The sleepy coastal town of Kep is on the brink of booming. Editor Marissa Carruthers and photographer Charles Fox visit the increasingly popular weekend getaway to discover its growing allure.
Standing in the dappled shade that patterns the almost pristine promenade, I watch as waves crash on the white sands almost drowned out by the chatter from Cambodian families gathered, cross-legged on mats, sucking the last remnants of the fresh crab bought at the nearby market from their fingers.
The rare roar of a motorbike acts as a remote reminder that I’m standing in Kep’s barely beating heart. And that’s the nature of the town’s beauty; its laid back vibe, unique rustic, romantic edge, coupled with quaint streets, a sprawling tropical landscape, fresh sea breeze and clean beach, set Kep apart from the many ghastly seaside resorts that traded in their charm for tourism years ago.
A million miles from the hedonistic shores of nearby Sihanoukville, trying to find a tuk tuk after 11pm in Kep is a chore. There isn’t a KTV in sight, and it’s almost possible to walk down the street without the usual barrage of, “Tuk tuk, Madame?”
While it’s long been on the map of locals and expats wanting a brief break from the suffocating urban centres, a steady trickle of tourists is starting to plant Kep on their travel itinerary. The recent addition of the town’s first two ATMs – cutting out the tedious trip to Kampot – is evidence that the historic town is gearing up to enter a new era.
However, for now, Kep’s tranquil charm remains, with relics scattered about the landscape harking back to a bygone age when luxury sports cars cruised down the newly-designed promenade and past the beach packed full of the top echelons of Khmer and colonial French society, all clad in the latest fashions.
To the other side of the promenade, sprawling villas with European minimalist architecture peek out from tropical forests that hug the hills gently rising from the shore. Horses and carriages carry the country’s elite along the quiet streets that are lined with cafés, restaurants and boutiques all serving fine cuisine and upmarket wares.
This is a picture of life during Kep’s heyday, enjoyed during the Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s when it was a town reserved for the rich. Dubbed Kep-Sur-Mer, or the Saint Tropez of Southeast Asia, it was labelled an exclusive getaway.
However, the dream life was short-lived and, like the rest of the country, Kep suffered under the Khmer Rouge, becoming a military stronghold. It wasn’t until 2001 that peace was restored and since then, Kep has slowly rebuilt itself. Derelict mansions have been restored into chic boutique hotels and private homes, a new generation of restaurants, bars and cafés are opening, and travellers are rediscovering the enchanting beauty that attracted high society.
Now there’s more to do than laze on the beach, or kick back a cocktail at sunset in the serene surroundings of the Sailing Club. Kep National Park is 50 square kilometres of jungle, tropical forest and rolling hills. While walking is an option, a bumpy tuk tuk or moto ride along the winding trails offers views of sweeping landscapes taking in stretches of paddy fields dotted with intricate wats and sugar palms out to the sea and a smattering of islands.
The ancient caves of Kompong Trach sit a 40-minute drive away. Here, nature has worked her magic to carve the caves deep inside limestone mountains, and with a wonderful touch, centuries of erosion has led to the roof of the caves collapsing, creating a small lake that makes a stunning swimming spot.
Kep is still home to a handful of once-glorious villas. The late King Father’s residence, which perches on the crest of a hill overlooking the town’s bay, is one such place. With the grounds kept by a Khmer family who live on site, for $1 you can explore inside and admire the lost decadence, architecture that takes in curving walls and atria, worn tiled floors and arching ceilings. Several villas have also been given a modern make-over by internationally-renowned graffiti artist, ROA from Belgium, who has left his signature mark in the form of giant animals on a villa near Independence Monument, another before Kep Plantation and the last behind Kep Tourism Office.
Kep’s prosperity stretches further back than the Golden Age. Famous in kitchens across the world is the GI certified Kampot pepper, which arrived from Kerala more than 800 years ago. The region’s fertile lands make ripe pickings for pepper plants and still today the countryside is filled with farms growing black, green, white and red peppercorns. Starling Pepper Farm is a popular place to discover what makes this particular plant so sought after.
It’s the pepper’s unique kick that has helped push Kep’s signature dish of crab and Kampot pepper to fame, making the crab market a top spot to stop off. Here, women wade in shallow waters to bring in the crab baskets that bob in the sea. On shore, crustaceans are flung on scales before being passed to the myriad of stalls selling fresh crab and prawns alongside barbecued squid and fresh fish. For more refined dining, next to the market sits a row of restaurants serving up the freshest of fresh seafood, with a handful staying open late – in Kep terms.