BANGKOK, 26 August 2016: Cambodia’s tourism thrives on the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, but could the ruins of holiday villas dating back to the 1900s revive the fortunes of what was once Kep Sur Mer a premier resort for colonials, nobles and Cambodia’s elite?
French colonials founded Kep in 1908 and built holiday homes overlooking a short 1km pebble strewn beach. From their balconies they enjoyed breathtaking views of the Gulf of Thailand and nearby Phu Quoc island in Vietnam.
After the nation’s independence in 1953, Cambodian royals, nobles and socialites descended on Kep for weekend breaks besides the seaside. The 164-km journey from the capital took four hours by car and more likely six by train to a station 7 km short of Kep.
Villa owners dubbed Kep the St Tropez of the East, such was their enthusiasm for the 1 km stretch of beach and hilly real estate.
At the height of its popularity in the mid-1950s to 1970, more than 200 extravagant villas were built turning the quiet bay and its hilly surrounds into a holiday playground. It quickly earned a reputation for its lavish parties that drew celebrities. Jackie Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve apparently were guests in Kep.
It was the era of flower power, hippies, the Cha Cha Cha and the Twist. Rich traders and professionals, doctors and lawyers rubbed shoulders with royalty, the powerful and political. Kep’s social circle enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle of expensive wines, champagne, fine food, luxury cars, black-tie dinners, posing at the casino and all-night beach parties on Tonsay (Rabbit) Island, the largest of 13 islands that make up Kep’s archipelago.
By 1964, the then Prince Norodum Sihanouk built his own villa on a headland and turned the posh resort into a setting for his films. He took a leading role and even recruited military and political friends to join the casts. Among the 50 odd songs he composed one nationalistic ballad, “Beauty of Kep City”, romanced the beauty of an emerging resort destined to capture the imagination of travellers.
At the height Kep’s popularity, there was even a villa that housed a kindergarten where parents could deposit their children and then escape to their own playpens. Today, all that remains are desolate concrete shells engulfed in a tangle of creepers and tree roots.
Kep was a bright and early star, long-established before Thailand’s Pattaya emerged in the 1970s.
Both Kep and Pattaya were inevitably linked to the Vietnam War. Pattaya prospered as an R&R destination for war-weary US troops, while a combination of neighbouring and civil disputes engulfed Kep. War spilled over the border with Vietnam, just 22 kilometres to the east and ultimately Kep perished at the hands of the Khmer Rouge that assumed absolute power in 1975. Its brutal reign decimated the country for four years until 1979.
The abandoned luxury villas that once reflected modernistic designs and the optimism of independence were plundered stripped of their valuable fittings. Residents fled the massacres and forced evacuations.
Those who stayed were murdered in their homes, imprisoned, or banished to work in rice fields.
Eventually, the jungle reclaimed the plots and tree roots crept through the empty concrete shells to engulf them. The St Tropez of the East mutated into a ghost town.
That was my first impression and it stays with me to this day, challenging me to think why I should ever return. To study an example of the impact of Cambodia’s Year Zero perhaps, but to indulge in a chill-out beach experience, the aura of its derelict villas and sad past intrudes.
I was travelling on a Mekong Tourism Forum media trip from Sihanoukville that made an overnight pit stop at riverside Kampot, before heading 25 km to seaside Kep and then back to Phonm Penh.
The record shows there are more than 50,000 residents in Kep, mostly working in agriculture, fisheries and tourism. Foreign tourist arrivals are no more than 40,000 a year. However, Kep’s tourism workforce is expanding as small guesthouses, resorts and hotels open keen to rekindle Kep’s old glory.
It just doesn’t feel that way as our tour bus drives a long a deserted 3 km coastal road that in places extends to six lanes wide, thanks to Asian Development Bank generosity. The road loops off the main highway 33 to pass through Kep and then re-joins the highway for the last 22 km to the Vietnamese border.
A no-entry sign posted on a flimsy gate identifies the former villa of the then Prince Norodum Sihanouk, built in 1964 and hidden from view on a forested hill.
Only two other villas have been successful restored to hotels. Most of the 40 odd villas that remain are ghostly derelict monuments, a testament to a lost era.
The properties, hidden away in small lanes skirting the Kep’s hilly backdrop, are candidates for the demolition hammer if Kep ever musters the energy to initiate recovery.
Now derelict, an imposing villa in its prime was nicknamed the cha cha cha house for hosting impromptu dinner-and-dance parties. The 60s music and the laughter of its guests echoed through the hills on a Saturday evening, possibly interrupted by the rumble of bombs and artillery fire in nearby Vietnam. Today, nothing disturbs the silence, just the sound of a broken tile snapping under foot as a visitor wanders through the rubble.
Another deserted villa that can be viewed from its garden is the former mansion of Queen Kossamak, the mother of King Sihanouk built in the 1930s. A guard prevents us from taking a closer look, but it appears to be a candidate for renovation in the future.
Taking a respite from a tour of haunted villas we head to the beach.
Kep’s giant Blue Crab monument that stands in the sea brings us back to real-time. Kep has a thriving market where fishermen deliver baskets crammed with live crab for sale at the pier and market.
Cooks at nearby seaside restaurants dunk crabs in smoke-blackened pots brimming with boiling water.
On the way to the pot, the crab has a value of USD1 per kilogramme. By the time it reaches the beachside table it will be part of an enormous seafood platter selling for around USD10.
The odd Blue Crab monument, the pier and seafood market are the heart of Kep’s community. It’s where you hire a motorcycle to explore the nearby national park, charter a boat to sail to Tonsay (Rabbit island) or if you haven’t booked a room haggle over the choice and costs of a guesthouse stay.
For an up-scale stay, two of the town’s dilapidated villas have been restored and are now posh boutique hotels.
We visited Villa Romonea, the last villa to be built on Kep’s hillside overlooking the sea with views of Phu Quoc island in Vietnam and Tonsay Island.
Replicating the profile of a dragon, Villa Romonea, was designed by Lu Ban Hap, one of the pioneers of the New Khmer Architecture movement.
Madame Nhiem, the wife of a prominent pharmacist in Phnom Penh commissioned construction that began in 1968 and was completed, despite the presence of Khmer Rouge in the area, just months prior to the coup that toppled Sihanouk in March 1970. In the civil war that followed, the Khmer Rouge occupied Kep and commandeered the villa for fish processing. They summarily executed the Nhiems probably in 1972. They had chosen to remain in Kep and share the same fate of thousands French-speaking Cambodians who were murdered preceding ‘Year Zero’ (1975) when the Khmer Rouge assumed absolute power and the reign of terror began in earnest.
In 2007, British businessman Mark Carpenter bought the property and reopened it as an upscale boutique hotel in 2010 after a costly remake.
Villa Romonea has six rooms, a tennis court used by Cambodia’s national tennis team, a six-hole golf driving range and a saltwater infinity pool.
Double rooms start from USD160 to USD300 and the entire villa can be booked for private visits. www.villaromonea.com.
Our final villa stop was for lunch at the up-scale Knai Bang Chatt resort and spa, a remake of three villas built in 1962 to 1965.
Two Belgians, Jeff Moons and Boris Vervoordt, purchased the three villas in 2006.
History had already colour coded the villas for the restoration team. The Blue Villa belonged to the governor of Kep, the Grey Villa a relative of the then Prince Sihanook and the ‘Red Villa’ was a second home for the head of customs.
Following the restoration, a Brown Villa was added in 2006 and in 2012 a fifth villa joined the collection.
The resort has 18 rooms, a spa, gardens facing the beach and a swimming pool. The signature dining spot is the resort’s Sailing Club.
Getting to Kep:
Kep is a seaside tourist city located 164 kilometres south-west of Phnom Penh. Visitors from Phnom Penh take National Road 3 via Kampot province, or National Road 2 via Takeo province. There is also a very slow train from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville that stops at Damnak Chang Eur Station, around 7 km from Kep.
Foreigners coming from Vietnam can enter Cambodia via the Ha Teang Prek Chak border checkpoint, about 40 km from Kep, or they can travel by boat from Vietnam or Sihanoukville to the Kep Port.
Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office hosted the media trip to Kampot and Kep.
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