Kep, CambodiaApril 6, 2011
For many people, Kep is just another daytrip from Kampot, a sister city the haunted Bokor Mountain residences, a sea level equivalent with the same burned out colonial ruins. Many guidebooks even list Kep as a subsection of their Kampot sections. After all, theres really nothing to do in Kep.
While its true that there is no jetskiing, no parasailing, no waterskiing, no windsurfing, no SCUBA diving, and no deep-sea fishing in Kep, there is one reason people still flock there every weekend there is, essentially, nothing to do there, and that makes it a perfect place to escape the hectic pace of the capital.
The full effect of Kep cant be grasped in one afternoon. It takes a night or maybe even two or three before your metabolism slows, and you go into metaphorical hibernation, and youre ready to emerge from your holiday fully rejuvenated. In the meantime, there is plenty of the south coasts colonial atmosphere to soak up, dazzling sunsets over the Gulf of Thailand, and the freshest seafood you can get anywhere.
Yet, there are a few things to be done in Kep. The most obvious ones being a swim at the beach, a bike ride along the leafy promenade, a stroll through the stately decay of abandoned colonial villas, and, for the more adventurous, a boat trip to one or more of the sparsely populated or totally uninhabited islands.
Originally known as La Perle do la Cote dAgathe, Kep was build by the French in the early years of the twentieth century. Wealthy colonials gathered there to enjoy the tropical beach just as they gathered atop Bokor Mountain to savour the cool mountain climate.
Following Cambodias independence, Kep remained a favourite of the countrys royalty. King Norodom Sihanouk owned one of the nearby islands, and he would entertain foreign dignitaries there, giving it the nickname Isle des Ambassedeurs.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s, the resort was abandoned and its majestic villas fell into disrepair. They were further damaged the following decade when families starving through the Vietnamese liberation ransacked them and turned them into temporary quarters.
III. Kep Town
Today Keps stately decay has captivated the imagination of expatriates and tourists alike. Taking advantage of the low property costs, many people anticipating the areas tourism potential have seized the opportunity to buy up land, sending property prices skyrocketing, and begun investing money either with an eye to a longterm windfall or as a chance to develop a hotel, guesthouse, or restaurant.
Despite the growing interest in the town and the new bungalows that cascade down its leafy slopes, Kep is still very much a lost city. Once the Riviera of the Orient, it is now a sleepy seaside town, redolent of colonial decadence long since crumbled into dust, and exuding a wholesome, peaceful, and relaxing charm. Electricity has still not come to the city, meaning lights out quite early, snuffing out any possibility of laser lighted discos, raucous late night pubs, and streams of drunken merrymakers.
Kep is a place to saunter down the beach road, to stop at the scruffy thatch huts on the beach, with concrete patios abutting the sea, and sip cold beer and eat big plates of fish, crab, prawns, shrimp, and squid. The food is not gourmet, with delicately textured flavours, but intense freshness providing delicious satisfaction to a hunger worked up by the bracing salty air, and splashing on the shore, or walks or bike rides along the promenade.
When you arrive at Kep for the first time, the town creeps up on you from out of nowhere. The road from Kampot takes a sharp turn and swings down a small hill. There is a long row of mouldy thatch huts next to the sea, but the cars parked outside hint at the renowned crab feasts cooked inside.
Just a little further, the view to the right opens up onto the sea. Hazy islands are visible through gnarled old trees. To the right is a steep, green hill dotted with burned out old buildings. Then the road emerges to the beach, a golden crescent that is less white sand than crushed stone, with a stone seawall set with concrete benches where you can stop and listen to the waves and enjoy the view.
Directly in front of the beach are several of the nicer hotels. Despite the lack of power lines, there are a few places with generators that run day and night, and the compulsive worker can hook up to free WiFi or switch on the satellite TV. Yet, right next door are thatch huts on stilts, those typical Khmer picnic spots, where you can sit on a rolled out mat and have lunch while the breeze rolls in off the sea.
Further on, there is the big crab statue and a grassy strip with more thatch huts. This is the place, a little away from the hubbub of the beach, where you can just stretch out in a hammock, sip on a green coconut hacked open before your eyes, and read a good book or doze to the plangent sound of the waves.
IV. Around Kep Town
Visitors to Kep need not forego the many attractions near Kampot. To the west of Kep (or east of Kampot) are caves, an ancient temple, and dirtbike trails. See the Kampot guides Westward Way entries in the Around Kampot section for more details.
Otherwise, the main attractions lie, not inland, but out to sea. The coast of Kep is dotted with several islands that are within easy reach by fishing boats. One of these, Koh Tunsai, is a popular getaway. A weekend in the busy season could see a dozen or more foreigners sunbathing on its immaculate beach.
There are other islands nearby, and an adventurous traveller could rent a fishing boat for a whole day, and go island hopping, visiting isolated beaches, tiny fishing villages, and coral reefs. There are plenty of spots that may have never seen a Westerner before.
b) Rabbit Island (Koh Tunsai)
With the most common complaint about Kep being the poor quality of the beach, sunseekers should skip straight to one of the nearest islands, Koh Tunsai, to enjoy better sand in a similar rustic, yet relaxing, setting.
The starting bid for a boat seems to be fifteen dollars, but with some negotiation you can get one for under ten dollars. The operators will find you on the beach, and it may be worth paying a little extra for one who speaks English. Some have excellent communication skills and are a great source of local information. Otherwise, head east past the giant crab statue to the long stone pier and hire one of the boats there.
The length of the trip varies with the weather, but it should be no more than forty-five minutes, and it takes under half an hour in ideal conditions. The boats are long, flat-bottomed, wooden fishing boats brightly painted with cheerful colour schemes such as orange and turquoise. They should be equipped with life-preservers and have radio contact with the shore, so safety is not a major concern.
Today, there are twenty-eight families living on the island. They have all moved there in the past fifty years and cultivated the island with banana, mango, and coconut trees. These families have also built a few bungalows right on the beach. Be prepared for rustic seclusion. The bungalows have no fans. The toilets are shared. And there is only electricity from generators for a couple hours in the evening.
Each group of bungalows is next to a shack serving food and drinks. There are all manner of refreshments and the ice to keep them cold. The food can be limited, as they go to buy it from the fishermen on the far side of the island in the morning, but you can put in an order if youre staying, and it costs no more than Kep. A big platter of shrimp fried in pepper sauce is a mere 15,000 riel.
The beach consists of fine sand and some crushed stone. The families living there have strung up hammocks between coconut trees, and there are wooden beach chairs with umbrellas to keep you shaded. Its a quiet place, with only the sound of cowbells, and blue and white butterflies fluttering through the leaves. There are bits of coral at the far end of the beach, but its really a better place for swimming than snorkelling. The sun sets directly out to sea, so you can set up your chair on the sand and watch it with a fresh coconut or cold beer.
If you start to feel restless after a day or two on the island, there is a narrow footpath at the far end of the beach that leads to the fishing village on the opposite side of the island. It makes a nice little hike, with thick vines, and the hum of insects, and little bays full of flat red stones covered in sea snails and tiny flying fish that leap out of the water as you come near.
b) Other Islands
Twice the distance of the popular Rabbit Island, Koh Po (Snake Island) is even more remote and less touristed. To really get away from it all, check out this small fishing island with just twelve families.
At the top of the hill, before the sharp right that takes you past the crab market, there are a few popular guesthouses. Vannas is the economical choice, but good value, and gets good reviews as a friendly and welcoming family-run place.
Slightly more upmarket is Veranda Resort. When it opened years ago, rooms went for seven dollars per night. The owners have reinvested their money making the place nicer, and now the bungalows start at twenty dollars a night for fan, TV, and hot shower.
The big, new, flashy place right on the beach is Star Inn. Just a little further down, situated on a small knoll, is Beach House. The lovely building is directly across from the beach and its elevation provides excellent views.
For upscale bungalows, the place to go is Champey Inn. Starting at thirty dollars a night, Champey Inn has poolside bungalows in a garden setting with spectacular views of the sea.
VI. Drinking & Dining
Its a measure of Keps development that its most celebrated restaurant is still the crab market. Most people are likely to react with revulsion at the long row of mouldy old thatch huts. But once inside, the food is superb, not subtle, but fresh from the sea.
The Jungle Bar at the Veranda Resort sits atop a hill covered in a cascade of flowers. Tables are set up on wooden patios, and the kitchen serves up both Asian and international cuisine.
The Champey Inn has a fine French restaurant with great views of the sea. Its the perfect place to enjoy a sunset with a cold cocktail and a choice meal.
Due to the lack of facilities in Kep (particularly outside of the upmarket hotels), it will probably be necessary to sort out most practicalities in Kampot before making the trip, or to skip back to Kampot for an afternoon during the stay in Kep. This goes for international communications, banking, and medical treatment. Typical tourist kitsch of the seashell bracelet variety is inescapable with the hawkers on the promenade. But those who want to shop, or even to buy a few simple household goods, will find it hard going in Kep.
Getting around Kep is easy. Many people choose to walk to most places, and with the wide, tree-lined promenade and light traffic, this can both convenient and enjoyable by Cambodian standards.
Those who want to get around at a slightly brisker pace can rent bicycles for a mere dollar per day. Motorbike rentals can also be arranged, but with such short distances, it doesnt really make sense unless you plan to use Kep as a base to explore some of the caves or other attractions in the area.
Finally, for quick hops around town, there are always motodops. These tend to congregate, predictably, in the centre of the action at the roundabout across from the beach. But often even passing locals will be happy to give you a lift for the normal fare. Trips around Kep shouldnt cost much more than 1500 riel.
IX. Getting There & Away
Theres no need for a long list of destinations you can reach from Kep. All the busses, taxis, and mini-busses leaving for towns and cities on far depart from nearby Kampot. So consult the Kampot guide for more information on how to get to and from Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, and other destinations.
That leaves the question of how to get to and from Kampot. There is a bus service leaving from downtown Kampot twice a day. Reckon on about a dollar for the thirty-minute trip, and if youre lucky you might be able to catch it on the way back.
A much better option is to flag down a motodop, who will take you either way at any time of day for two to four dollars. The cost of the thirty-minute trip is not much relative to the distance when you compare it with rides in either Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville.