WITH a day left before I was due to leave for Cambodia, a telegram arrived from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to say a visa awaited me at Phnom Penh airport. After a two-month quest, which began at the Foreign Office in London and involved dispatching forms and photographs into the postal void that Cambodia seemed to constitute, I was delighted.

The excitement was unwarranted. These days, all you need to get into Cambodia is a mugshot and a wallet. Hand over dollars 20 ( pounds 13), and the certain thud of a bureaucrat's rubber stamp welcomes you to a slab of Indo-China the size of Ireland.

Cambodia is racing recklessly to catch up with the rest of the 20th century. Phnom Penh is suddenly less than half a day from London, and the big money has moved in. The 'Welcome to Cambodia' banner at the airport is sponsored by Heineken. The Cambodia Times carries advertisements for hamburgers, pizza and laser discs. The view from the secluded elegance of the Royal Palace is of the broad Tonle Sap river - ruined by enormous billboards proclaiming the merits of Foster's lager. Signs on crumbling colonial hotels promise 'Pattaya massage', an allusion to the sex sold at Thailand's main resort. Art deco buildings, from what was once a gem of French Indo-China, are almost obliterated by advertisements for Lucky Strike cigarettes. This is the Wild East, and the only law is that of the dollar.

The capital is in cheerfully animated mayhem, overflowing with life because the men and women from Untac are in town with dollars 2bn- worth of spending power. Phnom Penh has become a service centre for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, and is pulsating with commercial energy. The locals show their appreciation by naming their babies 'Untac'. The city is full of Western peacekeepers driving white air-conditioned Jeeps. Yet when you explore the side streets, the citizens are amazed to see 'round-eyes', as Caucasians are known. People clasp you to see what you are made of, and queue up to marvel at the sight of a Westerner having a shave.

If the hysteria of street life becomes too much, retreat to the safety of the dollar enclaves. I enjoyed one of the finest meals of my life at the Chao Praya restaurant. Fresh crayfish, lobster and fillet steak are barbecued in front of you. The dessert table groans with tropical fruit far more exotic than you would find at the trendiest Sainsbury's. The price is pounds 10 for all you can eat. Wine of the month is a 1987 Medoc, a bargain at pounds 10 a bottle.

For the ultimate demonstration of neo-colonialism, however, retire to the Cafe No Problem, unfold yourself into an armchair on the veranda of this pale golden villa and drink in the sounds of a city drifting into fitful slumber. Cognac, coffee and cheese are no problem for the foreigner with dollars 10 in his pocket. But spare a post-prandial thought for the locals who, in the midst of this monstrous economy, still struggle to find enough to eat.

NOT long ago money ceased to exist in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge, led by the ruthless Pol Pot, came to power. Eighteen years ago, the terror began. The capital was virtually emptied of its people, who were forced out to rural labour camps or marched to the 'killing fields' and executed.

Mortality is the motif in Phnom Penh. However hard you try to focus on the breathtaking vibrancy and spirit of the people, there is no escaping the fact that this wretched nation has had misery visited upon it for a generation.

According to the twisted logic of the Khmer Rouge, I would have been committing a 'class crime' by wearing spectacles and using a toothbrush - sufficient grounds for a death sentence. Under Pol Pot, a school in the ragged southern suburbs of the capital was turned into Security Office 21 - S-21, a torture camp. Now it survives as the Museum of Genocide.

The Khmer Rouge indulged in dreadful sadism in the name of eradicating dissent, and even took pictures of their victims' agonies: wall after tragic wall is covered with the photographs of those who died at S-21. Bloodstains are everywhere. It is chilling to walk through a place where such atrocities were committed so recently. The last room is the most gruesome: a map of Cambodia made from human skulls. And on the way out, just to make sure you get the point, is a picture of the Khmer Rouge bayoneting babies.

The tall palms in the courtyard have witnessed some appalling acts of inhumanity. Only 14 people are buried here, however; the remaining victims were driven out of Phnom Penh to their deaths. The evidence is 10 miles out of town, at Choeung Ek. The gentle breeze and distant birdsong make it difficult to accept that 17,000 people were exterminated here, but human remains tell the awful truth.

The film The Killing Fields was distressing; the killing fields themselves are devastating. A shady orchard became the venue for mass murder, where class criminals were bludgeoned to death, their corpses buried in shallow graves.

You stare death in the face. Half the bodies were exhumed in 1980, and the skulls of almost 9,000 victims of genocide are stacked neatly inside a glass stupa (ceremonial tower). The man responsible for this outrage signed the Paris Accord, which was supposed to bring peace to Cambodia, yet Pol Pot's organisation is still murdering innocents.

SUCH inhumanity contrasts starkly with the gentle friendliness of the people. On Sunday afternoons a band plays for appreciative crowds in the city park, and Phnom Penh feels so thoroughly normal that it is spooky. The street names reveal a continuing sympathy with Communism, but state socialism has not dispelled the faded French grandeur.

A palatial riverside villa, now the Hotel Renakse, is the ideal place to stay. Opposite is the National Museum, guarded by stone elephants and a sculpture of a family, complete with AK-47. The museum is full of delicate vases, corpulent Buddhas and ancient statues.

Outside, the city's veins are pumping frenetically. Phnom Penh is trying to acquire the trappings of a capital, and has only just begun to build up a bus fleet. Half are still in the livery of the Paris bus authority; the rest have been imported from India; the doors are on the wrong side and passengers must disembark into the torrent of traffic. No one seems to mind much, since life, compared with the near past, is tangibly good.

When the UN's life-support machinery is finally removed, Cambodia's future will be once more in the hands of fate. Go now to meet an overwhelmingly innocent people, and pray they may be spared more misery.

Getting there: London-Bangkok ticket on Air Lanka via Colombo costs pounds 589 return from Discount Air Travel (0983 760017). This flight connects with the Kampuchea Airlines flight to Phnom Penh, costing pounds 120 return. Tours to Cambodia are operated by Regent Holidays, 15 John Street, Bristol BS1 2HR (0272 211711).

Accommodation: Phnom Penh has a wide range of places to stay, from pounds 3 a night guesthouses to the Hotel Cambodiana, where a double room costs pounds 145. The Hotel Renakse, opposite the Royal Palace, costs pounds 24 per night for a single or double room. In Siem Reap, where visitors to Angkor are required to stay, the best place is the Golden Aspara guesthouse, located behind the Monorom restaurant on Sivatha Road. A bunk bed costs pounds 4, a double room pounds 12.

Visas: These are available on arrival at Phnom Penh airport for dollars 20 ( pounds 13); two photographs required.

Health advice: No vaccinations are compulsory, but precautions are recommended against tetanus, polio, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and malaria. Insect repellant and a mosquito net are essential.

Risk assessment: Last week the Cambodian army captured some Khmer Rouge-held territory, but the guerrillas still control substantial areas in the north-west and are active elsewhere in the country. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice line (071-270 4129) warns of Khmer Rouge activity around Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, and recommends that these areas should be avoided. Contact the British Mission to Cambodia, 29 rue 75, Phnom Penh (010 873 144 5254 or 010 855 232 7124) for up-to-date advice.

Guidebooks: The best available is the newly revised Cambodia: A Travel Survival Kit by Daniel Robinson and Tony Wheeler (Lonely Planet, pounds 7.95).