My 48 Hours in ... Kep, Cambodia
The charming Cambodian coastal resort town is making a stunning comeback
Looking out across the sprawling sea of tropical green that makes up the base of Kep National Park, Dan Kreis takes a sip of his cocktail and watches the sky transform into a palette of colour as the sun slowly melts into the shimmering Gulf of Thailand.
"It's moments like this that made me fall in love with Kep," resort owner Kreis (right) says .
And in the nine years he has called the quaint Cambodian coastal town home, the pristine view hasn't lost a fraction of its tranquil hue.
Once dubbed Kep-sur-Mer, or Cambodian Riviera, during Cambodia's golden age of the 1950s and '60s, Kep was a paradise for the country's elite, with the cool sea breeze, laid-back pace of life and charismatic charm appealing to French colonials and rich Cambodians alike.
The charming seaside town became a getaway for the rich and famous who flaunted their fashion, flashy sports cars and lavish lifestyles in the Saint-Tropez of Southeast Asia. But during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979, the town was plunged into ruin, becoming a shell of its former glamorous self.
In 2001, the last of the Khmer Rouge were driven out and peace was restored. This paved the way for a slow trickle of tourism, and it wasn't long before Kep was on its way back to becoming a stylish weekend destination.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
Seven years ago, Kreis set up Kep Lodge, a boutique eco-retreat nestled at the base of the national park's dense jungle. "It took me two years to find the perfect spot but here it is and I wouldn't change it for the world," he says. Kreis recognised Kep's raw, undeveloped beauty and knew it was where he should set up shop.
Kicking back in Kep Lodge restaurant is the perfect way to start the weekend, with a selection of drinks as well as food from Kreis's homeland, Switzerland, and local dishes to eat while watching the glorious sunset.
Start the next day with a refreshing morning swim in the pool before hitting the national park. "It was one of the reasons I moved here," Kreis recalls. "It's home to lots of wildlife, greenery and has some great viewpoints of Kep, Vietnam and across to the island."
The sprawling mass of 50 sq km of protected forest can be accessed from behind Kep Lodge or via the road to nearby Veranda Natural Resort. There is a signposted 8km trail that takes visitors on a two-hour trek into the jungle where monkeys, turtles and other wildlife can be found in abundance. The more adventurous can hire a motorbike or bicycle and set off on their own.
Head to the town's bustling crab market for lunch. Loved for its fresh seafood, which is brought in by fishing boats every morning, the market is an integral part of the town. There are several restaurants along the seafront offering delicious fresh seafood, including crab accompanied by the region's world-famous Kampot pepper. Kreis suggests the Crab Kitchen as one of the top spots to sample the local delights.
Next, spend a lazy afternoon lounging on the beach. Last year, hundreds of trucks rolled into the town to deliver whiter than white sand, the result being a stunning 35-metre-wide beach complete with deckchairs, blue water and water sports. "It can get quite lively here at weekends when the Cambodians come to enjoy the beach and swimming," Kreis says.
If you prefer a quieter spot, he suggests hiring a tuk-tuk or moto travelling about 30 minutes to Angkul Beach, also known as Secret Beach. "This beach is much bigger and quieter than Kep's and is lined with coconut trees."
The perfect place to enjoy an evening meal is The Italian Corner, which is located next to the beach. Italian owners Alberto and Lida pride themselves on cooking up authentic Italian fare, with the pizzas being particularly popular. Happy hour runs from 5pm to 7pm and the restaurant is the place to be in the evening, with music playing until the early hours.
Another popular after-hours spot is La Baraka Lounge, which is on the bustling strip of restaurants at the Crab Market. The two-storey bar is a lively venue, with music, drinks and plenty of socialising with locals and expats who are happy to offer tips to help you enjoy your trip.
CAVES, PAGODAS AND PEPPER
The next morning, Kreis says an early rise is worthwhile because nestled on the outskirts of the town sit a string of gems waiting to be discovered.
A 40-minute drive takes you to the ancient caves of Kompong Trach. Here, nature has worked her magic to carve deep inside the limestone mountains, and centuries of erosion has led to the roof of the caves collapsing, creating a small lake that makes a stunning swimming spot.
Next on the itinerary is Samanthi Pagoda, which, according to Kreis, is a spot on a hill that offers unparalleled views out to neighbouring Kampot and nearby Vietnam. "This is my place of Zen. When I want peace and quiet, I head there."
No trip to Kep is complete without visiting the pepper plantations that put the area on people's radar after receiving geographical indicator status in 2011. On the return trip to town, stop off at The Vine Retreat, which offers great local and Western dishes, before taking a tour of one of the many pepper farms.
BY BOAT OR BY BUGGY
A good way to explore the town is by horse and cart, which can be hired from Plantation Ranch. As a former retreat of the rich, the town is home to several hundred lavish villas that were built in the '50s. These now sit derelict but hold traces of their former glory.
Hidden among them are three villas that have been given a modern makeover by internationally renowned graffiti artist ROA from Belgium in the form of giant animals on a villa near Independence Monument, another near before Kep Plantation and the last behind Kep Tourism Office.
Before you leave, Kreis recommends squeezing in a visit to Knai Bang Chatt, or Kep Sailing Club. Set in a stunning renovated '50s villa, the country's elite descend on the impressive venue for exclusive evenings of socialising. "This place has an absolutely lovely atmosphere and the architecture represents what Kep was like during its peak," says Kreis as he takes one final sip of his drink before Kep plunges into dark.
"Kep is a truly wonderful place to visit and has a little bit of everything, he says.
Plan your stay
Italian Corner Beach Road (next to bus station), open daily from 8am until late
Crab Kitchen crab market, open daily from 8am-10pm
Led Zep Café National Park trek, above Vanna, open daily from 9am to 5pm
La Baraka Lounge Bar crab market, open until late
Veranda Kep Hillside, 6.30am-10pm
Breezes Road 33a, 9am-10.30pm