Watching the brilliant orange sun descend over the sea, we reclined on plush cushions and sipped Sauvignon Blanc from oversized glasses. Live chillout music floated over the relaxing scene. I glanced at my boyfriend and he nodded: it was time to order another cheeseboard. This wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined our stint in Cambodia: we’d envisioned trekking, historical sightseeing, and feasting on Khmer barbeque every night. And we’d spent some time in the north doing exactly that. But then we discovered Kep: a tonic of a destination on the South Coast.
We’d only intended to spend a couple of nights in Kep: an off-the-beaten-track alternative to Cambodia’s more famous south coast destination - Sihanoukville. We’d expected to find a pretty, beachy destination; albeit one that’s a little short on standout attractions. However, Kep’s easy charm, idyllic scenery, and laid back pace of life held us there - spellbound - for over a week.
What to see and do in Kep
A two-hour bus journey from Phnom Penh, Kep proffers a strange greeting. Ten metres out to sea floats a giant crab, its pincers spread to the heavens. “Welcome to Kep” reads the bold lettering underneath. As I looked upon this eerie crustaceous salutation, I would have been surprised to learn that I would fall hopelessly in love with this tranquil little destination.
We started our days in Kep with a sunrise kayak on the tranquil sea, before the heat became unbearable. Then it would be time for a cycle along the beautiful coast, the silver water stretching out in front of us, and a picnic of baguette and goat’s cheese on Kep beach. In the afternoons we’d find a local bar or restaurant sequestered away in the backstreets - often run by expats - for a snack and an Angkor beer, before heading to the boat club for sundown with a large glass of white wine. It was heaven.
A tragic history
And yet Kep - like everywhere in Cambodia - hides a tragic past. Before the Khmer Rouge took power in the 1970s, Kep was an upscale destination serving the glitterati of Phnom Penh. Having initially been founded as a French colonial resort at the start of the century, by the 1960s it was Phnom Penh’s high rollers who would gather here to relax and party, many of them commissioning holiday villas amidst the luscious vegetation of the small town.
After Pol Pot and his followers unleashed their brutal regime on the country, most of these revellers would never return. The communist government set out to eliminate wealthy urbanites - the very people who sought fun and relaxation in Kep.
Visit now, and you’ll see the crumbling remains of the once-grand holiday villas dotting the hillside, some of them still unfinished. But this is really the only sign of Kep’s sad past, and - relaxing on the beach or exploring the hectic crab market - it’s hard to believe such tragedy befell this small town so recently.
Eating and drinking: A break from Southeast Asian cuisine
Taking a tuk-tuk to Kep from the nearby city of Kampot, we were flagged down by a French expat, gesturing at his defunct 4x4. Leaping into our tuk-tuk, he explained he needed a ride back to Kep. Having attempted to take his boat to Kampot for a picnic, it had spluttered and failed. After managing to get back to the shore and deciding he could make the picnic if he travelled by road instead, his vehicle had unbelievably broken down too. This was our first experience of the large French expat community that lead a quietly idyllic life in Kep - motoring problems aside.
Upon arrival we found that - in and among the many Khmer barbeque restaurants and crab shacks - there were delis serving baguettes and goats’ cheese, and upscale Mediterranean restaurants with luxurious wine lists. After weeks of nothing but noodles, veggies, and tofu washed down with Angkor beer, this delighted us. There were also a surprising number of upmarket hotels in Kep. Of course, as a popular tourist destination, Cambodia has its fair share of luxe accommodation: we just didn’t expect to find such hotels sequestered away in Kep. Often run by European expats, these hotels and restaurants line the beach and populate the small dirt tracks running up the tremendously verdant mountains.
The Crab Market: Kep’s crustaceous heritage
The gargantuan crab statue that had waved us into Kep wasn’t an anomaly: Kep is well known for its crab-based cuisine, and purple crabs scuttle over its rocks and luxuriate in its rock pools. The frantic, pungent crab market sits near the heart of the town. I wandered through its narrow aisles holding my breath, murky water washing over my feet. Fishermen surrounded by buckets of water containing live crustaceans sell their wares on the water’s edge, while their wives sell bracelets and keyrings to tourists.
A line of diminutive restaurants next to the crab market serve up Kep’s most famous dish. The eateries are decorated with wicker crab traps and dotted with fish tanks containing all manner of sea creatures, ripe for the picking. At night, diners sit on the balconies overlooking the sea, as fishermen in head torches wade through the shallow inky black water, setting and emptying their crab traps.
A little further along the coast lies Kep Beach. We cycled along the coast from the crab market to the beach: a short but stunning route, where the flat silver water stretches out as far as you can see. Spotting a French colonial viewpoint, we hopped off our bikes to climb up to the platform for an incredible panorama of Kep from the sea.
On the pavement that lines the beach, families sit on deck chairs and swing in hammocks, eating the bounty from their sizzling barbeques. Smoke floats over the white sand. Revellers splash in the sea and a small smattering of tourists recline on the scorching beach. Set back from the sand is a small line of shops, guesthouses, and bakeries - perfect for procuring a picnic for your day at the beach. A stone jetty stretches out to sea, with the large statue of The White Lady posed at the end, staring wistfully into the silver ether.
Mojitos in the fishing village
It’s very easy to be lazy in Kep - especially when you’re staying in a bungalow with a hammock and a refreshing pool. One day we managed to tear ourselves away from our slothful routine and venture a little bit further - and for this we were handsomely rewarded.
Cycling towards Kep town, we got a bit lost, and ended up riding along a dirt track to a fishing village. We cycled past a one-room primary school on stilts, filled with shrieking children, and a crumbling jetty where fishermen were bringing in their hauls. In the midst of the wooden, stilted houses we discovered a gorgeous bar called Fishing House Kep run by two women - one French and one Khmer. We relaxed here for the rest of the afternoon, drinking refreshing mojitos and looking out at the mint green fishing boats bobbing on the still, sparkling water.
Achieving a castaway vibe on Rabbit Island
If you want to venture even more off the beaten track than Kep, Rabbit Island - or Koh Thonsay - is just 20 minutes away by boat. Our passage there was slightly rocky but thankfully short, and the payoff was so worth it.
We jumped off the boat into the shallows, somehow managing to remain upright despite our heavy backpacks, and waded onto the beach. The paradisiacal strip of sand at the front of Rabbit Island is fringed with palms and contains a number of beach bars and restaurants, as well as charmingly rustic bungalow-style accommodation on stilts. Broken jetties dot the shallows, and slender green boats bob around, poised to carry visitors to and from the island.
We spent a night on this internet-free island, reading and drinking mojitos in the hammocks strung up in the cabanas along the shore. It was delightful, and the closest we’d got to that beautiful castaway feeling on this trip so far. Had we had access to the Wi-Fi, we would no doubt have rearranged our transport and accommodation on the other end in order to remain on Koh Thonsay for much, much longer.
Where else to visit on Cambodia’s south coast?
Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s most famous south coast destination - largely due to the paradisiacal islands that lie off its coast. The islands are hugely diverse: choose from jungle terrain, secluded bays, or destinations with more developed amenities. The one thing they indisputably have in common is their breathtaking beauty. Nature lovers should consider Koh Themi, perfect for getting back to the simpler things, while there’s always a party to be had on Koh Rong. Visiting with your significant other? You won’t find a more romantic island than Koh Rong Sanloem, where hammocks and cocktails are the order of the day.
Then there’s Kampot: a small city famed for its pepper and sunsets. Here you can walk along the promenade - which, with its polished pink tiles, had the feel of a Spanish resort - and relax in the smattering of coffee shops and pizza joints along the front. And if you wish to pay tribute to Southeast Asia’s most pungent fruit, take a walk to the odd Durian Roundabout. A more pleasing way to spend the afternoon perhaps, is with a hike in Kampot Province’s Preah Monivong National Park, before taking a sunset cruise.