The sea has long held mystical sway over Southeast Asia. Here, sea gypsies have plied the waters of the Coral Triangle for centuries, wearing hand-carved wooden goggles and hunting with spear guns fashioned from boat timber, tyres and scrap metal.
Known as the Bajau, many of these nautical nomads spend their entire lives at sea, coming ashore only to bury their dead or hand-build new lipa-lipa boats.
The Bajau's beliefs predate those of major religions, drawing heavily on the animism observed by their ancestors. Spirit boats are sailed into the open seas to cast out offending demons; the deity of choice is OmdohDilaut, god of the sea.
They are accomplished freedivers, plunging to depths of 30 metres or more to hunt pelagic fish or search for pearls and sea cucumbers.
Because diving is a core element of their existence, they deliberately rupture their eardrums at an early age.
As one explains: "You bleed from your ears and nose and you have to spend a week lying down because of the dizziness. After that, you can dive without pain."
As diving goes, the approach is extreme. These days, you're more likely to encounter a fisherman walking along the ocean floor in boots, jeans and a sweater, wearing a bell helmet fed with compressed air pumped from the surface through a long garden hose. Such sights are not uncommon here in Cambodia, where until just over a decade ago the concept of scuba diving didn't exist.
There may be no word for 'scuba' in Khmer, but diving has come a long way since. The islands off the coast, many of them uninhabited, now play host to a plethora of dive schools, yet unlike many of the more crowded dive sites in neighbouring Thailand, the ratio of aquatic life to human life is still stacked heavily in our favour -- at least for now.
From Sihanoukville, a four-hour taxi ride from the capital, most islands are reachable by boat within a couple of hours. Koh Kong is a haven for dazzling coral and its associated inhabitants: box fish and parrot fish abound. Koh Rong Saloem is even more secluded. Perhaps the most spectacular sites are to be found off Koh Tang. Five hours by boat, the reefs harbour the only triggerfish ever spotted in these waters.
Home to the bashful bamboo shark, which rarely reaches more than a metre in length, Cambodia's waters are among the least explored in the region. Beneath the waves, expect to encounter a mesmerising array of macro life. Nudibranches are hermaphroditic sea-going slugs that come in the most extraordinary shapes and sizes. Among the most colourful creatures on earth, these snails without a shell are a must for aspiring underwater photographers.
Less exquisite looking but no less worthy of note is the Bobbit worm, so-called because of its resemblance to the appendage Lorena Bobbit famously chopped off her cheating husband in 1993. Armed with razor-sharp teeth, this fearsome metre-long predator has been known to attack with such speed that its prey is sliced in half.
Resembling another fearsome predator is the cobia, also known as the black kingfish, which can reach up to 2 metres in length. Encounters can be unnerving for the uninitiated: friendly and with a tendency to follow divers, it looks just like a shark, but it isn't.
Sweep your torch from right to left during a night dive and the water blinks into life, thousands of tiny eyes glowing red in the other-worldly gloom. Electric blue-spotted stingrays mingle with moral eels, while cat sharks dart in to feed. When you surface, look up at the stars: thanks to zero light pollution, the constellations are crystal clear.
Whether you're new to diving or a seasoned pro, Cambodia can accommodate. Rarely do dives go beyond 20 metres in depth and currents are usually mild, with visibility hovering at around 10 to 15 metres.
Options are many: dip a toe in with a try-dive (about $30), get your open water certification (about $400), complete your instructor training and go pro or simply strap on a mask and snorkel and watch from above.
Choose between boat and shore dives; sleeping on the waves or shacking up on one of the islands, Lazy Beach on Koh Rong Saloem being one of the most popular. For a list of reputable dive schools and marine conservation programmes, visit the Professional Association of Diving Instructors at www.padi.com.