The sleepy town of Kep in southern Cambodia is at a crossroads. Writer Claire Slattery discovers its glamorous past, and looks towards its future. Additional reporting by Oudom Tat, photograph by Claire Slattery.
In the 1969 film Crepuscule, a fictional Cambodian prince drives a Chevrolet Camaro sports car along a shady coastal road, next to the tranquil waters of the Gulf of Siam. The scene was shot in the seaside hamlet of Kep, with the character played by real prince and then Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk.
While Kep only features briefly in the movie, Serge Remy of the Vimana Association, a conservation NGO, believes it provides a valuable glimpse of the town at a time that many remember as Cambodia’s ‘golden era’.
“It’s one of the few moving pictures we have of the city of Kep. Most of the documents we have are fixed pictures. [But] when you look at the movie of the King it’s so amazing to see the beach, to look at the cars… and the people, they’re really fashionable,” he says.
In the 1950s and 60s, following independence from French colonial rule, Cambodia experienced a renaissance of creativity and development, particularly in architecture. Sihanouk personally oversaw the construction of new buildings and the development of urban plans across the country.
The former King had a vision to turn the sleepy fishing village of Kep into the ‘French Riviera’ of Southeast Asia. The town had been a popular destination for the French since the early 20th century but became the holiday resort of choice for the Phnom Penh elite, who constructed villas in the New Khmer modernist style.
“Kep was like a laboratory, for architecture, for urbanism, for cinema, for leisure — because it was also the beginning of [the concept of taking] holidays for Cambodians,” says Remy.
During the Khmer Rouge Regime, Kep was abandoned. Today all that’s left of the golden era are the eerie, decaying remains of 157 villas owned by members of the royal family and high-ranking officials. Many are now inhabited by jungle and monkeys.
Kep drips with a bittersweet nostalgia, but it is also somewhere on the precipice of potential change, as tourists return and developers circle the prime coastal real estate. For Remy, now is a vital time to plan for the city’s future.
“Kep is developing in the same way as the rest of Cambodia — it’s booming. And the authorities want to increase tourism there, but they aren’t sure if they want to do it in the same way as Sihanoukville or Siem Reap.”
For the past 12 months the Vimana-Cambodia Association has been developing Kep Expo, a project that documents the town’s past and creates new visions for its future. More than 60 volunteers are involved in the scheme, which has also partnered with Phnom Penh’s Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre and the Cambodia Film Commission.
Part of the aim is to provide authorities with alternative proposals that support Kep’s sustainable development. French and Khmer architecture students have analysed the abandoned villas and developed plans for their refurbishment or renovation that will be proposed to owners.
“In Asia and when you talk about nostalgia and heritage and the past sometimes people look at you and say ‘Why are you foreigners and especially Westerners always in the past and always talking about heritage?’” Remy says. “But in order to look at the future it’s important to know what’s happened before.”
Perhaps Kep’s most significant remnant is Sihanouk’s own villa, which was built in the mid-60s and designed by French architects. Known as the State House, it is nestled on the headland, looking out to ocean views stretching from the Vietnamese border to Bokor Mountain.
The building is now inhabited by two families who are paid a small salary to act as caretakers. While it is not officially open to the public, according to caretaker Somurn, an average of one or two tourists a day come to snoop around.
Somurn considers it a huge privilege to live at the most esteemed address in town, but she wants to see the property’s future guaranteed. “My wish is that it will be a good place — I want it to be restored and to make it a proper place to honour our king.”
Kep Expo will suggest the building is renovated to become a museum, but ultimately it is up to the royal family and the Ministry of the Royal Palace to decide its future. The ministry declined to comment, but Sihanouk’s close friend and former advisor, Prince Sisowath Tomico, said that while he is supportive of the idea, he’s unaware of any immediate plans for the building.
In a country where development is rampant, it’s easy to be cynical about the future of Kep. Already, on a block of land near the city port, an old villa has been demolished to make way for the development of a large modern hotel.
But, according to the deputy of Kep Provincial Hall Prum Chomran, the council’s planning department closely monitors building proposals and regularly asks for modifications or rejects applications outright. The city’s 20-year masterplan places an emphasis on tourism and preserving the environment, she says, and planning zones limit development, particularly along the beachfront.
“I expect Kep will change and develop a lot in the next few years, but we won’t be allowing skyscrapers to be built. We want to allow Kep to develop in response to tourist’s demands, but using what we have. We will allow some large buildings, but not many, and not concentrated.”
Given Sihanouk’s vision was the construction of buildings that were the epitome of modernity and sophistication in the 1960s, it could be seen as hypocritical to ask for the Kep of today not to develop.
But, over the course of this year, Remy has seen a dramatic change in the mentality of the students involved in Kep Expo.
“I think that they fell in love in Kep,” he explains. “I think that’s because, step-by-step and day-by-day, they discovered a part of their history that they didn’t know existed, and they became truly interested. They realised that it’s necessary to know what’s happened before, in order to know what we can build for the future.”
Kep Expo is hoping to raise enough money to hold an exhibition in Phnom Penh, marking the 60th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence. It’s hoped the show will also be exhibited in Paris and Kep. This article was produced in partnership with the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media.