It’s always fascinating to leaf through old guide-books and see what was predicted about a place you’ve just been to, a decade or so on. In front of me is a well-thumbed and dissected (i.e. salient chapters sliced out for lighter travel, pre-internet days) tome dating from 1996. This is the Vietnam Laos & Cambodia Handbook, published by Trade & Travel, now known as Footprint. What a brilliant (i.e. serious and dependable) publisher that was, later overshadowed by the inexorable rise of Lonely Planet. I used their books repeatedly during long travels in the 1990s, from the South American Handbook (their original and best known) to Mexico & Central America, India and Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore.
Sadly the demands of multiple country and house moves has since meant I threw out most of these guide-books, thinking merely ‘outdated’. Yet for some reason I kept Vietnam Laos & Cambodia, maybe for its pages and maps scrawled upon as I travelled. So now after looking up Kep, one of the dreamy places I’ve just been to in Cambodia, I quote: “There are plans to develop the south coast beaches like Kep … Kep has no town centre as such but the town follows a beautiful bay.” Well well, blow me down, it sounds like not much has changed in nearly 20 years, as I could almost write those words myself today.
Kep is one of those towns, or rather sprawling settlements, that feel off the map, yet scratch the surface and there’s plenty there. By the way, the pics above show, firstly, an artificial beach under construction and, secondly, the crabs for which the resort has always been famous.
Our wonderful hotel was suitably called Le Bout du Monde (aka End of the World) – a great name for the owner to trot out when answering the phone. Jean-Luc, an energetic Breton in his 50s, and his charming Cambodian wife (a keen gardener and kitchen supervisor), opened this beautiful, rambling hotel in 2007 and since then have gradually expanded and upgraded facilities.
The rustic, Khmer-style villas high on the steep hillside, right beside the jungle of the National Park, have unbeatable coastal views – no hotel is higher. On our first evening, the waiter took us out the back gate to watch monkeys crashing through the trees then, back in the open-sided restaurant, pointed out islands on the horizon (including Phu Quoc, grabbed by Vietnam some time ago much to Cambodia’s chagrin) and the twinkling lights of fishing-boats. Then all that disappeared into a black hole as a technicolour sunset painted the skies in blindingly garish hues.
Jean-Luc’s latest innovation is a stunning freshwater pool, framed by lush greenery, and partly reserved for water-lilies – what sensual luxury to swim in! Even without that I’d have been happy sitting on our spacious wooden veranda, listening to the croaks, trills and chirrups of forest creatures or swinging in the hammock catching the breeze.
Everywhere in this intimate, 8-room hotel, environmental concerns are high on the agenda, despite difficulties thrown up by its relative remoteness. Solar panels provide all the energy, and much of the high quality Franco-Khmer food comes straight from the organic garden. Altogether it’s yet another of my perfect kind of hotels, despite a few quibbles like the bullet-hard kapok pillows and mattress, and rustic is the keyword. In contrast, here’s a delightful cook out in the garden.
But, despite the words of that 1996 guide-book, I’d say development is now accelerating fast, as Kep claims about 70 guest-houses, from the upscale, modernist Knai Bang Chatt, right beside the sea, to dozens of low-key places, some too far from anything for comfort. An incongruously wide (6-lane?) road is also half-built, pointing to ambitious plans.
Even at the famous Crab Market, many of the old shacks have been transformed by Europeans into cool bars and informal restaurants – all teetering over the sea. Below is one of the many market cooks churning out crabs and grilled fish in an open-sided kitchen beside the food market, so offering a mesmerising spectacle for foodies.
Most of the market women, including those who pull in cages of freshly fattened crabs from the shallows, are Muslim Cham, originally from Vietnam, hence their headgear. Others watch over sizzling barbecues or dip battered cakes in oil – just in case the seafood isn’t enough.
Tuk-tuks whizz around, so you’re never stranded, and in fact Kep’s golden era, the 1960s, when playboy film-maker Prince Sihanouk and his pals partied hard on this Cambodian riviera, has left a string of ruined villas (as below) dotted along the seafront. With their leprous walls overgrown by tangled vegetation, they stand as a reminder of the horrors of Cambodia’s late 20th century history. Those ‘bourgeois’ symbols became easy targets for the Khmer Rouge, some of whom still battled on in the hills here till 1999 (see my previous post).
It’s 2014 and Cambodia’s economic outlook is positive, but you just have to hope that the invested interests (most of those ruined villas have been snapped up by government cronies) will be intelligent enough to maintain such an ideal balance of nature, lotus-eating and hospitality. I’m not generally a cynic, but somehow I doubt it. So I suggest anyone reading this should go there fast.