The first thing you notice entering Kep are those shells of houses, elegant villas once, but now blackened, no doors or windows left, much of the roof gone, walls crumbling. Bullet holes in some. Gardens overgrown - who cares, these days? And they are all over town. A very depressing sight, especially if you realize that this was not due to a tsunami, neither an earthquake, but deliberate destruction. One can only guess why nothing has been done, so long after the initial obliteration. Are the original owners dead? Or is it just a matter of money? Or interest?
(1) Blackened villa, living memory from the Khmer Rouge anti-bourgeois approach of the 70s
Kep itself is actually a nice little town – if you can look through the damaged villa issue. It is located at the foot and on the lower slopes of a small hill, surrounded by sea on three sides. There are three points of reference, the boat landing, the town centre with the public beach, and the crab market.
As expected, facilities weren’t the most exciting. Most accommodation is in vastly overpriced basic guest houses, but we did find a decent hotel, with a real hot shower – as long as there was water –, an obscene-sized television almost bigger than some of the rooms we have stayed in so far – and all of seven channels to watch. Main selling point was our private balcony overlooking the beach and the sea. The fact that the railing of the balcony is also being used as major throughway for rather large rodents, later in the evening (after we had retreated inside, to be sure), adds to the imagination, and encouraged us to keep the balcony door well closed. To keep the mosquitoes out, you know. The public beach in front of the hotel is the only decent beach in town, a narrow strip of sand which, however, is being cleaned every morning and doesn’t look bad at all. It is just that the whole town is watching you when you are lying on the beach, or swimming in the sea, or trying to change from your wet swimming trunks into dry underwear behind a skimpy towel. The Cambodians themselves go fully clothed into the water, and see no reason to change afterwards.
Which is why the entire temporary foreign population of Kep gets into tuk-tuks around 9 am, and heads for the boat landing to transfer to the real gem of Kep, a small offshore island called Koh Something , or Rabbit Island. Here you have a long, pristine beach, palm-fringed, a very gradually deepening sea, perfect water temperature. A few cabins provide – once again, very basic – accommodation, and the beach restaurants sell drinks and, more importantly, freshly grilled sea food. Huge fishes, king prawns, squid, and the best black pepper crab ever (and we have tried a few, believe me!). For those, like us, who prefer the somewhat more comfortable Kep accommodation, boats ferry everybody back to the mainland again at 4 pm, after a perfectly relaxing beach day. Just in time for a pastis on our balcony.
A pastis? Ooops…. I have to admit that the constant challenge of finding both gin and tonic at the same time, these two critical ingredients not always being available, have pushed us towards that old French terrace drink, pastis. After all, once you have secured a bottle, you only need cold water to add, and that, alas, is plentiful. Besides, pastis, well, somehow fits the entourage here, in what we keep calling by its old name, Kep-sur-Mer.
(2) View from our balcony, with in the distance Rabbit Island.
(3, 4) The public beach in Kep, including most of its facilities – a few wooden beach chairs.
(5) The local population gathering at the sea front.
(6) The hammock stalls in the town centre, where you can just occupy a hammock for an hour, for the day, for however long you want. Not many takers, but this is a rather extreme public service, I think.
(7) Rabbit Island beach.
(8) Unidentified floating object in the sea off Rabbit Island – it is NOT a rabbit.
(9, 10) Local fishermen providing the ingredients for lunch.
(11) The television in our room, and bottle of Pastis for scale
Oh, and then the crab market, I would almost forget: essentially a row of small sea food restaurants they also have a number of baskets filled with crabs, hanging in the water, and several fishing boats waiting for mid to late afternoon, which seems to be the best fishing time. All very small scale, very friendly, very laid back. The walk towards the market is actually nicer, a mostly shaded boulevard right along the sea.
(12, 13, 14) Fishing boats and gear, and
(15) baskets with crabs, at the market of the same name.
The last afternoon we lingered in the pool of another hotel, one where I had the distinct feeling that the entirely male, foreigner audience was, for once, more interested in me than in Sofia when we put on our swimming gear. No photos of that event, by the way!