Sihanoukville, Cambodia - The Angkor temples are at the top of the checklist for most visitors to Cambodia.
Now, mind and body wearied from three days of temple-hopping, I'm making a beeline for the south coast by way of the capital, Phnom Penh.
A comfy air-conditioned bus takes me from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville on remarkably well-paved, hilly roads nearly free of traffic, covering the 230-kilometre trip in just under four hours. The bus fare: a mere $3 U.S. (U.S. currency is widely accepted.)
My spirits pick up as we approach Sihanoukville and glimpse the sea sparkling under the brilliant blue sky. This is just the diversion I need after Angkor's culture vultures and the frenetic madness of Phnom Penh.
The bus deposits us in the town centre, where we're greeted by a throng of eager drivers shouting, "Moto-bike! Moto-bike!" It's a short $2 ride to the beachfront, and the driver shows me several places to stay. Never settle on the first one; many drivers are paid a commission to steer tourists to specific guest houses.
There are four main beaches along 10 kilometres of sandy coastline, and three groups of untouched offshore islands. They may never get as busy as the resorts of neighbouring Thailand, but that's exactly their appeal. Idyllic scenery, friendly locals, fine seafood and lots of outdoor activities give Sihanoukville its laid-back allure.
Victory, Independence, Sokha and Ochheuteal beaches ring the peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Thailand. A young British couple recommend a popular and attractive beach on the northern end of Ochheuteal, Serendipity, where bungalows and guest houses dot the beachfront. On weekdays there's hardly any competition for towel space on the sugary-soft white sand.
Swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing, canoeing and camping can all be enjoyed nearby. West of the port are the Kompong Som islands, a recommended dive spot a half-day's boat trip away. To the east lie the Ream Islands, and beyond them Koh Tang Island.
At Ream National Park, a 21,000-hectare enclave 20 kilometres from town, you can spot rare birds and other species and go jungle walking among the mangroves. Tours visit Kbal-Chhay Waterfall, about 30 minutes outside Sihanoukville, and Bokor National Wildlife Park near the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
I decide to stay at the Markara, a set of cozy bungalows encircling a lush courtyard. I toss my dusty backpack into my spacious new digs and head straight to the beach, less than a minute's walk away. Rustic drink huts supply a steady stream of cold beer (Angkor Beer Brewery is based in Sihanoukville) to a long row of deck chairs. Perfect for blissing out.
As I bake in the sun, vendors grill fresh squid, prawns and corn on the cob. At dusk, local kids play soccer with backpackers until the sun sinks below the horizon. At night I lounge close to the waters my dinner came out of.
Across from my bungalow, Chiva's Bar becomes my favourite hangout, a friendly, family-operated beachfront joint dishing out funky tunes and cheap cocktails. Our pyjama-clad 11-year-old waiter dashes around like a seasoned pro. Beside me, a couple of aging Belgian/Dutch hippies cuddle like teenagers.
On my last morning in Cambodia, I get to the beach early. The pale-blue waves lap lazily against the freshly carved sands. Sitting in a beach chair, I'm swarmed by five small children, their slender arms dangling strings of colourful beads. "Pick one," I'm instructed, and they begin making bracelets for me on the spot.
I've run out of candy to give them, but I have to spend my last five bucks anyway.