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Published: April 9th 2011
Kep is along the South Coast of Cambodia, about 30km from Vietnam, about 20km outside of Kampot and around 100km (and a million miles removed) from Sihanoukville. What used to be a 'rock star' vacation spot for Cambodia's elite, was abandoned in the 70's when the Khmer Rouge took over. Brutal fighting took place in and around Kep and afterward the villas of the rich and famous were left to the elements and became modern day ruins...like Angkor, they are shells of their former glory. Temples to what used to be. Nature, war and looters leaving nothing but skeletons of beautiful mansions.
Last time I finished up my Cambodian leg of the trip on the beaches of Sihanoukville. Back then it was a quiet little town with guesthouses and a few beach bars. There were warnings about gangs of children who would steal your shit and once you left the beach, there was a real seedy aspect to the area. But overall it was still off the beaten path. It was the perfect place to escape the backpacker scene and rinse the red dirt off your weary body before saying goodbye to Cambodia. I planned on ending this trip the
very same way, but it seems my little Cambodian beach town has become a major stop on the circuit and 'seedy' is now the nicest word used to explain what has become a beach choking with bars, backpackers, sex workers and drugs. Not the type of thing we were looking for this time around.
We debated staying in a resort in S'ville. This would allow us the comfort of Cambodia's nicest beaches without the sensory overload of what had become of the nightlife. But I decided not to tarnish the memories I already had and to take our chances with somewhere new...somewhere that people seem to be talking about more and more, Kep.
The burnt out villas are still here and are a draw for some tourists. It's pretty cool to wander through them, they kinda reminded me of being at Chernobyl. You can even tour the ruins of King Sihanouk's vacation home if you pay the monk living there $1. But in between these monuments to a destructive past, you can see the future. Large hotels are being built, villas are being restored and people have smiles on their faces. Even though the town lacks the white
sand beaches to the east, Kep is ready for a comeback. Even today, Kep Beach is still the most popular vacation spot for Cambodians.
It took us about 8 hours to get here from Battambang, but it was an easy 8 hours in an air conditioned car. The landscape kept us entertained the whole time, witnessing the Cambodian countryside and the people in their own element. The time flew by and we arrived around 4pm…just in time to drop our bags and grab a few beers before the sun set over the sea.
We are staying at the nicest resort in Kep. Knai Bang Chatt. The resort is made up of 3 restored villas, one of them (the one we are staying in) used to belong to the governor of region. There is no beach, but it's right on the sea. The grounds are covered in green grass with tented beach recliners and even full beds. The infinity pool is salt water and rather small but beautiful. The staff are all Cambodian and friendly as can be. There are only 11 rooms here and you can rent the whole place for $1000USD a night if you would like.
Kep, Sailing Club
The sunsets are surreal. This is the type of place I swore I would never stay in a country like this. But the Belgium people who own it have built schools, given people opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise and have really given back to the community. So if you are looking for a little piece of heaven in a place that used to be hell, I recommend this place. But if you do stay here, please do as we have done. Go down and eat at the local crab shacks in town...this is by far the best food we've had since we've been here. Rent motobikes or tuk tuks out on the street, not through the hotel. Get your car or bus back to PP on the street, not the hotel. And tip your staff well. Make sure that while you are enjoying yourself, you are also experiencing and giving back to the country.
A lot of people stay in Kampot and make a day trip to Kep. We did it the other way around. We went to Kampot for lunch and to buy some of the famous Kampot pepper, continuing to step in Anthony Bourdain's tracks. It's
Jamie's new friend
a nice, sleepy little town on the river with the Elephant Mountains providing an amazing backdrop. If we had more time I would have liked to have stayed there for a night or two. But time is something we do not have.
So, this is how it ends. On the water, amazing seafood and another great stop in an incredible country. A country that can wear the label 'the wild west of SE Asia' with pride, a people who have been to hell and can smile every day that they escaped it, food that rivals anything in Vietnam and Thailand and an ancient history as breathtaking as its modern history is horrific. I overheard some local businessmen talking about tourism and something caught my attention, they mentioned that Siem Reap is seeing a 60% occupancy rate in 4-5 star hotels versus 40% in guesthouses. This fact, along with how many families with children we have seen here, tells me Cambodia is on the brink of becoming a real destination. Do yourself a favor and book your trip soon...beat the masses that are sure to come!
Oh yeah, this wouldn't be complete without a Jamie update...her favorite things now
are Kep crab, Kampot pepper, the frogs in the pond outside our room and her new friend Pineapple (she named him), the dog who followed us around last night and lay by our feet while we drank Angkor beer by the ocean long after the sun had disappeared into the sea.
The journey home starts now...PP for a day, Seoul for a day, Seattle for half a day and then finally home. The jet lag is going to suck!
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