Cambodia's Kep is a former playground of the French and Cambodian elite, with the King Father's crumbling mansions sitting atop the hill, a testament to the country's cultural zenith in the 1960s. It takes some imagination to conjure this heyday from the weekday peace and laidback ambiance, but the revival of a white sand beach and a throng of holidaying Khmers at weekends hark back to Kep's popular past.
Kep is staging a slow but steady comeback. Over several years, many of the beachside plots, which hosted nothing but ruined villas and tangled jungle for decades, have been snapped up by foreign royalty, merchant bankers, expatriates and wealthy Khmers. While visiting the town's hotels, it's quickly apparent that it wants to be more upscale and subdued than
New accommodation options and improving services for visitors may be signs of the changes to come, but much stays the same. Among Khmers, Kep remains best known for its fresh crab, and on weekends hordes of locals descend to eat all the crab they can get their hands on. For Phnom Penh based expats Kep remains an ideal weekend getaway.
Much of Kep maintains its ghost-town ambiance: although things feel bustling enough by the bus station area above the beach, and the crab market up the hill at the western end, there's a big stretch of nothing much happening until you reach the town 'proper' with the market and Koh Tonsay pier. You may feel that you blinked and missed something, but if you spotted the white naked woman statue, the welcoming crab and the mini Independence Monument, you likely didn't.
Kep's popularity is based on taking it easy rather than a long list of available activities. The imported white sand beach is only a kilometre long, but the sea is perfect for a float in a car-tyre or a potter around in a sailboat. The sunsets across the bay to Bokor National Park are stunning and this is a great place for a lazy spell in a hammock. Nature lovers can take relatively easy treks in the national park, or get up close and personal at the Butterfly Farm and Oceanarium.
The islands off Kep are well worth visiting and we've got a soft spot for Koh Tonsay, better known as Rabbit Island. It's easily visited by boat from Kep on a day trip, or rudimentary accommodation is available should you want to overnight there.
The main island you can see offshore is Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island, which is totally off-limits via Kep (though it can be reached from both Ha Tien and Rach Gia across the border). Any Cambodian will tell you they think it was stolen by the Vietnamese and looking at the basic geography of the coastline, it's easy to see where they're coming from.
The Cambodia/Vietnam border at the Prek Chak / Xa Xia crossing is closet to Kep, taking 1-1.5 hours by motorbike, car or minivan depending on road conditions, at a cost of $10-$25 depending on the level of comfort you select. Travellers with a valid Vietnamese visa can enter Vietnam and visa on arrival is available at the Cambodian side. Plans to build a ferry and border crossing from Kep to Phu Quoc have been touted for years, but as of April 2014, it's still at the rumour stage.