If you are heading to Cambodia and Kep is not on your itinerary… you may want to reconsider it, if you have got a couple of spare days.
At first sight Kep doesn’t even look like a town as such… but it was definitely one of those stops that truly surprised us during our trip to Cambodia: a small seaside “town” became an amazing opportunity to discover this stunning part of the country, leaving behind the Sihanoukville crowds and submerging in a much more natural and less artificial environment. If you are combining Cambodia and Vietnam and you are not in a particular rush to get to the other side, there is a big chance that Kep is going to be on your itinerary before entering Vietnam from the south, since it’s just a short drive from the Ha Teang Prek Chak border (that you will reach after driving through a massive plain of salt salines).
Kep-sur-mer (as it was known during the French occupation) is located less than 150 km southwest of Phnom Penh and it was once the seaside escape of the French elite, looking for a break from the humid heat of the capital. As a reminder of the welfare of those days, if you drive around Kep you will immediately spot the remains of stunning villas, example of that Modernism that developed strong in Cambodia until the King was overthrown in 1970 and the country entered decades of violence and war, with the Khmer Rouge first and the Vietnamese later on (for more info on Cambodia’s Modernism, read this).
When the Khmer Rouge first took power, Kep was cleared out and the villas abandoned and destroyed, for they were representing exactly what the Khmer Rouge were fighting against. Some of these properties remain almost as intact as at the time they were occupied by the Khmer Rouge, but most of them were badly damaged and now only ruins remain. In recent years, some of them have been restored and converted in luxury accomodations (such as Villa Romonea), trying to bring Kep back to the splendor of the old days.
Nowadays, locals and expats alike flock here looking for a nice seaside location with a relaxed atmosphere, plenty of fresh seafood and accommodation for all budgets. During the weekend it can get very busy, so it’s advisable to book accomodation in advance, particularly if you have got some specific place in mind. The funny thing is that there wouldn’t be any decent beach at all, if it wasn’t for the powder white sand imported from elsewhere that build up a small town beach, perfect for a dip. Kep is particularly well known all over Cambodia and beyond for a local produce transformed in a culinary delicacy: the blue crab, featured in almost all the restaurants menus in town and also in a giant statue off Kep’s main beach.
The best way to discover Kep? We booked a 2 night-stay at The Boat House, a very reasonably priced guesthouse with spotlessly clean large rooms, a few minutes walk from Kep’s beach. The French owner is extremely keen in showing you the surrounding area and will explain you in detail which roads to follow to not miss out on anything the area has to offer. Then you just have to wake up early the following day, have a filling breakfast and hire a moped; follow his instructions and his hand-drawn map and explore the surrounding countryside. We set out quite early and came back in the late afternoon and we absolutely loved it.
Driving around Kep
The self-made tour starts with a ride (and walk) around the thriving Crab Market; it’s called crab market but they do sell plenty of other fresh seafood and local produce but nevertheless it’s undoubtedly famous for the blue crab. Take your time to peruse the stalls and take a close look at their catch. Just a quick note: though we were not aware when we visited Cambodia (2014), I have recently read that due to illegal and destructive crab catching practices, plenty of experts claim that crab population in the area is strongly diminishing (both in number and in size) and the coral reef is being damaged as well; as a result, a few restaurants have now decided to stop serving crab, in an effort to preserve the environment and its population. On the other hand, a stronger and tighter control (and punishment) on the illegal crabbers would definitely help….
The crab I had there was by far the best I have ever tasted, seasoned with the other star produce of the area: Kampot pepper. We tried a few restaurants in the Crab Market area and, at the time we visited, Kimly, which is the longest running Kep’s crab eateries, was definitely the best one (and the busiest one with locals): great views over the sea, good healthy portions and absolutely delicious food – not only crab, as you can see from the picture below! Go early and grab a table on the terrace with an uninterrupted sunset view for an unforgettable meal.
Back to our moped tour, from the crab market go back to the main roundabout and follow the coastal road (usually empty) heading towards the Cambodia/Vietnam border. From there, we abandoned the main road and followed the map into unpaved roads. I didn’t keep a copy of it with me but I am 100% sure that the owner is absolutely used to share his knowledge of the area with guests. Getting lost while en-route was part of the game and it happened a couple of times 🙂 but asking for directions was the fun bit. You will drive through quiet villages, not particularly used to tourists but with people extremely keen to try to communicate, once they overcome the initial shyness. Unpaved white roads going through beautiful natural scenery, cow herds crossing your path, kingfishers and stunning butterflies flying by and water buffaloes resting peacefully in the water.
All in all a perfect picture of Cambodia and definitely the best way to depart from this stunning country.