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Cambodia was largely out of bounds to tourists until recently, but now, areas that were unsafe because of Khmer Rouge guerrillas and bandit groups have been returned to the control of the Cambodian army, and virtually the whole of the country has become accessible. For many travellers, lured by the prospect of little explored and unspoilt regions, Cambodia has become a top destination on Southeast Asia's otherwise well-trodden tourist trail.

The Kingdom of Cambodia, with a population of ten million, occupies a modest wedge of land, almost completely hemmed in by its neighbours, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Its glory days began in the early ninth century, when the rival Indian-influenced Chenla kingdoms united under King Jayavarman II to form the Khmer Empire , a powerful and visionary dynasty, which, at its peak, stretched from Vietnam in the east, to China in the north and Burma in the west. Recent history has been less kind to the country. French colonization was followed by an extended period of turbulence and instability, culminating in the devastating Kampuchean holocaust instigated by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in 1975. The brutal regime lasted four years before invading Vietnamese forces reached the capital in 1979 and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and his supporters fled to the jungle bordering Thailand, from where they continued to wage war on successive governments in Phnom Penh. Pol Pot's death in 1998 finally signalled the demise of the Khmer Rouge, and their subsequent surrender has given Cambodia a real chance for peace for the first time in thirty years. There are indeed many signs that Cambodia is at last shaking off the shadows of its past and looking to the future with a cautious confidence. International investors are beginning to back business ventures, there is increasing evidence of development and modernization in urban areas and foreign aid is flowing in.

Most visitors to Cambodia head for the stunning Angkor ruins, a collection of over one hundred temples dating back to the ninth century. Once the seat of power of the Khmer Empire, Angkor is royal extravagance on a grand scale, its imposing features enhanced by the dramatic setting of lush jungle greenery and verdant fields. The complex is acknowledged as the most exquisite example of ancient architecture in Southeast Asia, and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The flat, sprawling capital of Phnom Penh is also an alluring attraction in its own right. Wide, sweeping boulevards, and elegant, if neglected, French colonial-style facades lend the city a romantic appeal. However, there's also stark evidence of great poverty, a reminder that you're visiting one of the world's poorest countries.

Those enterprising travellers who look beyond the standard itinerary of Angkor and Phnom Penh will be rewarded with a rich variety of experiences. Miles of unspoilt beaches and remote islands offer sandy seclusion along the southern coastline . Although Sihanoukville is the main port of call, it's easy enough to commandeer transport to nearby hidden coves and offshore islands, with only the odd fisherman or smuggler to interrupt your solitude. Ratanakiri province in the northeastern corner of the country, with its hilltribes and volcanic scenery, is also becoming increasingly popular with visitors. Neighbouring Mondolkiri is less well known, but equally impressive, offering dramatic alpinesque woodlands, villages and mountains. In the central plains, Battambang , Cambodia's second city, is a sleepy provincial capital, and the gateway to the old Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin .

Getting to Cambodia's attractions can be half the fun. "Infrastructure" is not a word well known to the locals and travel outside the main tourist routes can be slow and punishing, facilities less than luxurious.

Cambodia's monsoon climate creates two distinct seasons. The southwesterly monsoon from May to October brings heavy rain, humidity and strong winds, while the northeasterly monsoon from November to April produces dry, hot weather, with average temperatures rising from 25AC in November to around 32AC in April. The best months to visit are December and January, as it's dry and relatively cool, though Angkor is at its most stunning during the lush rainy season.


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