Finding my way out of the labyrinthine Psar Thmei market is tough. Just when I think there can only possibly be one stall stacked high with marinated tarantulas, another appears. The scorching December sunshine turns the low, tarpaulin ceiling a radiant white but offers no clues as to which way to turn. My inner compass melts in the heat and I'm stranded in a claustrophobic world of fake jewellery, fake watches and all-too-real arachnids. Getting lost in Phnom Penh's sweaty, bustling markets is easy; keeping one's wallet closed is more difficult. Emerging from the darkness, I am approached by one of the scores of roaming vendors selling an identical selection of cheap books. 'Hey, mister, where you from? Do you wanna buy a book? Very cheap for you, mister. Hey, mister.' The speaker is an eight-year-old girl wearing tatty blue pyjamas and carrying her crippling load in a broken basket. The reading list, if anything, looks even more dismal. Guide books aside, they all relate in some way to the horrors of Pol Pot's murderous regime, under which approximately two million citizens died, from 1975 to 1979. Bad news clearly sells. The girl, however, is all smiles. 'Hey, mister, do you have a girlfriend?' she says with a grin. In a country ravaged by internal strife and foreign exploitation, an eight-year-old in blue pyjamas appears to be flirting with me in order to make a $20 sale. The Kingdom of Cambodia has a history of disturbing the western mind in such ways. Inspired by - and often personally involved in - the colonial occupation, wars and years of genocide, a raft of writers and filmmakers have portrayed Cambodia as a baffling, beguiling land where normal rules simply don't apply. It's been presented as a hedonistic playground, a giant madhouse, a secret hideaway and, in the darkest years at least, hell on Earth. Of course, not everyone has the stomach to spend their annual leave journeying to the fringes of lunacy, and the first piece of good news is that sanity has been partially restored to the troubled country. Modern hotel facilities, eloquent tour guides, improved security and efficient transport links have created a thriving tourist axis, comprising the capital, Phnom Penh, the beaches of Sihanoukville and the city of Siem Reap, gateway to the temples of Angkor. The second piece of good news - at least for those who relish the exotic and edgy side of Indochina - is that Cambodia's recovery is only half complete. It's still only partially sane. The capital, Phnom Penh, is definitely a half-way house. The city feels refreshingly underdevel-oped and there's a notable lack of high-rises. In fact, few buildings make it to three storeys. One of the few to reach that giddy height is the National Museum and on the slightly unkempt lawn in front of the dramatic spires, locals play badminton. Cambodia is at its edgiest in Phnom Penh. The city did have a serious gun problem, which has been addressed in recent years but not fully dealt with. Wandering the streets as a westerner unavoidably brings you into contact with the pimps and the pushers, who often drive moto-taxis as a sideline. But Cambodia can be at its most comfortable and quaint here too. There are glitzy new casinos with US$10 minimum bets. Gucci stores rub shoulders with scrap shops and the Tonle Sap riverfront is a great spot for taking in the colonial ambience. Plush bars and hotels line the boulevard on one side and palm trees gently sway on the other. The impressive silhouette of the Royal Palace is elegant against the skyline, especially when viewed from a cruise ship at sunset. The boat deck is also a good place from which to enjoy the bizarre sight of livestock grazing on the city-centre riverbank. Phnom Penh is geographically at the centre of Cambodia's new tourist axis but the city driving the current boom lies 230km to the northwest. Siem Reap is the anteroom to Angkor and the breathtaking temples are a must-see for any visitor. As 3,000 people every day are discovering, the town has become a comfortable base from which to explore the surrounding jungles. By day, peaceful palm tree plantations create a kaleidoscope of shadow and light in sandy clearings. Immaculate, litter-free paddy fields are dotted with water buffalo. In the Psar Chaa district at night, the sounds of clinking glasses and music drift from second-floor balconies into the balmy night air. Fans whir serenely and the living feels easy. Sihanoukville is the third point on Cambodia's tourist axis. The highway linking Phnom Penh and the south coast beach resort was built with US financial and engineering assistance. The ride is smooth, though drivers do tend to spend long periods on the wrong side of the road. This is partly a result of the curious mixture of vehicles sharing space on the asphalt. Clearly it wouldn't do for high-speed saloons to be stuck behind ox-drawn carts or so-called taxis stacked high with cramped-looking locals. Another reminder of the less progressive side of Cambodia presents itself on the city outskirts. A casually dressed 'policeman' beckons my car to the side of the road where a man with oversized sunglasses chomps on a cigar while his lackey demands money from the driver. From facial expressions alone, I conclude that this extra 'tax' was not anticipated. Sihanoukville's stunning beaches are its chief attraction. There are four main strands circling the town and plenty more picture-postcard locations tucked away on the outlying islands. The most popular of the mainland beaches is Ochheuteal. The sea here is warm and, once a comfortable sun-lounger has been found, it's all too easy to hang around well beyond sunset sipping a cold beer, chatting to friendly locals and gazing up at the glittering vista of stars as darkness descends. In Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Cambodia represents the very 'heart of darkness' and, even now - beyond the wars, brutality and suffering - there is something about that label that seems eerily appropriate. Part of the kingdom's enduring appeal is the presence of an exotic, sometimes threatening atmosphere. But as the beach bums and temple throngs prove, things are becoming more comfortable and madness is now just an option. Getting there: Dragonair flies between Hong Kong and Phnom Penh on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Kingdom of Cambodia requires all tourists to have a visa. They cost $200 and are available from the Cambodian Consulate, room 616, Star House, 3 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui. President Airlines operates two daily flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. A return ticket costs about $850. Cheaper transport by bus and boat is also available. The US dollar is the de-facto Cambodian currency. Take plenty with you because changing Hong Kong dollars into US dollars (or Cambodian riel) can be tricky.