Kep-Sur-Mer: ghosts of Cambodia's French Colonial past

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The story of Kep’s transformation can be told through the history of iconic local, the Led Zep Café. A few years ago, the Led Zep Café celebrated a prime position right on the main roundabout in the Cambodian beach resort town. The furniture was a deliriously mismatched jumble of cane and rattan from local markets, and Christian the pony-tailed French owner was often out and about exploring the forested hills above the sleepy town. Six years on, Christian’s pioneering strolls now form a well-marked series of jungles treks through the surrounding hills, and the Led Zep has moved to a larger and less incongruous hillside location with Gulf of Thailand views. But in this sleepy town morphing from a backpackers’ haven to a flashpackers’ resort, it’s still a top place for cold Angkor beer. Especially after a tropical afternoon negotiating Christian’s DIY walking trails.

Kep-Sur-Mer was established in 1908 as a station climatique, a cool escape from Phnom Penh for French bureaucrats and their families. The graceful arch of the main beach is transplanted from an early 20th century French daydream, with a broad pedestrian corniche punctuated by graceful wrought iron lamps. With a touch of imagination, it’s easy to be transplanted to a sleepy seaside resort in Brittany or Normandy.

Any French reverie is soon dispelled. The region’s prized peppercorns – revered by the top chefs of Paris - dry slowly in the tropical sun, and energetic troops of monkeys patrol the trees near the nearby ruins of former Cambodian King Sihanouk’s summer villas. At weekends and on public holidays, Khmer families crowd the compact beach and float contentedly on rubber tubes. Simple restaurants dot the waterfront, selling tasty, pepper-infused spins on fresh crab, Kep’s other famous export.  Further around the meandering coast road, there are more ruined 1960s villas, still pock marked with bullets from the conflict between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge at the end of the 1970s.

But Kep-Sur-Mer is now making a comeback. King Sihanouk’s wife Queen Monique has a new villa in town, and a century after Kep’s beginnings as a haven for the colonial French, it’s being rediscovered by travellers and Phnom Penh expats. New accommodation and restaurants are popping up, and they’re not all as rustic, rudimentary, or on a roundabout as the original Led Zep Café. Leading Kep’s resurrection is Knai Bang Chatt, a sympathetically restored 1960s villa just across from the beach. With just eleven rooms and an infinity pool, it’s one of Indochina’s best boutique hotels, and a world away from the often sleazy ambience of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s other main beach resort. Next door to Knai Bang Chatt, the breezy Sailing Club bar is a relaxed bookend to a day of sailing or kayaking. Even that waterborne agenda proves too taxing for some visitors, and the only alternative is another lazy days meal at the crab market, or a slowly, slowly boat ride 4.5km out to nearby Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island). The island’s main beach – one of Cambodia’s best – is punctuated with a few simple bungalows, seafood restaurants, and hammocks strung between gracefully-arched coconut palms.

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