rare plants and birds (spotted tinamous, yellow-headed caracaras), and bugs, snakes, and iguanas. The lodge takes care of all meals (the parilla barbecue is a highlight) and activities, from tropical-butterfly watching to river boating and tree planting to sense-heightening night hikes that teach you to explore by sound and touch rather than sight. Yes, that’s Brazil across the river. Yes, the mangos were cut that morning. And no, you can’t use the lodge computer to check your e-mail (about $1,224 for six days and five nights;

Fantasy Trips