One morning, I found a tuk-tuk (cyclos have all but disappeared in Cambodia) to take me around, and off we set. In Kep’s famous crab market, Psar K’Dam, there was all manner of seafood—squid, prawns, crab, a multitude of fish—which they offered to cook on the spot. Kep is supposed to have some of the best seafood in Southeast Asia, made better still when prepared with fresh Kampot peppercorns. The prawns cooked with this back at the restaurant at Le Bout du Monde were indescribably good. I had them for every meal.
Then we went up to Sihanouk’s former villa. This looked, if anything, more decrepit than it did 20 years ago. There was a group of small, gray monkeys playing by the gate. I took some photos of them and they followed me as I walked up the winding drive to the house. A large Art Deco villa with a magnificent view over the bay and toward the islands of Vietnam beyond, it must have been lovely once, but the roof had long ago caved in, the walls were stained, and the floors crawled with insects. It is now partly inhabited by a Cambodian family who accept a small fee for letting you look around. I found it rather depressing. Decay always is. Compared to the pristine villa in Vung Tao of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, this was a wreck. The only change from when I visited before was there were no longer any soldiers guarding the place.
My tuk-tuk driver took me on through broad streets flanked by large villas, built mainly in the first half of the 20th century. Many were ruined, with gaping roofs and doors hanging off their hinges. Vegetation had taken over. If left unchecked, I imagined, the greenery would eventually swallow them up, as the jungle had long ago reclaimed the temples of Angkor. My driver confirmed that the Khmer Rouge had destroyed the buildings, and that looters had carted off whatever of value remained. A few houses were intact, but these were locked up; the driver told me they belonged to “foreigners,” using the word, it seemed, as a pejorative. I couldn’t work out which foreigners he meant. The French, I imagined.
Kep has, or had, a reputation for being haunted. Twenty years ago, it was a ghost town; no one lived here. Now they do, but it still feels a little odd. Kep is a strange, discombobulated place. The town has no real center and there are just a few “tourist” shops that contain almost nothing, certainly nothing that you would want to buy. But the sun- sets are splendid: dizzying vistas of pink and gold; the seafood is good and cheap; and there is little to distract or worry you. Which may be why people like it. Its pleasures are innocent, unsophisticated ones: eating, drinking, beach life. I didn’t see a single nightclub or girly bar. If they exist in Kep, they are hidden well away.
The name of my hotel seemed appropriate—The End of the World. It felt like it. And, in the end, all I did with the rest of my time was lie on my balcony, read, and watch the sun go down.
Where To Stay
With its thatched Khmer-style houses and lush hillside setting, Le Bout du Monde (855-12/ 801-968; doubles from US$45) is a bargain-priced alternative to a seaside stay. If proximity to the water is a priority, you won’t do better than Knai Bang Chatt (855-78/888-556; doubles from US$225), where New Khmer architecture meets plush comforts and a full range of facilities. Villa Romonea (855-12/879-486; doubles from US$200) is another Le Corbusier– inspired haven, built in 1968 and reopened in 2010 with six minimalist guest rooms.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2014 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Keeping Up With Kep”).