CAMBODIA — In Cambodia, where a decade-long tourism boom has been driven almost entirely by safe and easy access to the ancient Angkor Wat temples, the rebirth of a seaside resort town is helping lure visitors to the country’s long-neglected coastline.
The sleepy town of Kep on the southeast coast has been earmarked as Cambodia’s first boutique tourism destination, but for now it bears few of the characteristics of the countless backpacker Meccas and resorts scattered throughout Southeast Asia.
Tourist numbers have surged in recent years, but this town of just a few thousand people has maintained its unhurried, pastoral character. Unlike Sihanoukville, a lively huddle of guesthouses, bars and nightclubs on the central coast, Kep seems to be taking a relaxed path towards developing its tourism sector.
But with its lush rainforests, crystalline waters and bountiful seafood, Kep is finding that the tourists don’t need much encouragement. A three-hour drive from the capital Phnom Penh, Kep has become a favorite weekend retreat for expatriates and Cambodia’s burgeoning middle class.
The town is only 20 minutes from a recently opened Vietnamese border crossing, making it a perfect place to say hello or goodbye to Cambodia.
“They told us to expect fewer tourists in Cambodia this year,” a local taxi driver says. “But more and more come here every week, to see the mountains and the caves, and of course, to eat.”
Kep’s famous crabs were among the many treasures that helped the town become a playground for Cambodia’s French rulers in the early 20th century. Along with former king and independence leader Norodom Sihanouk, the French elite built dozens of mansions in the hills along the coastline and sailed their yachts in the protected waters in the Gulf of Thailand.
But like many regions in Cambodia, Kep was ravaged by the United States’ secret bombing campaign during the Indochinese War, and was forcibly evacuated during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 rule. The ultra-communist group considered the town a symbol of bourgeois hedonism and colonial oppression, and destroyed most of its infrastructure.
Kep lay dormant for more than a decade, and the scars of its troubled past are still visible among the poor local population and neglected amenities. The seaside villas left standing have become overgrown with vines and tree trunks, and now only the smallest of fishing boats dock in the once-bustling port.
But Kep’s striking beauty has not paled despite years of conflict, neglect and civil war. Guesthouses and hotels catering to all budgets have been built along the coast, including the exclusive Knai Banh Chatt hotel, which boasts views of the imposing Bokor Mountain from its infinity pool.
While the town has no beach and is separated from the sea by a strip of coarse red stones, a cheap 30 minute boat ride to Koh Thonsay — known as Rabbit Island — reveals one of Cambodia’s pristine beaches. Budget accommodation is compulsory, as the island’s only available beds are housed in palm-wood bungalows, which can be rented for between $7 and $10 per night.
The bungalows’ power generators are switched off at 10 p.m., and as the fluorescent lights along the beach fade, a spectacular night sky is revealed.
But Kep’s greatest attraction may well be the variety of seafood on offer in the restaurants and stalls downtown. Crabs cooked with local pepper sell for between $3 and $10, and grilled fish on skewers cost less than $5. For the more adventurous, or less eco-conscious, grilled seahorse is also available.
Driving past the various building sites, road workers and bulldozers on the road out of town, one gets the impression that the place is on the verge of a tourism storm. So as travellers look for cheaper tropical escapes in South-East Asia, now might be the time to experience Kep and beat the rush.
(To get more info visit: www.kepcity.com, www.mot.gov.kh, www.tourismcambodia.com.)