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  • Writer's pictureMark

Kep-Sur-Mer - Cambodia’s Riviera

After a few wonderful, but depressing as one sees the history, days in Phnom Penh, we hopped on a bus to the small seaside town of Kep-Sur-Mer.

Kep is everything one should want for a vacation, a great beach, a crab market selling and grilling up the local catch of the day, gorgeous estates, seaside and bungalow resorts.

We did make the mistake of heading down to Kep during a long Cambodian holiday weekend, so the hotels were all booked (we secured our reservation, accidentally, about three weeks earlier so we didn't have any issues), and once there we found the crowds down by the beach overwhelming.

Locals on Holiday - what more could you want? Karaoke machine, blankets, a grill, and beers by the beach

What we knew going in, and luckily learnt more about while we were there, is that the gorgeous "Cambodian Riviera" town is something that existed while the French were in power and then it really boomed once the French handed it over and it became an independent country. We should have visited in the 1960's, for by the 70's the bourgeois lifestyle that it exuded was completely at odds with and communistic power, and even more so with the excessively restrictive Khmer Rouge. The town was basically abandoned, the villas overrun by the guerilla fighters and gutted as this was not the appropriate life for a member of the new world that they were setting in place.

Even in the late 1990's the Khmer Rouge still had some control over the town, and as they were finally pushed out and Cambodia has worked to put itself back together again, Kep is following right along. Kep was made an official province in 2008, and with this boost to its ego, slowly the city is showing it's signs of it's previous life, but it will be a struggle for the city.

We arrived in the afternoon and checked into the Raingsey Bungalow, a spot that is perfect both for its location and its ambience.

The pool at Raingsey Bungalow

From there it's an easy 10-15 minute walk down to the crab market, where you need to just wander through and try not to get hungry.

We stopped and had 6 crabs, prepared 2 different ways, for a total of $10 USD. They are famous for their crab cooked with local peppercorns, and it did not disappoint. From there the walk along to the beach is maybe another 15 minutes, it was hard to judge since we kept stopping and taking photos of the lush jungle on one side and the ocean on the other.

The next day we took the tour we were here for, a tuk-tuk drive around the old city to see the glorious homes. Glorious homes that are just a broken shadow of what they once were, places broken yet still standing, some daring the jungle to totally swallow them, others falling apart in front of perfectly manicured lawns.

We were not disappointed, at least not until we got back to the hotel and were talking to the manager and she mentioned some of the homes that we missed. But even missing a few of them, we saw a lot of old abandoned houses that are continuing to deteriorate. The homes are in various states, not even all are empty as families squat and try to run a life out of a semi-destroyed building.

Some are behind walls and locked gates, a few had "for sale" signs, or just a phone number written on their side.

Remnants of a split level home in Kep
A set of stairs to nowhere

Looking up from the shore, this ghost looks down

There is potential, the city is on a slight hill and if everything was what is once was almost all of the homes we saw would have an ocean view, but it's hard to see it returning soon. Right on the beach is Villa Thomas, an empty complex of buildings that tried to make a go at reopening in the mid-2000's but somehow didn't make it - Mother Nature is doing her job at trying to take the site back over.

Trees trying to continue their work at Villa Thomas

It's right up our alley, seeing nature reclaim what man has made - ruins and the speed at which they disappear is something we both are drawn to. We only spent two nights in Kep, and upon arriving almost immediately regretted not staying longer, it's just the perfect amount of relaxing and grate food mixed with a very interesting history.

Here the palm tree is in the intersection of old roads

A lot of these sites only have the stairs and the load supporting concrete beams, but no floors for the rooms

Queen's Palace - originally designed as a King's residence, now a home to squatters

Inside the King's residence, Chandeliers and dirty laundry

One final note, when we first arrived and walked to the beach we were disgusted by the amount of trash strewn everywhere. The beach was covered in rubbish. That really set us off and we were shocked, but as the hotel manager explained to us, it was because of the holiday weekend that we came down. Apparently the beaches are normally pristine and clean, with workers cleaning any refuse that comes in off the ocean on a daily basis. But on a local holiday, the beaches are filled with Cambodians for 3 days, and as the rubbish bins are soon overflowing, the garbage starts to overflow, and they just hold back and wait for the long weekend to end before getting out there and clearing it back to its pristine beauty.

The dirty end of the Kep Beach

An internet search of "Kep Beach" photos seems to confirm this, but because we left so soon we can't say for sure other then it's wise not to visit when Visik Bochea Day (Buddha's Birthday), International Labour Day, and the Royal Plowing Ceremony (Beginning of Rice Planting Season) all line up to provide a long weekend for the locals.

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