Since the French selected Kep-sur-Mer as their holiday destination of choice in 1908, this somnolent seaside town has welcomed discerning tourists. In its golden age of the ’50s and ’60s, fancy sports cars, daring bikinis and lavish villas made the resort the “Saint Tropez of Southeast Asia” for its elite visitors. After a few decades off the radar for all but canny backpackers and expats in the know, Kep and its beach are having a revival. Borrowing a bonne idee from the French, sand is now the town’s biggest import.
Formerly, part of Kep’s charm lay in its incongruous rating as a city, when the whole province only has 40,000 inhabitants. Many days, you were likely to encounter more cows and monkeys than residents. Ruined villas, delicious crabs, a large-bottomed statue and island views were the mainstay of entertainment. The beach, sadly, was a small strip of gritty black sand which only the most dedicated sun-worshipper was likely to consider. Those who liked the feel of silicon between the toes hot-footed it across the channel to Rabbit Island.
In recent years, Kep has begun a gentle transformation — although still blissfully quiet, high-end resorts and upscale development plans are attempting to revive the pre-war heyday. The local government has rediscovered an ingenious idea, once used by the French, to solve the beach problem. Don’t have the clean, white sand which holidaymakers like to spread themselves out on? Just truck it in from somewhere that does. Et voila!: one lovely white beach.
Deliveries are made every two weeks, apparently from Sihanoukville’s Otres beach. Top-ups are timed to coincide with high days and holidays. The sand is filtered before it’s deposited and a team of workers clean the beach every morning and pull the sand back from the sea. This is some serious beach maintenance. Of course, time and tide wait for no beach, so at the end of the fortnight the gritty black stuff makes a reappearance.
The new kilometre-long beach is longer and much more welcoming than before. On holiday weekends, it’s packed with Cambodians families floating in inner tubes, consuming their bodyweight in crab and holding impromptu parties. During the week, it’s quiet and you’re unlikely to be disturbed. So dig out your two-piece, pack the Pastis, fire up that convertible, and follow in French footprints in the nice white sand.
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 15th March, 2014.