Back in the days when this part of the world was called Indochina – long before the days of the Khmer rouge – Kep was the playground for Cambodia’s French colonial elite. They would come to their grand seaside houses to take in some sea-breeze and get away from the capital.
When I first heard this, my mind imagined Frenchmen knocking off work on a friday before a long weekend, waxing their moustaches, doning their berets, and with a baguette under one arm and a bottle of cider under the other, the would set off on their bicycles from Phnom Penh to their part jungle/part oceanside getaway of Kep.
Ok, so that’s totally ridiculous. But the empty, dilapidated french mansions that are slowly being reclaimed by the jungle around Kep make you wonder what this place used to be like.
Kep isn’t so much a town as it is an area – tiny resorts, clusters of local houses and building are spread along a small peninsula, with ocean on three sides and tall, densely forested hills in the middle.
As soon as we arrived in Kep, we felt we had arrived somewhere very special. After close to 5 months on the road, this was perhaps the most truly relaxing place we had been.
We chose to stay at Masada resort – a bit of a splurge for us at $40 a night – a new resort, made up of only 5 modern bungalows set in a gorgeous garden and run by a young Belgian guy and his Khmer wife. The resort was halfway up a hill, with the ocean down below and the towering jungle rising up behind. With a hard to believe pool and a very talented chef in the kitchen, we soon extended our stay at Masada from 2 to 4 nights.
There aren’t a lot of activities to do around Kep – you can walk in the national park, visit pepper plantations (this region is famous for pepper) – but mostly we preferred to read by the pool and listen to birds, insects and the absence of tooting horns and construction that seems to be the soundtrack to most places in asia.
We did venture down to the local crab shacks – a row of shacks that sit above the water on a murky strip of beach. Here they combine the area’s two most famous items – Kampot pepper and Kep crabs. I ordered by Kampot pepper crab, and soon someone was dispatched to wade out to the crab posts, visible bobbing in the water not too far offshore from the shacks.
Soon a huge plate of mouth wateringly fresh crabs arrives at our table, and well, you know its going to be good. A few minutes later and there is crab in my beard and cuts on my my hands.
Kep may well be saved from the rampart overdevelopment that afflicts many seaside towns in south-east asia because frankly, the beach here is rubbish. And that’s a great thing. It means that the tourism industry here will never really boom. The area is making a comeback, but noone knows if it will even reach the prominence it had 50 years ago. David, the owner of Masada resort, told us he moved to Kep because there isn’t really anywhere else like it in south-east asia – where the jungle meets the sea – and he is pretty confident the area wont change too much.
To find a nice beach, you can head out to Rabbit island, a small island a 25 minute boat ride from the Kep pier. A few families live on the island – called Koh Tonsai by the locals – and some of them rent out basic bungalows for $5 or $7 a night. A generator kicks in and provides electricity from 6 pm till 10 pm – but there is no running water. The temperamental beast that is the monsoon – so kind to us so far – decided to give us a show of its disregard for travel plans, and as soon as we emerged from the jungle on the far side of rabbit island (feeling like characters on Lost), we were buffeted by strong winds.
We spent a very windy day on the idyllic beach, but by the next morning the wind had been joined by driving rain, and our dreams of lying in the sun on secluded island beach were canned. After waiting under a shack for 4 hours, a break in the weather meant could take the passage back to the mainland. It was a shame, but I think we will be back. The place was a little too basic for some (Asha wasn’t super impressed – but it could have been the wind, her #1 enemy), but I think we will head back in finer weather. Its the kind of ‘away from it all’ (including the backpacker scene) secluded island bungalow living that you think doesn’t really exist much in asia anymore.
Asha says she likes Kep because its beautiful, but there isn’t really anything to do, so you don’t feel bad about doing nothing. I think there is something in that – in Kep you have to stop, put your feet up and listen to the birds in the jungle.
If we do settle in Phnom Penh – which is looking increasingly likely – its good to know that Kep, or more importantly Masada, is only a 4 hour bus ride away.