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Globe trotting: Cambodia

When I first went to Cambodia the journey from the capital Phnom Penh to the temples of Angkor was a 12-hour minibus ride from hell.

The temples of Angkor have Unesco World Heritage Status and make up the largest religious monument on earth. Photograph: Kushch Dmitry/Shutterstock
The temples of Angkor have Unesco World Heritage Status and make up the largest religious monument on earth. Photograph: Kushch Dmitry/Shutterstock

That was 20 years ago - a time when friends might look at you as if you'd taken leave of your senses venturing forth to a land etched in their minds with images of one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields hardly seemed the stuff likely to inspire you to load up the rucksack and go explore.

When peace came to a land nestling between Thailand and Vietnam in 1991, the backpackers arrived, but in doing so trod an uninspired path, no doubt deterred by the ordnance dumped by the Americans following raids across the border.

Many followed in the footsteps of Sean Flynn, son of the acting legend Errol and a war photographer, who covered the rise of the Khmer Rouge - the group that would later become his captors. Flynn disappeared in April 1970 at the age of 28 and was declared legally dead 14 years later.

Cambodia today has been transformed. That's largely down to vastly improved infrastructure and a growing - and often impressive - choice of places to stay rather than wholesale concessions to modern-day travel. A country that once demanded a considerable effort from visitors is now a much less onerous proposition and it has, in the process of change, become a destination that rewards the inquisitive and those who still like to feel they are exploring paths untouched by mass tourism. Like other corners of the country, Phnom Penh has much to reward the visitor.

One of the best ways to get to grips with the city is by exploring its network of back streets where daily life continues much as it has for decades: artisan craftsmen ply their trades in shop fronts that cascade on to busy pavements; tuk-tuks jostle for road space with mopeds, and street hawkers concoct authentic Khmer dishes.

Like other cities in south-east Asia, one of the joys of Phnom Penh is sitting in a pavement cafe with a coffee (grown in the Mondulkiri province; sweet and strong) and fresh croissant (the French influence remains) and watching life unfold.

It is here the Tonle Sap (the largest fresh-water lake in south-east Asia) converges with the Mekong River and infuses the city with a neverending sense of activity.

This is a city where monuments such as the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda with its 5000 silver floor tiles coexist alongside the scars of recent history. The decision to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the extermination camp at Choeung Ek (tagged "the killing fields") is a personal one but if you want to understand Cambodia then these are two sites it's hard to ignore.

The road into the centre of Siem Reap in the north west is the gateway to the temples of Angkor and lined with hotels.

At the height of the Khmer Empire, Angkor was the largest pre-industrialised city in the world. It was home to a million people and 1000 temples. Today it is the largest single religious monument on the planet with beautifully preserved treasures and Unesco World Heritage Site status.

With all of this comes mass tourism but with research there are fabulous (and authentic) places to stay, while finding a crowd-avoiding guide will be well rewarded.

The town of Kep is often referred to as Kep-sur-Mer. A favoured haunt of the Cambodian elite in the 1950s, it suffered greatly during fighting between the Khmer Rouge and forces loyal to the government.

To the south of Siem Reap it is a more interesting option than Sihanoukville, to which most travellers in search of beach life head. The latter is touristy whereas Kep has a charm rarely found on Asia's coastline.

The Kep you see today bears the hallmarks of enterprising expats who have begun to rebuild and remodel the town.

It is a mesmerising place and one can't help but wish that it is left as it is; the original architecture that remains is still pleasing on the eye and the scars of battle almost add to its impact. The wood shack restaurants serve some of the finest seafood in Asia, and hotels have been created or restored with considerable flare.

There is a colonial elegance and solitude to Kep that is intoxicating. Like much of this country, today it has an infectious optimism.

TRAVEL NOTES

Selective Asia (01273 670001; www.selectiveasia.com) offers a 12-day Cambodia In Style trip from £1079 per person based on two people travelling and arranged on a tailor-made basis with private arrangements throughout. Flights are not included and cost from around £870 via Kuala Lumpur. Cambodia can also be easily combined with other countries in the region such as Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

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