In the pursuit of travel nirvana, Kep, Cambodia is a prime candidate for a stopover. Unlike its boisterous cousin Sihanoukville up the coast, Kep, Cambodia has retained the majesty of the Gulf of Thailand without becoming a full-scale backpackers destination. Perhaps it’s the scraggly and rocky waterfront—the nearest truly tropical beach experience is a hair-raising 4½-kilometer boat ride away—or the barely recognizable, dusty town center. Yet Kep is serene in its beauty, surreal in its history, and home to one of the world’s most memorable nature lodges.
Your first reaction upon arriving in Kep is that you must have been dropped off in the wrong place. The town itself is little more than a handful of uninviting wood shacks facing the water, and the hillside behind has a smattering of unsubstantial tourist huts. After asking around, we were pointed toward our accommodations at the Veranda Natural Resort
, a quick tuk-tuk ride up a steep hill to where it is perched high in the jungle. Upon arrival it was easy to make sense of the location, with its wide-ranging views of the sea and surrounding forests and hills. Much of the resort is on stilts—raised bamboo walkways sprout out from the restaurant and sitting area and connect to individual bungalows.
Down to its elaborate handcrafted stonework, Veranda clearly was envisaged and constructed with great care. Instead of imposing on its natural surroundings, the resort simply co-exists. The star of the show, as one could guess, is the veranda, a multi-level open air sitting area that serves as the restaurant, bar, and place of general contemplation. The sunsets are epic, the food and drink top-notch, and a natural ice cream stand helps to offset the heat.
The next day we made our way down to the waterfront, and almost by mistake, wandered inside an old shack that we took to be a restaurant. A few family members were relaxing in the shade, and a young man leisurely led us to the back where he flung open two large wood shutters and unveiled the sea pounding only a few feet in front of us. He then pulled up a couple of chairs, brought out a liter of cold beer, and left us to bask in the remarkable setting, remote-beyond-remote, utterly rustic, and yet somehow so luxurious.
A little while later we noticed the same young man wading through the water, fishing net and bait in hand, and watched as he patiently retrieved crab after crab and placed them in a bucket of seawater until it was full. He returned with the bucket, fired up a small burner, steamed the crabs, and brought them out accompanied by a luscious dipping sauce made from local Kampot pepper. Getting all the meat from a crab requires meticulous concentration and time, and we were happy to oblige. Not a single other person entered the restaurant and it was only when the sun approached the horizon that we took stock of the hours that had passed.
When exploring the rest of the town center you cannot miss the scars of conflict that raged here from the 1960’s until not long ago. Kep was once a glorious seaside destination for the French and Cambodian elite but became contested and dangerous during the rise of the murderous Khmer Rogue. Most of the beautiful buildings were abandoned or destroyed and only recently have people begun to return to the area. The jungle has overtaken much but it’s still possible to imagine what life must have been like before those dark times. Each building tells its own story but leaves many questions unanswered.
For great views of the area, take the Kep National Park loop trail that leaves from the road just behind Veranda. Heading clockwise, you will make your way up to a ridge that offers long, stretched-out panoramas of the Bay of Thailand and the Kampot region. The backside passes down through the peaceful, green, Jasmine Valley where you can see several pagodas and the salt flats of Vietnam in the distance. Instead of circling all the way back to Veranda, you can break from the trail when it reaches the outskirts of town and walk through remnants of Kep’s troubled past to the main road.
The most popular day excursion from Kep is to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), which requires hiring a boat from the main dock. You might imagine some kind of organized system but the process entails milling around until somebody takes notice. The boats are the long wooden type with small outboard motors, and you may come to doubt their stability midway through the choppy 30-minute ride when both coasts look awfully far away.
Koh Tonsay feels as though it were the creation of suits stuck inside stuffy downtown offices—immaculate white sand, warm clear water, and trees overhanging the beach for shade. A couple of local vendors have taken advantage of the tourist traffic by selling drinks out of a cooler and cooking up local catch beachside. You certainly will not want to pack up and leave at the end of the day, especially considering your means of transportation back to the mainland.
Largely, the Kep experience is about slowing down and soaking up this extraordinary corner of the world in relative solitude. It’s not often that you can enjoy a two-hour sunset from start to finish or have your own seaside shack and eat crab minutes out of the water. Kep’s return to glory has been slow and it remains a true gem for travelers.
On the way out of town make sure to stop by one of the Kampot region’s famous pepper plantations and grab as many bags as you can carry home. On site, Kampot pepper is cheap and one of the finest spices you will ever taste. We bought four large bags and promised to return for more when we run out—I only hope that Kep hasn’t changed too much when we do.
Canby Publications is a fantastic travel website for Cambodia and locally run. Click on the Kep city guide for maps and further information.