KEP - The Forgotten Resort
By:Ann Creevey. Picture by : Jon Bugge ( February, 2002 Volume 2 No.2 )

This tiny seaside hamlet is famous throughout Cambodia for its seafood. During Cambodia's golden years before 1970, this lush coastal region looking out over a myriad of islands was where the wealthy and famous came to relax. King Sihanouk chose to take his seaside holidays here, about four hour’s drive and 148 kilometers south-west of the capital down National Route 3. Kep is one of Cambodia's four municipalities, and is under separate administration from Kampot. Although the beaches are not in the same league as Sihanoukville’s, the tranquil atmosphere is what most travelers seek here. Khmer picnic makers flock here on weekends, but on weekdays you and the locals may have Kep almost to yourselves. In the last census, Kep had just 28,660 residents (0.3 per cent of Cambodia's total population). It consists of two districts, five communes and 16 villages. There are no busy bars or clubs in Kep.
To find these, you must return to Kampot, or better still, Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. There are a handful of laid-back guesthouses, both Khmer and foreign run, and a seaside market as well as a town further up the road and a second market. But Kep (which means saddle) is Cambodia's forgotten resort. Besides exploring nearby hidden caves, there is always the chance of a swim on the main tree-fringed beach, or to just sit eating freshly caught and cooked seafood by the water and watch the world go by.

The Beach

Kep Beach is not an ideal swimming beach. The shore is rocky and it is often covered in silt. However, Khmer tourists travel for hours to picnic here on a weekend and if you would prefer to leave your swimming to Teuk Chheu in Kampot or the beaches of Sihanoukville, you can still always have a good time watching a resident troupe of monkeys, chatting with the locals or laughing at the antics of the children playing in the very calm, warm water on rented inner tubes. There is plenty of food on offer to sate any appetite over the course of a lazy afternoon. Just sit on any reed mat overlooking the beach and the hawkers will come to you with fresh seafood, sweets and fruit in abundance. At the end of the beach is a large statue of a “mermaid” with legs. This is a popular spot for tourists to have pictures taken.

The Crab Market

Most of the residents in the beachside part of Kep are fisher folk, and the specialty of the region is crab. These delicious creatures can be yours for as little as 5000 riel a kilo, depending on seasonal availability and how hard you bargain. The Crab Market (Psar Kdam) is the first market as you enter the beach area on the one-way loop road and is right on the beach. Fishermen bring in baskets of crabs by the boatload. Visitors can sit and watch them work while the market restaurants boil them fresh from the sea before your eyes for a small additional fee.
Fish, squid and prawns are also on offer, often cooking slowly over coals out the front of all the restaurants. Bargain hard and always make clear what quantity you have decided to buy and how much you are paying before you order. Several of these stalls sell coral and seashells as souvenirs. Buying these encourages further looting and destruction of natural reefs. Please, be ecologically aware and stick to the seafood!

Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay)

Rabbit Island has become a popular daytrip for tourists. Within sight of land, this lushly forested spot has swimming and snorkeling opportunities and is a pleasant place to while away some time. People do live on the island but most visitors prefer to return by late afternoon, although you could stay with a local family. Kep’s guesthouses offer boat services to the island, and local fishermen will also take you, but they are likely to be more expensive. Prices for a return trip range between about $10 and $20. There are a feast of other islands dotting the area. A tour of these could be arranged for around $50 or $60 for the whole day.

King Sihanouk's Villa

At the end of the road nearing the main market and town area, a huge villa with wrought iron gates stands, forlorn and overgrown. This was the villa King Sihanouk built so he could enjoy the beauty of Kep at his leisure. Now inhabited by squatters, it was gutted in heavy fighting before 1975 when the area was attacked by Khmer Rouge troops. There are many other ghostly and attractive ruins in Kep. These suffered a similar fate when the Khmer Rouge focused on destroying the signs of affluence Kep had accrued in its time as Cambodia's premier seaside resort.

Phnom Sia Caves

About 15 kilometers from Kampot Town down the Kep road is a sign pointing down a dirt road to these holy caves. Two kilometers from the turnoff is a school and Phnom Sia Pagoda. Walk up and through the pagoda and you will come to the maze of limestone caves inside Phnom Sia itself. The most famous is the Cave of the White Elephant, named after a rock formation locals say resembles an elephant. This cave is particularly sacred and there is a shrine in front of the rock. Ask at your guesthouse for directions or a tour. Once there, one of the children from the school will be glad to show you around the caves for a small fee. This is a pretty trip and a pleasant spot to rest and have a cold drink on a hot day. Kampot and Kep have a few cave systems. Locals and guesthouses will be able to give you information on several more.
Kep is about 25 kilometers from Kampot Town. Any motodop in town will take you for a couple of dollars and a round trip should not be more than about $7. To get there by yourself, take the road out of Kampot heading east and go right at the large statue of a white horse. Turn right again at the intersection just before the school and Aspeca orphanage. Be warned this is a one-way loop road, and local police (of which there are many, especially on weekends) will fine people who do not stick to the rules!
Taxis heading south towards Kampot leave Phnom Penh's Psar Daem Kor near the Hotel Intercontinental. Some may go to Kep on weekends. Apart from some guesthouses (Seaside Guesthouse as you come in is the fanciest at $6 for a room inside) there is little in the way of facilities down here. Forget swimming pools, spas and fancy restaurants, and the electricity supply cuts off at about 10pm, but people who love Kep say that is part of its unspoiled charm. So if sun, fresh sea air and copious amounts of seafood are your desire, you cannot go past tranquil Kep, Cambodia’s forgotten beach resort.