Lay of the Land
Once hailed as the St.-Tropez of Southeast Asia, the seaside village of Kep enjoyed its heyday as an upscale vacation destination for colonial French elite and wealthy Khmers during the 1950s and 1960s. After it became a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the 1970s, however, most of Kep’s grand villas—many of which were designed in the striking Modernist style of renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who studied with Le Corbusier—were abandoned. Though many of these once glorious private homes now stand in ruins, Kep is making a comeback as of late with a few high-end boutique hotels luring tourists back to this off-the-beaten-path coastal town, which is known to have the best crab in all of Cambodia.
Who Should Go
Kep offers a one-of-a-kind experience, but it is not for everyone. Like most of Cambodia, Kep’s post-Khmer Rouge scars are still healing and the lush landscape is dotted with the crumbling ruins of grand villas that are now populated by grazing cows and chickens. Properties like Knai Bang Chatt and Villa Romonea, which have been lovingly restored to their original splendor, provide luxurious accommodations, but guests should not expect the same levels of service or comfort beyond the property lines. Kep’s town, especially the famed crab market, is charming, but sleepy—not much by way of nightlife, shopping, or haute cuisine here.
But for those looking for a low-key and authentic Cambodian experience, Kep hits all the right marks. A few gem-like boutique hotels are recapturing Cambodia’s glamorous past and catering to handfuls (not yet throngs) of tourists who are interested in relaxing in style and also exploring the village and the natural beauty of the area—notably hiking and mountain biking in Kep National Park, a low land tropical forest covering 50 square kilometers. The “sweet spot” of Kep’s renaissance won’t last forever—in fact, construction has already begun on several mega resorts and casinos and the tourist buses are sure to follow.
Indagare Tip: Those looking for pristine beaches should be warned that Kep’s shoreline is picturesque, but not great for swimming. Nearby Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay), however, just a 30-minute boat ride from the center of Kep, is known for its white sand and snorkeling.
Koh Rong Archipelago (Koh Ouen)
Most of the sixty-one islands in the Gulf of Thailand, known as the Koh Rong archipelago, are uninhabited—making this a blissfully untouristed (for now) area of South East Asia. Think Thailand two decades ago: secluded beaches, healthy coral reefs, lush rainforests, and simple fishing villages.
Who Should Go
Upscale Song Saa offers a more high-end take on the off-the-beaten path Cambodian experience. Beach lovers in search of peace and privacy and romance will love the uncrowded beaches, and couples in search of romance may never leave their over-water bungalows or jungle hideaways.