A secret well Kep

charty dugdale | Updated on January 23, 2018


Once a favourite of French colonials and the elites of Phnom Penh, the seaside town of Kep preserves a Cambodia different from its touristy temples and killing fields

We came to Cambodia almost by accident. Searching online for a villa for a family of 12 — but not the usual Goa or Thailand — we found Kep. None of us had been to Cambodia before and we were happy to discover that the country, though most famous for its temples at Angkor and its killing fields, was also home to modernist architecture, a beautiful coastline, and gourmet cuisine.

Stretching languidly around a peninsula in the South China Sea, not far from the Vietnamese border, the first thing I noticed about Kep was its quirky public statuary. An enormous crab with a claw raised in salute pops out of the sea, a sign beneath it reads ‘Welcome to Kep’; a monumental white female nude — a legendary fisherman’s wife — marks the eastern end of Kep beach; and overlooking the activities of the crab market is a very Cambodian Vishnu armed with a bow and arrow.

Part of Kep’s charm is that it feels very much a Cambodian town, not at all geared towards foreign tourists. At its heart is its famous crab market. Skinny women, armed against the sun in wide-brimmed hats with matching neckerchiefs, and socks and gloves, were hauling wicker baskets full of crabs from the sea. Shoppers thronged around them, hands darting in to feel, moving from basket to basket to find the best. The blue swimmer crabs, alive but with their claws tied, were beautiful, with stone-coloured spotted backs, soft white tummies and translucent iolite blue legs.

Large females are the most expensive, we learnt, and cost double the small males. Elsewhere in the market, squid and fish were being barbequed on skewers, there were mountains of dried prawns and other marine species less easy to identify, along with an array of tropical fruit and sweet, deep-fried delicacies. There were also clothes, elaborate ornaments made from shells and bags of white and black and red Kampot pepper. In a covered area, women were tending to cauldrons of prawns and crab bubbling over wood fires; customers brought their fresh purchases here to be cooked straightaway. There were no other foreigners.

Beyond the market is a row of restaurants standing on stilts over the water and we felt quite ready to sit down in one. Challenged by the number of dishes on the crab menu (let alone the prawn, squid and fish ones) I chose the very first thing: “Stir-fried crab with Kampot green pepper, large plate.” Combining two of the region’s great delicacies, it couldn’t fail to be a winner, I thought. And it was: an overflowing dish of melting crabmeat delicately flavoured with sweet green pepper.

‘Kep-sur-Mer’ was not always a sleepy backwater. In the 1920s it was the favoured coastal resort of French colonials and in the 1960s of the elite of Phnom Penh society. Many villas — including Romonea, where we stayed — were built in the ‘New Khmer’ style, a mix of modernist lines with art deco curves and Bauhaus silhouettes.

A golden era ended with a coup in 1970, to be followed by two decades of violence and chaos. Most of Kep’s villas were abandoned to the elements and to looters; their mildewed shells stand today as ghostly echoes of a glamorous past. (It is hard to get one’s head around the complexity of this dark period of civil war, Khmer Rouge rule and Vietnamese occupation. Stand-out facts for me: Pol Pot was responsible for the death of nearly two million people, one quarter of his country’s population, and all that happened in Cambodia was a result of the machinations of the two Cold War superpowers and China.)

One evening, after we had watched the sun melt into the sea from our garden, Stephane Arii, the French manager and master raconteur, narrated the remarkable story of Villa Romonea’s survival. According to an old Khmer Rouge leader he had met, it had been protected by the spirit of the lady who had built it in 1968. With its Lu Ban Hap design, its infinity pool and expansive gardens, it took some effort to extract ourselves. But there was lots of exploring to be done.

Early one morning my daughter and I rode ponies into the national park behind the town — she loved it; I sweltered. Another day we savoured the Mediterranean colours and atmosphere of colonial Kampot as we strolled along its riverfront boulevard. En route we scrambled through the White Elephant Cave and, on our way back, made the climb to the Bokor hill-station, which has lost its mystique to a Vietnamese developer who got his hands on hectares of pristine forest and built a casino.

Our favourite outing by far was to the palm and sea almond-fringed silver sands of Koh Tonsay or Rabbit Island, some 40 minutes away. “What kind of rabbits are there, Charty Mami?” asked my three-year-old niece as we chugged across the calm water in a boat. “Ooh, maybe the Easter Bunny? Or perhaps giant fluffy rabbits, who will take us for rides?”

We never quite found the rabbits but we did spend a blissful day floating in rubber tubes on the warm sea, eating fresh fish and sleeping through massages on bamboo kechaos.

Travel log

Get there:

Thai Airways flies Delhi-Phnom Penh via Bangkok; Malaysian Airlines flies Delhi-Phnom Penh via Kuala Lumpur. Both journeys take about nine hours. From Phnom Penh airport it’s a 2.5-hour drive to Kep.


We were seduced by Villa Romonea (www.villaromonea.com) and it was perfect for our large family group, but if you are in a smaller group check out Knai Bang Chatt (www.knaibangchatt.com) and Veranda Natural Resort (veranda-resort.asia)

BLink Tip:

Kep could be part of an itinerary taking in Phnom Penh and the Angkor temples. It would work well as a relaxing place to end a visit far from the madding crowds. But go soon. It will not remain ‘undiscovered’ for long.

( Charty Dugdale is a freelance writer based in Delhi)

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Published on April 03, 2015
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