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Kep

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In a nutshell

Kep beach is a small arc of sand sometimes strewn in debris; but the area, a former playground of the French and Cambodian elite, is atmospheric if sleepy. Tuck into a fresh crab feast like the locals, make a trip to pretty Ko Tonsay and otherwise, don't leave your hammock.

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. These days the beach is but a narrow strip of sand covered in debris for all but the driest part of dry season. The beachside promenade however has a good range of guesthouses and hotels, and hordes of holidaying Khmers make it an interesting and certainly local experience.

Kep is staging a slow but steady comeback. Over the last few years much of the beachside property that had for decades hosted nothing but ruined villas and tangled jungle has been snapped up by foreign royalty, merchant bankers, expatriates and wealthy Khmers among others. The salubrious Knai Bang Chatt was included in Conde Nast Traveler's Hot List for 2007 -- change is indeed on the way. While visiting the town's many hotels, it's quickly apparent that it wants to be more upscale and subdued than Sihanoukville and even Kampot. The cheapest establishments are still higher-end bungalow places, and beds for less than $10 a night are unlikely to be found. Refreshingly, development here for the most part seems slow, careful, and planned. One hotel owner told us he was banned from building on the road where Sihanouk's old mansions are located. We were happy to hear it.

More change still comes courtesy of the border with Vietnam finally officially opening. Yes, the Cambodia/Vietnam border is open and travellers with a valid Vietnamese visa can enter Vietnam at the Prek Chak / Xa Xia crossing near Kep, which can take 1-1.5 hours by motorbike depending on road conditions and should cost $10-$15. There are plans to build a ferry and border crossing from Kep to Phu Quoc, but nothing was complete as of August 2009.

While much changes, 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. Kep's popularity is a little strange though, as the beach here remains a barely-there strip of sand.. Suitable for a float in a car-tyre or a potter around in a sailboat, this is beachside for munching rather than tanning. While in Kep, we heard talks of plans to cart in white sand to make things prettier -- we hope the crabs don't mind.


It may not be a fabulous spot for swimming, but the sunsets across the bay to Bokor National Park are stunning and this is a great place for a lazy spell in a hammock. Bring a good book (and make sure your choice of lodging has hammocks).

The islands off Kep are well worth visiting and we've got a very soft spot for Ko 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.

Related reading

Beach hideaways in Asia
Five special hotels in Cambodia
Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.

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