Beyond temples on Cambodia tour

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The private beach at the Independence Hotel.The vast majority of visitors to Cambodia, no surprise, come to gasp at the temples of Angkor.

In doing so, however, they risk overlooking the country's other delights, particularly the laid-back south. I gave the country a week's leisurely tour before heading for the archaeological splendors and found plenty to be thrilled about.

I started at Phnom Penh, the capital city and one of two international airline hubs (along with Siem Reap), which, despite its size of 3 million, offered an easy soft landing to explore Cambodian culture and the bustling life of what was once deemed the "Pearl of Asia."

Set at the confluence of three rivers, it's easy to navigate Phnom Penh by foot or in one of the ubiquitous (and cheap) motorized "tuk-tuks."

The National Museum houses an extraordinary collection of Khmer sculpture and history, and a five-minute walk took me to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.

The next day I braced myself for the unavoidable: a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum, the notorious prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and murdered untold tens of thousands, and the outlying Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Nothing can mute the insanity that Pol Pot wreaked here, yet the calm, articulate audio tour at the latter site proved a balm to the horrors of the 1970s and evidence that this lovely country has the capacity to continue moving ahead.

A visit to the Russian Market was a welcome restorative, as were drinks and dinner at the famed Foreign Correspondents' Club, which overlooks the river.

A totally different Cambodia awaited a three-hour drive south to Kampot, a tranquil riverside town with French colonial houses and soft breezes. There are wonderful restaurants, strolls on the esplanade and endless numbers of guesthouse bars that offer sunset drinks and music ensembles. For those with time, it's worth the short trip to nearby Kep, a seaside retreat renowned for its beaches and many islands just offshore.

The Independence Hotel in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.Two days was enough, so I hired another taxi ($60) for the picturesque drive through Bokor National Park, up through lush forests to the old French hill station with its magnificent views, then on to the city of Sihanoukville.

Don't be put off by the name, or the bland "downtown." This is a clutch of beach communities, against a hilly backdrop, hacked from the jungle to create a deep-water harbor with great swatches of sand and endless surprises.

One not to be missed is the Snake House, a Russian restaurant (and a very good one) set in a mind-boggling zoo of venomous reptiles, amazing birds and moats of crocodiles.

Guests dine at see-through glass tables. Nearby, a 20-foot boa constrictor dozes, oblivious to the borscht and chicken Kiev.

Serendipity Beach is a lively stretch of open-air restaurants and small hotels; higher-end travelers may opt for the unique Independence Hotel on a spectacular promontory with its own private white-sand beach.

It's an hour's flight from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap on Cambodia Air, the only domestic airline.

Despite its astonishing growth as a cosmopolitan hub for Angkor temple tourists, Siem Reap is a charming, laid-back city with fun bazaars and an astonishing variety of international food, many of the restaurants crowded into delightful warrens and alleys just north of the central market.

It's an excellent place to shop or to stroll the riverside esplanade while plotting strategy to avoid the large tour groups that swarm the great temple complexes.

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