Travel Notes: Kep

By Douglas Clayton | November 2009

This weekend I’m with my family in Kep, 180 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh, where the Cambodian coastline butts up against Vietnam. One of Cambodia’s time-warp towns, Kep was established as a French resort a century ago and until the 1970s served as the getaway of choice for Cambodia’s rich and famous when it was known as Kep-sur-Mer. Sadly the swanky villas of that era became war booty in the 1980s, with everything reusable, from the floor tiles to the roof tiles, hacked out and hauled off in departing Vietnam Army trucks, or so the old-timers say. Of most just a few walls remain but even then you can usually spot the mod styling of the “Austin Powers” era. Fortunately Kep’s more natural charms remained intact; its mountain slopes still sport their splendid jungle canopy unlike the hills of rival Sihanoukville.

No longer the region’s Riviera, contemporary Kep contents itself as Cambodia’s crab capital, and a giant statue of a blue crab menaces tourists on the waterfront. Fittingly, our first stop is the Crab Market, where a few ramshackle wooden restaurants perch precariously on stilts over the water. We order up the local specialty and watch the chef haul a cage out of the sea and extract a few wigglers for the cooking pot. Following our tasty sea-fresh meal we wander across the street to inspect the substantial land plot that our Leopard colleague Scott Lewis has accumulated, and admire the impressive stone walls that now mark its perimeter.

Kep offers nearly a dozen smallish guesthouses, most run by foreign residents, plus an up-market 11 room boutique hotel called Knai Bang Chatt which tastefully combines several restored modernist pre-war villas, an infinity pool, and a small sailing club. We set out on our usual exploration foray to see if anything has changed in Kep since the last time we were here (the answer is usually “no”). The main coastal road winds between the mountains and the rocky seawall, offering one of Cambodia’s most picturesque drives. Palm trees and ponderous colonial streetlights decorate its sidewalk, creating a vaguely European ambiance. The route loops around a small mountain and some say that in the Sixties it served as a circuit for a Grand Prix-style motorcar race, which must have been an exciting event and should someday be revived. But today the only car on the track is ours, and the only crowds are swarms of female food vendors who cheerfully try to persuade us to eat a second lunch at their little roadside stalls.

We pass the old Royal Residence which forlornly sits on a spectacular site on a hillside overlooking the sea. The driveway entrance is chained, but on an earlier trip it was open, inspiring us to make an impromptu inspection of the empty premises (I recall peering through dusty windows at the dated furnishing inside while my wife munched on a mango plucked from the royal tree.) While it seems to have avoided the indignity of getting looted, the unpretentious residence nevertheless awaits a needed restoration. However, the outdoor breakfast table offers a panoramic ocean view that is still fit for a King.

East of the town there stands a second royal property on a spacious lot (see photo below). Local lore says this house belonged to King-Father Sihanouk’s late mother, Queen Kossamak, and that its carefully tended garden is funded via regular payments from her dutiful son. Unfortunately the cash remitted seems insufficient to restore the structure, which was stripped but stands defiantly in stately ruin. A $1 tip to the grateful caretaker enables me to wander around and photograph the battered mansion, and admire the array of imported gardening equipment stored in the living room.

Another reminder of Kep’s wealthier past is the 4 story French colonial school building around the corner from the Crab Market, which proudly tutored princesses and aristocrats until the Khmer Rouge abruptly ended education in Cambodia. The school never reopened, and now sits abandoned and deteriorating except for a few rooms occupied by obscure departments of the local municipality. I discover that the view from the roof is worth the climb up; this is still probably the tallest structure in Kep and it would make a nice boutique hotel if someone wanted to preserve a historical building.

Unlike sandy Sihanoukville, Kep’s beaches are rocky and short, and the water remains shallow and muddy for a half kilometer or more. Plans have been made to reclaim this part of the sea and extend Kep’s waterfront landmass for massive development, but for now it is still just a plan. Today the public beach’s main attraction is the buxom topless mermaid statue cast in white concrete which makes a memorable backdrop for photos, and the picnic tables where vendors will bring you a meal. But sun junkies can catch a half hour boat ride from Kep’s pier to nearby Rabbit Island, and access some first-rate beaches as described in our September newsletter, click here.

At day’s end we drive up a cliff to the Verandah Resort’s Jungle Bar to watch the sun sink into the sea amidst a surreal spray of neon orange. Over a leisurely dinner there we talk about what Kep once was and could be. Dismantled yet unspoiled, it could easily be rebuilt into Cambodia’s premier weekend destination, and in time it surely will be. But we also kind of like it just the way it is now: forgotten, empty, and away from it all. Bring a good book.

Memories of Elegance in Kep

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