Once-Glamorous Kep is Exorcising its Ghosts – Visit Before it Lands on the Beaten Track Again

Once-Glamorous Kep is Exorcising its Ghosts – Visit Before it Lands on the Beaten Track Again


Buddhist monks
hurtled down the wide stone jetty, whooping and
laughing. Keen to escape the swell of the midday sun and the thick
black smoke billowing from the beach’s numerous barbecues, a number
of the party plunged headlong into the silver water, burnt-orange
robes fanning behind them. Others flung their garments over the
gleaming body of the White Lady sculpture and picked their way
across the pitted rocks, careful not to crush the purple crabs that
clattered there.

Hundreds of hammocks had been strung and rugs laid under the
ancient trees fringing the deserted sand. In the vast puddles of
shade, extended
families shared charred cuts of chicken and steaming
mountains of rice, the men gulping Angkor lager as their masked
wives tended to grills. Bursts of distant laughter from the
swimming monks regularly punctuated the languorous haze. The
weekend was proceeding as normal; life being lived and enjoyed. Yet
just a short distance from the beach stand the crumbling concrete
spectres that have long haunted Kep. Unfinished 1970s vacation
villas blight the thick vegetation, some strangled by bamboo
scaffolding, others graffitied and rotting. It is here that the
ghosts of Kep congregate.

My visit to Kep was a happy accident – I’d never heard of the
idyllic south coast town until just a week before my arrival in
Chatting to a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, I’d revealed my plans to
journey south to Sihanoukville, a booming tourist town.
“Sihanoukville is not so good right now,” he’d countered. “Lots of
Chinese investment – it’s all casinos.” He’d offered an
alternative: Kep province.

Upon arriving, I quickly found that Kep has everything required
of a relaxing holiday spot. A hefty golden beach is planted in the
diminutive town centre, surrounded by a smattering of guest houses,
restaurants and delis. The smooth coast road offers jaw-dropping
views of the silver sea glittering, millpond-flat, to the distant
horizon. Down unassuming dirt paths hide tiny, rambling fishing
villages. Here, men moor their mint-green boats on roughshod
jetties and children rollick around inside stilted wooden houses.
Glance upwards towards the mountains and you’re rewarded with a
panorama of the deep green, thickly tangled national park – a
stunning, lizard-filled hiking spot. The rustic paradise island of
Koh Tonsay – known as “Rabbit Island” to travellers – lies just 20
minutes away by boat. The vibe is irresistibly relaxing.

Then there’s the crab. Arriving in Kep, you’re offered an
uncanny crustaceous greeting: a large plastic crab sits 10 metres
off the coast, raising its pincers to the clear blue sky. “Welcome
to Kep”, reads the bold lettering on its plinth. This strange
salutation is not an anomaly: Kep is famous for its crab. At the
heart of the town squats the pungent crab market, where fishermen
smoke by bamboo crabbing baskets as their wives flog keyrings and
bracelets to tourists. Plastic buckets are lined up outside nearby
eateries, from which waiting staff snatch sea creatures, ready to
be expertly cooked and plated up for salivating patrons. At night,
dots of light from the head torches worn by fishermen weave above
the inky water as they lay their traps, layered with dead fish to
attract crustaceans.

Yet despite its myriad treasures, there’s something missing:
international travellers. While international tourism has slowly
and quietly been increasing over the past 15 years, and the French
expat community is expanding once more, this enchanting south coast
destination has spent the last few decades as little more than a
ghost town.

Kep’s gentle charms have not always gone unnoticed. In the early
1900s, French colonialists commandeered Kep, transforming it into a
high-end holiday resort. By the mid-20th century, with Cambodia
declaring independence from colonial rule, the French had been
joined by well-heeled Khmers, who travelled to Kep from Phnom Penh
for a slice of hedonism. As the 1960s arrived, Kep had become
well-established as a vacation playground for the capital’s
glitterati, who commissioned extravagant modernist-Khmer holiday
villas amid the tropical vegetation. The royal family were often in
town, with Prince Norodom Sihanouk using Kep as a setting for many
of his films. Champagne, gourmet cuisine and black-tie dinners were
the order of the day during this glamorous era, with stars like
Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Catherine Deneuve rumoured to have swung
by. The nearby island of Koh Tonsay hosted wild parties that ended
only as the burning orange sun rose above the horizon.

But when the Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s, installing a
brutal and genocidal communist regime, the party came to an abrupt
halt. Wealthy urbanites who holidayed in Kep – professionals,
intellectuals, artists – were high on Pol Pot’s heartbreaking hit
list. Many of the faces of those who once sought solace in Kep can
now be seen in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – a
four-hour drive away – where they stare out at visitors from black
and white headshots; some defiant in the face of their captors,
others clearly terrified.

As its former holidaymakers were inhumanely slaughtered, and
even after the downfall of the totalitarian regime – as the country
desperately tried to recover from the horror perpetrated by Pol Pot
and his followers – Kep languished. Roots and vines snaked their
way through the walls of holiday homes, the thick grasses of their
gardens grew wildly, and the once-magnificent villas began to

But gradually and ever so carefully, as the people of
tried to put the painful memory of the genocide behind
them, plans for Kep’s rebirth were hatched. The province has now
been set up ready for its third life as a booming resort.
Holidaying Cambodians have cautiously returned to the once-starry
destination, but it’s ready and waiting for international
travellers too.

Tarmac has been smoothed over potholed roads and the beach
expanded. Hotels on the coast have been bought and renovated by big
five-star chains, while mid-range guest houses run by expats dot
the hillside, perfect for the backpacker crowd. Expensive
restaurants have sprung up, offering an alternative to Khmer
barbecue and crab-market fare. The chic Sailing Club rents out
kayaks and paddleboards, as well as hosting sundowners with live
music. Western luxuries such as fine cheeses and wines are readily
available. While a tourist port project fell through, many believe
it will be revived over the next few years. But a similar
development in Kampot, just a half-hour drive away by tuk-tuk, is
slated for completion in 2019. One way or another, an international
tourist boom is coming – Kep’s hoteliers and restaurateurs are
certain of that.

Walking along a rocky dirt track leading to the national park
one day, I happened joyfully upon a tapas restaurant. “Five years,”
says the Spanish owner, serving me a creamy hummus dish. “Five
years and this place will be overrun with tourists.” The American
owner of a hotel down the road agrees: “We’re already seeing a
steady year-on-year increase in guests.” Indeed, real-estate prices
here have rocketed over the past decade, as heavy Chinese spending
pushed up prices in Sihanoukville and hotel-building investors
sought an alternative location.

Speaking to Sorn Seap, the former vice-president of the
Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association, said that Kep –
along with neighbouring Kampot – could become a “second
Sihanoukville” in the next 10 years. “The two provinces are likely
to gradually attract many developers and investors in the years to
come,” he noted.

As tourists turn away from Sihanoukville’s casino coastline in
search of a more tranquil and authentic experience, Kep is already
on its way to re-living its glitzy past as a flourishing seaside
destination. That feels largely positive: this is a place that
deserves to be enjoyed. But with investors now eyeing up Kep,
travellers should act fast to reach this chilled, chic destination
before the shimmering horizon is eclipsed by high-rise hotels.

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