DON'T get caught on the road after dark.'' That was the advice Dominic Chappell and Kelly Wilkinson gave to friends making the long journey to visit them in the wilds of Cambodia. ''Give yourself enough time to travel the road in daylight,'' the former Lamma Island residents told me when I visited their home in Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast before Christmas. Last week, Mr Chappell and Miss Wilkinson risked the route the local people called ''The Cannonball Run'' once too often. As darkness fell on Route Four, the bandit-plagued highway linking Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, Mr Chappell, Miss Wilkinson and a British companion, Tina Dominy, were taken captive by a gang of thugs. Authorities have blamed the Khmer Rouge, the vicious guerilla group that was responsible for the deaths of more than one million people during its brief and bloody rule of Cambodia in the 1970s. Even after its overthrow, the Khmer Rouge has remained a fierce fighting force, hiding in the jungle, emerging from time to time to ambush government troops or terrorise villagers. One cannot visit even the tiniest, most scrub-poor hamlet in this dirt-poor nation without seeing the Khmer Rouge's calling card. Armless and legless children roam the streets, living in squalor. There are an estimated 40,000 amputees in Cambodia but nobody really knows how many children have been orphaned by two decades of continual war. Mr Chappell and Miss Wilkinson, captured last Monday, were the ''adoptive parents'' to an entire brood of orphans. The brood included Mr Rea and his precocious sister, Miss Li, who would appear in a new dress each day, yet seemed to have no home. There was Mobley and the ethereal youngster they called Owen Meany. Thanks to the couple, each had a name, some food and a safe place to sleep. The children moved in with Mr Chappell and Miss Wilkinson soon after the couple arrived in Sihanoukville last winter. Formerly known as Kompong Som, the city of 7,000 residents is described by some guide books as a charming seaside resort. By the sea it remains, but the old French villas have long since been razed. Now Sihanoukville is mainly potholes and mud. And orphaned children. These might seem strange surroundings for a pair of well-paid models who abandoned the Hong Kong party scene to open Rendezvous, a trendy pizza palace serving European-meets-Middle East cuisine in this war-torn wasteland. Girls in thick make-up wave from the balconies of the huge brothel across the street on the top floor of the Sorya Hotel. The same hotel hosts one of Cambodia's weirdest acts, composed of two brothers who sing love duets, one in woman's dress. The anything-goes atmosphere of this coastal backwater, where most buildings still show bullet and mortar scars, was exactly what appealed to this freedom-seeking pair. Easily won over by street urchins, the former Hong Kong residents quickly became one of Sihanoukville's most celebrated couples. Miss Wilkinson, a statuesque beauty of 1.89 metres, and the ponytailed Mr Chappell stood out in any crowd. Both were fixtures in Lan Kwai Fong, where Miss Wilkinson wowed crowds at Mecca with her fire-eating act. They also helped found Deli Lamma, a popular boutique restaurant which recently reopened on Lamma Island. Neither ran restaurants for profit. As models, each earned a daily fee far in excess of weeks of restaurant wages. However, friends said they hungered for more from life than selling rich people's rags. Nobody was surprised when the pair moved to Phnom Penh last summer. Mr Chappell had been electrified by his first visit in 1992. Several friends from Lan Kwai Fong had already joined the rush to open restaurants and clubs during the gold-rush days of the largest United Nations operation in history. Phnom Penh hotspots such as the Gecko Club, Rock Hard Cafe, Deja Vu and the Foreign Correspondents Club all had Hong Kong connections. The couple worked for a time at Deja Vu, a lavishly restored French mansion near the Royal Palace. There was money to be made serving pasta, cappuccino and crepes to the thousands of foreigners working for aid agencies. Yet the money might have been too easy. The pair jumped at the chance to take over Rendezvous in Sihanoukville, a port town with a permanent foreign population of perhaps 15 people, according to their former partner David White. ''Dom and Kelly are free-spirited people,'' said Mr White, also a former Hong Kong resident who hailed from Bath. ''They're the kind of people who want to try different things. This is one of the few countries in the world that is still free. There are hazards. That's the price you pay for freedom, I guess. It can be dangerous, but it's an exciting place.'' And they were well aware of both the dangers and excitement before moving to Cambodia in August. Mr White and Mr Chappell used to ride motorcycles down the rugged Route Four to Rendezvous, which Mr White and some other friends were outfitting in 1992. ''Dom and I were held up by the Khmer Rouge one time,'' Mr White said. ''This was on his first visit. They took some money and cigarettes, a bunch of young guys with rocket launchers.'' Mr White, who has also been shot at when he ran the Route Four roadblocks, says such banditry is commonplace. ''It's more like passport control. You get stopped and pay a small fee and then go on you way. It's really no big deal. ''This may sound weird, but the Cambodians are really under-achievers. This has to be the only place in the world where you can be robbed by guys with rocket launchers, have US$1,000 [HK$7,720] in your pocket, and only pay 50 cents to get off.'' Mr White, who has been through the routine a dozen times, says the risks are not outrageous. ''I've probably been up and down that road 200 times. Something like this has never happened before.'' Kidnappings, though, are far more commonplace than local residents and foreigners like to admit. Authorities negotiating the release of Mr Chappell, Miss Wilkinson and Miss Dominy are also talking to the Khmer Rouge about captive Melissa Himes, 25, an American with the aid group Food for the Hungry International. She was taken hostage on March 31 in the town of Chhuk. Officials are wary of discussing the details of ransom negotiations, but Food for the Hungry leaders have confirmed an offer to provide well-drilling equipment to Miss Himes' Khmer Rouge captors. The negotiations seem stalled over demands for ransom money, believed to be as much as $10,000. ''This is a very sensitive issue for the Government,'' said one source close to the Khmer Rouge. ''The problem is, if you start paying money it will set a dangerous precedent. This country is full of bad people. They'll be grabbing people all over the country.'' You Hokney, Cambodian Minister of Interior, told the Sunday Morning Post that paying ransom money was a sticking point. ''It's a most difficult situation,'' he said. ''We have to make an offer, but we don't want to set a precedent. ''This is the second kidnapping within a month and we're very concerned that we don't set a precedent. We don't want to encourage the Khmer Rouge.'' However, within the country people are still questioning whether the Khmer Rouge was in fact involved in the kidnapping of the former Hong Kong residents. Both the Australian and British embassies have released accounts of the kidnapping that generally conforms to the Cambodian Government's report. Several local sources suggested the Khmer Rouge were not involved, that the kidnappers were actually renegade government soldiers. ''Really, we're hoping it's the Khmer Rouge,'' said a friend of the victims, ''because at least with the Khmer Rouge, you can talk to them. They're organised and obey orders. Dom and Kelly are much better off with the Khmer Rouge than crooked soldiers.'' In this gun-mad land, it is often hard to tell the difference. Returning from Sihanoukville after visiting Mr Chappell and Miss Wilkinson last December, my photographer and I were stopped and robbed at gunpoint in daylight on Route Four. The nervous young soldiers wore uniforms. Whether Khmer Rouge or government it did not matter much as we bargained for our lives. After two decades of constant warfare in a country where virtually everyone is armed, danger lurks everywhere. THIS point has been driven home repeatedly by the foreign embassies and aid agencies, which warn against travel on Route Four. ''We're told never to travel alone, and never at night,'' said a foreign worker with Save the Children. ''Nowadays, most people working with international agencies only travel that road with an armed escort,'' another foreign worker said. Cars can be hired for the 230-kilometre Cannonball Run from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville for $20 to $25. For an extra $500, travellers can be accompanied by a pair of armoured trucks, front and back. Each is topped with a machine gun. Even that much firepower does not satisfy the concerns of a war-weary population. One hundred foreign workers, planning to travel to Sihanoukville in a 40-car convoy during the Cambodian New Year holiday this weekend, cancelled their vacation plans following the kidnapping. Travel on Route Four has become a high-speed gamble. Generally, cars move in pairs and avoid stopping for any reason. The rule of the game is safety in speed, then numbers. The slower you go, the more protection you need. Lorries tend to travel in groups of five to 10. Convoys of ox-drawn wooden carts can stretch for a kilometre and number nearly a hundred per group. But violence and fear remain a daily reality in this impoverished and largely lawless land that resembles the Central America of Asia. Nervous Phnom Penh residents awoke to gunfire before dawn last week. Just part of the New Year's celebrations in a wild land. A few weeks ago, Sihanoukville was rocked by the sound of a grenade blast just across the street from Mr Chappell and Miss Wilkinson's restaurant. A jealous husband passing by in a jeep reportedly pulled the pin on his unfaithful wife. ''Dom heard a little kid's screams and ran right over,'' a close friend says. There, among the body parts of several bystanders, was 10-year-old Mr Rea, one of the street orphans. Partially paralysed and ripped by shrapnel, the youngster is slowly regaining the sight in one damaged eye, thanks to the speed with which Mr Chappell rushed him to the hospital. The other street children hardly noticed his injury or absence. Mr Rea is just another victim of the violence that has helped make an artificial limb factory one of Sihanoukville's few booming businesses. The recurring robberies remain a major embarrassment to the new Cambodian Government's aim to restore order and rid the countryside of marauding gangs of guerillas. Operations against the Khmer Rouge were stepped up in the past two months with major battles for key Khmer Rouge control posts. Some sources say the Government has merely pushed the Khmer Rouge into new tactics that may include regular raids on tourists and foreign businessman. French tourist Jacques Righi said he escaped execution by bandits on the road from Krabi when government troops happened upon his assailants. The battle for security on Route Four is critical to the new Government. The multinational Shell Company operates a vital fuel facility near Sihanoukville, which is also home to Cambrew, maker of soft drinks and Angkor Beer, and believed to be the country's largest private employer. The port, although too small to accommodate more than a handful of vessels, is set for the expansion vital to Cambodia's economic growth. Although battle-scarred and rutted, Route Four will be rebuilt as a four-lane through-way with aid from the Americans, who constructed the original road decades ago. Authorities have sent an armoured convoy down Route Four this weekend. Among the passengers will be Miss Wilkinson's father and brother, who arrived from their home in Queensland, Australia, on Friday afternoon. Brother Sean Wilkinson is a painter who worked for a time creating restaurant murals in Hong Kong. ''I just want to be close to her,'' said her father, Peter Wilkinson. ''If only I can talk to someone who has my daughter, to know she's all right.'' Meanwhile, Mr Chappell's father, David, waits by the phone in Hong Kong, where he is a writer and photographer living on Lamma Island. Both parents said they were pleased by the efforts of authorities, including the Australian and British embassies. Mr Chappell plans to fly to Cambodia within days. ''We talked about the danger, of course,'' said the elder Mr Chappell, retired from the Air Force in Yeovil, Somerset, where Dominic was born in 1969. ''The danger may be part of the attraction. It's living life on the edge. ''I never expected anything like this to happen, and know he didn't either. But this is the risk you take when you live life to the fullest. That's how Dom has always lived.'' Dominic Chappell tried to explain the appeal the last time I saw him in Cambodia. We were eating tangy garlic shrimps at a table on a clean beach skirting an unimaginably blue sea, just a few minutes' walk from his home. He planned to set up a guesthouse for the adventurous tourists he was certain would come to a frontier with bandits and bullets, but virtually no rules. ''You feel special to be here, present at the birth of a new country,'' he said. ''Cambodia is like some place that has been locked away for 20 years. Everything is like the 1970s, the people, the fashion, the customs. It's so innocent.'' Some observers wondered whether the innocence ended on Route Four last week, as the couple were trapped in the darkness they had so diligently advised others to avoid. However, nobody - including the authorities, friends and family - doubts for a minute they will escape this adventure. ''If anyone is equipped for this ordeal, it is Dom and Kelly. They'll be fine,'' says a friend in Phnom Penh. ''This won't change anything for Dom and Kelly,'' she added. ''They knew what it was like here, and they loved it. This is all part of the intrigue of the country. You just learn to live with it. You have to.''