A return visit to Cambodia’s once-glamorous beach resort reveals that not much—blissfully—has changed over the years, though there are modern comforts to be found among the remains of the town’s glory days
By Lucretia Stewart
Photographs by Christopher Wise
A year ago, on my first trip to Cambodia in a decade, my oldest and dearest friend in Phnom Penh was off spending the New Year in Kep with her grandchildren. So too were two photographers I knew from Siem Reap. And a good friend of mine from Naxos, Greece, where I live, has visited there since. Clearly, Kep was the place to be.
So I thought I would go again, after an interval of more than 20 years. I would end my trip to Cambodia with a relaxing weekend in Kep. How much would it have changed? How much could it have changed? Not so much, as it turned out.
The journey there from Phnom Penh wasn’t much different from all those years before—six hours in a bus with poor suspension through a desolate and dusty landscape. Wherever Cambodia’s billions of dollars in foreign aid has gone, it hasn’t been spent on roads. (On the way back I took a taxi, shaving more than three hours off the travel time, though at six times the cost).
Kep is the smallest province in Cambodia, with a population of some 40,000. It lies about 170 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh, and just east of the border with Vietnam. Its only town, also called Kep, overlooks the Gulf of Thailand from the shore of a forested peninsula. It was founded as seaside retreat for the French colonial elite in 1908, who named it Kep-sur-mer; after independence, wealthy Cambodians—including the late King Norodom Sihanouk, then a movie-making prince—used to holiday here in their luxurious villas. “The Cambodian Riviera,” they called it then. But the town fell to the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s, and they did their best to destroy it. Of Kep’s original 1,000-plus villas, little more than 100 are still standing, of which perhaps only a couple dozen are fit for restoration. Despite this, the town still conjures up images of glamour and privilege among Cambodians, who throng the beach on the weekends to eat crab, to take picnicking boat trips to Rabbit Island, and to frolic on the narrow stretch of tawny sand.
When I first visited Kep in 1990, it made me wonder what chance Cambodia had of recovery. It was the first place I had visited where the evidence of destruction and decay was so strong. But now a cheerful statue of a giant crab, its pincer raised in salute above the words Welcome to Kep, greets you as you arrive.
There were also dozens of hotels, and a steady supply of electricity. This was new. The smartest—and most expensive—place to stay in Kep these days is undoubtedly Knai Bang Chatt, a tranquil resort comprising five modernist villas (three of which were built in the 1960s by protégés of the renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, a disciple of Le Corbusier) with 18 ele- gant, antiques-filled guest rooms between them. Knai Bang Chatt also operates the nearby Sailing Club, where you can rent Hobie Cats and windsurfers or just kick back for a drink on the porch of the board-and-batten bar.
I opted to stay away from the beach at Le Bout du Monde, a Franco-Khmer venture in the form of a hillside eco-lodge that backs onto Kep National Park. It was a beautiful place with bedrooms set in little thatched bungalows on stilts, decorated in traditional Khmer style, a small, blue-tiled swimming pool, and jungly gardens with little signs that identify the names of all the trees and plants. The food was excellent, the staff was gracious, and the sense of peace and isolation was complete.