I got a feeling in my waters the moment we boarded the bus for Kep. One of those good feelings that only gets stronger the longer it lasts. A sea of green rolled by the bus window: rice paddies, swaying palms and rocky outcrops. Before the bus rounded the corner my nostrils were filled with the smell sea. Soon we began winding our way along the coastal road, jungle covered slopes leaning down on one side while the tropical waters reached for the horizon on the other.
We stepped off the bus in the little seaside village and quickly negotiated a lift up to our hotel. The beaten up Fiat bounced and banged its way up the bumpy dirt road that leads up to Kep Lodge. Its thatched bungalows nestle comfortably in to the green slopes that rise behind the town. Owned and run by a Swiss expat and his Cambodian wife the lodge combines a relaxed feel, an interesting mix of cultures and amazing poolside views.
Borrowing some busted up bikes from the hotel we spent the afternoon exploring the town. Kep remains a place partly frozen in time. Once a fashionable seaside retreat for the French and Cambodian elites of the colonial years the town fell from grace during the Khmer Rouge regime. It was abandoned and the retreats that spread along the coastal slopes were destroyed or badly damaged.
A few ruined shells of these modernist seaside villas are still scattered throughout the town. Partly reclaimed by the jungle, facades covered in black mold and riddled with bullet holes they remain, a reminder of a different time, an earlier empire. Judging by the number of plots being prepared for development it won’t be long before these remains are but a memory: ruins replaced with resorts.
We spent our evenings at the Knai Bang Chatt Sailing Club where we settled in to enjoy a series of cliched tropical sunsets that tugged at the strings of our soul. Unfinished timber, a quaint wooden pier and quality cocktails were accompanied by the sound of the waves and smell of the sea. It got me musing, it is the type of place I could wile away the days, weeks and years, G&T in hand, watching the fishing boats thrall the tropical waters, thinking, imagining then penning what I firmly believe to be the literary triumph of my generation but that turns out to be rubbish.
Dinners were had at the crab market, a strip of shacks perched on the headland. It was worth making the trip for those dining experiences alone. Fried Crab in Green Kampot Pepper, the local specialty dish is, to quote one the great modern philosophers, “groin grabbingly great”.
There is a wholesome simplicity to food that you have to eat with your hands. Any pretense of sophistication is abandoned in favor of flavor and fulfillment. It was messy, mouthwatering fun.
You could also get this culinary delight during the day simply by pulling up a straw mat in one of the seaside pagodas: a seafood picnic prepared by street vendors with the tropical vista spilling out in every direction.
Kep has character and tranquility in spades. Except for a couple of bars most of the restaurants are closed and the streets largely deserted by nine. It is a sleepy little seaside paradise without the ugly infrastructure or the aggressive hawker mentality that accompanies most backpacker destinations, Sihanoukville, Bali or Phuket. Because of this and its colonial past, Kep attracts a different crowd: expats, European backpackers and families.
While there is a bit of a beach on the mainland it isn’t super impressive compared to what we are spoilt with back home or even compared to the white sands of Sihanoukville – at the height of Kep’s pre-war popularity sand was actually shipped across from there to maintain appearances. The real beach action was to be found just across the water on the island of Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island). We hopped a boat for a day trip out to this island paradise and spent our time swimming, lounging, reading and snoozing, hammock style.
The moment your feet hit the sand you leave the modern world behind. Basic bungalow accommodation (rain water and no electricity), hammocks and a couple of restaurants provide accommodation for a few isolated souls out on this remote haven. We ran into a middle-aged American dude who had been escaping some excruciatingly boring and stressful job in corporate finance for the past fours years. Four weeks without ambition, schedules, email or a mobile.
Our final Kep adventure was a trek around the National Park. An eight-kilometer trail, complete with amazing views and monkeys, wraps its way around the mountain. As it turns out, the only actual trekking required was when decided to take a shortcut up to the trail. That required scaling a goat trail at the back of Kep Lodge, after that it was more of a leisurely stroll.
The time came to return to our life in Phnom Penh but we did so happier, healthier people. Without discussing it we both knew we would be back. Kep does that to you. It has some understated magnetism: a place with good food and good vibes. If you ever come to Cambodia, skip Sihanoukville and see Siem Reap second. Make sure you call into Kep.