Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, July 02, 2010

New Horizons - KEP, Cambodia

By TOM VATER - The Wall Street Journal

KEP, Cambodia--"Kep is not about the sea. Kep is about wind and mountain, precipitation and a way of life," says Rithivit Tep, owner of the Villa Thomas, the Cambodian beach town's oldest building. Dating to 1903, handsome and Gothic-looking, it was originally built to house French colonial administrators on break from their jobs in Phnom Penh.

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal Swinging chairs in the garden of Knai Bang Chatt

The French did little on this picturesque stretch of the country's southeastern coast but keep away from the tigers that used to roam the Elephant Mountains, which rise from the paddy fields behind the town. Its natural shoreline, mostly black rock and mangrove swamp, hardly invites bathing. But in the 1950s, Kep became an upscale resort town, Cambodia's version of France's Saint-Tropez. (Suitably, it was called Kep sur Mer, French for "Kep on the Sea.") A beach was created, and regularly replenished, using sand barged in from down the coast. The country's newly emerging elite, propelled into sudden affluence after independence in 1953, lined the Gulf of Thailand seafront with their villas.

Built in 1903 and soon to be a luxury resort, Villa Thomas is Kep's oldest building.

"Kep was wonderful in its heyday," says Rithivit Tep. "We had cocktail parties every night, artists and musicians stayed here. It was fashionable." King Norodom Sihanouk was a regular visitor, and bands played their locally developed brand of rock 'n' roll mixed with Khmer melodies on the beach. Those who danced themselves into a sweat could escape to Bokor hill station with its handsome casino hotel, spectacularly located on a cool plateau 1,000 meters above the beach town.

But for Kep, as for the rest of Cambodia, the bloom was brief. From the mid-1960s the country drifted into chaos: The U.S. war with Vietnam crossed the border, a coup deposed the king and the Khmer Rouge revolution brought isolation and genocide followed by almost two decades of civil war. (Rithivit Tep, then a teenager and fledgling tennis player—his father, the late Tep Kunnah, was a star—fled with his family in the early 1970s to France and Canada, not returning until 1992.) As recently as 10 years ago, Kep was a ghost town. Streets were overgrown, palm trees where lampposts once stood, as the former holiday homes, built by an elite that no longer existed, were subsumed by jungle.

Now the picture is changing. The area around Kep became a province in its own right in 2008, and has since attracted significant funds from the government for infrastructure development. New roads and administrative buildings, a new market and tentative efforts at urban planning in Kep itself are beginning to show results, and the town of 5,000 has been on the national electricity grid for more than a year. Resorts and restaurants open with increasing regularity, bringing Wi-Fi and swimming pools. Rithivit Tep this year plans to open his old villa (and adjoining bungalows) as a luxury resort; he's also purchased an island off the coast where he intends to establish an ecotourism venture. Initially, he plans to take high-end guests from his mainland resort to the island for romantic luxury dinners.

"Kep must be returned to its former glory," he says.

Jef Moons, a 47-year-old Belgian hotelier, is one step ahead of the pack. He visited Kep on his first trip to Cambodia in 2002, drawn by the lack of information on it in his Lonely Planet guidebook. "I was bowled over by the beauty of the people and the place and wanted to come back to share Kep with friends," he says. "I immediately bought three properties."

With a workforce of 150, Mr. Moons painstakingly restored one of Kep's handsomest beachfront properties, a 1960s villa designed by a student of Cambodia's master architect Van Molyvann. With a second, more recent villa in similarly elegant style and complemented by a pool, his stylish 11-room resort, with a staff of 45, provides Kep's highest-end accommodation.

A villa designed by a student of Cambodia's leading architect, Vann Molyvann, is today part of the resort Knai Bang Chatt.

"When we first visited Kep, we saw a full rainbow around the sun, a 'knai bang chatt' in Khmer," he recalls. "That's what I called the resort when we opened in 2004."

Veranda, on a hillside above town, offers incredible views across the Gulf of Thailand from its restaurant. Funky and attractive bungalows are connected by a warren of wooden walkways high above the grounds. Canadian-Vietnamese owner Lily Loo is happy that Kep is finding its feet again.

"We opened in 2002," she says. "In the beginning all our guests were backpackers. But in 2005, we noticed a change. Families and wealthier independent tourists began to visit. But it's been a slow process."

Slow is the word in Kep; there's not a lot to do but relax. Knai Bang Chatt has offered diversions ranging from talks by Cambodia experts to photography weekends and wellness spa weeks (not to mention several eclectic performances on the rooftop by Khuon Sethisak, Cambodia's best-known opera singer). There are pepper plantations and caves nearby to visit. The ruined villas are worth exploring—and Mr. Moons warns they may not be around for much longer.

"Many of the old houses will disappear," he says. "Khmer people want to look rich, and 1960s architecture means nothing to them. This is normal after an experience like the Khmer Rouge. Culture here is about surviving."

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal At the crab market, Kep's main attraction, the sellers keep their stock -- here a female laden with eggs -- in floating baskets.

The crab market is the town's main attraction. This long row of shacks is a hive of activity from dawn till dusk. Restaurant after restaurant, including an Italian eatery, line the curved seafront. From 4 a.m., local women, colorfully wrapped from head to toe, stand knee-deep in the surf and negotiate prices for the live crabs that are packed into wicker baskets bobbing in the shallow water. A little offshore, bright green long-tail fishing boats are anchored against the backdrop of the Vietnamese island of Phu Qoc and, to the west, Bokor Mountain. Delicious steamed crab, for which Kep is known all over the country, is served all day.

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal Just because it's called the crab market doesn't mean you can't get some grilled squid there. There's even an Italian restaurant.

A more sedate eating option is the nearby Sailing Club, also owned by Mr. Moons, an elegant wooden bungalow beside a simple pier, offering Art Deco furniture, mellow music, a short but carefully balanced menu of Khmer and Western dishes, and cocktails.

If even Kep gets to be too much, there's also the possibility of escaping to the simplest of paradises. Koh Tonsay, also called Rabbit Island, lies five kilometers off the coast, and once served as a prison. Today, simple wooden beach shacks, straw-roofed seafood restaurants and a few sun-loungers are as far as facilities stretch on the main beach, a palm-fringed bay with views of the mountainous coastline. The visitors sipping fresh coconut juice in their hammocks are a mixed bunch: backpackers, young families and wealthy, older tourists on day-trips rub shoulders along the half-kilometer sand crescent. Those not put off by the island's basic amenities can stay overnight in simple but clean beachside bungalows.

Luke Duggleby for The Wall Street Journal Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, five kilometers out, offers a back-to-basics beach experience

Bokor hill station, until recently the heart of a national park, is being redeveloped into a glitzy gambling paradise, with a new resort and at least one golf course planned and even some talk of a dinosaur theme park. That's all right with Rithivit Tep; in his vision, Bokor can be for visitors seeking the shiny and new, while his beach town can appeal to those with a taste for the classic. "We have to make sure," he says, "that Kep will return to its golden age."

—Tom Vater is a writer based in Bangkok.

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