Cambodia - Getting to know Kep & Kampot
Kep does not boast the fine beaches of Sihanoukville (Kep's beach is best described as 'minimal!'), but this is exactly what makes the place so special. There's not a tacky seaside shop to be found, the local wood shack restaurants serve some of the finest seafood in Asia, and the hotels have been created or restored by innovative expats with an eye for some unique Khmer-Colonial flare!
‘Kep–sur-Mer’ came to prominence as a colonial retreat for the French in the early 20th century, before becoming a popular weekend getaway for the Khmer elite in the 1950s. The town suffered more than much of Cambodia during the 1970s, witnessing some of the most ferocious fighting between Khmer Rouge and forces loyal to the government.
The city lay all but deserted for the following few decades before intuitive expats began to rebuild and remodel the town into the Kep you see today. Whilst relatively few of the villas have been restored to their original grandeur, Kep has undoubtedly started to regain some of its original charm and is earmarked as a region for future investment and improvement by the current government.
In truth it is a mesmerising place in its current form, and one can’t help but guiltily wish that it was left as it is; the original architecture that remains is still pleasing on the eye and the scars of battle almost add to its impact. Luckily, development here for the most part seems slow, careful and planned.
What to do in Kep
- Leisure in Kep all about taking it easy rather than a long list of available activities - one of our favourite ways to do this is enjoying sunset from the Sailing Club
- Eat at the Crab Market, a not-to-be-missed Kep experience. Kep is well known amongst locals for its fresh crab, and towards sunset, the market becomes a hub of activity, with stalls bustling, barbecues smoking and local fishermen pulling crab pots from the ocean. It's lined with ramshackle and totally charming restaurants: each one offers Kep’s trademark seafood dish - fried crab with Kampot pepper.
- Explore by bike, with Kep’s hilly topography guaranteeing a good work out.
- Kep’s National Park has easy- and medium-difficulty treks, and it’s possible to explore the forest for most of the day, keeping an eye open for macaque monkeys, hornbills and drongos.
- Rabbit Island (a.k.a Koh Tonsay) is a 30 minute boat ride away, with boats leaving the harbour frequently throughout the day. With no motor vehicles, no mains electricity, and a handful of residents, the island makes a great day trip, or even overnight camp on the beach. You'll find good snorkelling along either flank of the beach, with masks available for hire on the island.
- Bokor Hill Station, built in 1922 by colonial settlers atop Bokor Mountain and now a ghost town, has gained increasing popularity with visitors. 1,080m above sea level with great views over the Gulf of Thailand, Bokor and its ruined Colonial buildings are well worth the effort, especially before planned redevelopment takes place.
The riverside town of Kampot, is 20 minutes by car from Kep, and very much worth a visit during your stay in Kep. Alternatively, split your time between the two, spending a few nights at Kampot's rustic Les Mangieurs Resort on the outskirts of town - if this place was any more laid back it would collapse into a pile of rubble!
The town is famous for its home-grown Kampot Pepper, and borders the Gulf of Thailand, but has no beach to speak of. There are, however, a number of delightful waterfront cafes - the perfect place to relax for a few hours and enjoy sunset views of the sea or the nearby Bokor Mountains. You can stroll along the prom, admire Colonial architecture and explore the handful of shops and interesting galleries, and the town is a good base for excursions to a nearby villages, the fascinating pre-Angkor temple cave of Phnom Chngok, and Bokor Mountain.
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On yer bike
A car will be on hand, but we prefer two wheels to explore the fascinating back-water villages around Kep. If you want to discover the real Cambodia, there is no better way.
In addition to its crumbling Colonial charm, Kep is famous for its local condiments. Visit one of the nearby family-run pepper plantations, where you’ll be shown around the twisting pepper vines and invited both to try and buy the region’s rare specialty - red peppercorns. The plantations are also scattered with exotic fruit trees, so you can talk a shady walk amongst cashew, mango, durian, and guava trees during your visit.