Aside from eating crab, the few points of interest in and around Kep are sufficient to fill two or three slow-moving days.
Kep itself has three main attractions aside from the beach. While ostensibly a national park stretching across some 5,000 hectares (including Ko Tonsay and Ko Po), the vast majority of Kep National Park's gazetted area is being used for farming and whatnot so it's hardly a repository of abundant wildlife and untouched natural beauty. That said, it's a pleasing area to go for a walk -- the main 8km trail loop takes about 3 hours (less by mountain bike) and there's a number of smaller trails of varying difficulty. Most guesthouses should be able to supply you with a map and a guide if required. The Led Zepplin Cafe, just after the southern park entrance above La Veranda, is an excellent source of information and instrumental in making the park more accessible. Look out for Sunset Rock, Little Buddha and the Stone Horse, elusive monkeys and rainy season waterfalls. A $1 entrance fee to the park is charged when the barriers are staffed.
Another of Kep's tourist photo opps is the white lady statue, known as the 'woman who waits for her man' in Khmer. The white concrete woman, with absolutely gravity-defying breasts and a well-cushioned backside, sits just to the east of the Beach House on Kep's main beach. Rumour has it that she was first designed with a more European-looking face as a comment on scantily clad French holidaymakers. Every now and then a bunch of social conservatives kick up a storm about the statue's nudity and drape her with garments -- most of which disappear within a day or two.
Atop the hill behind Spring Valley Resort are several of Sihanouk's decaying old mansions. Head up the wooded road to the left of the bus station for a few hundred metres. There are three buildings in total, all designed by famed Khmer architect Vann Molyvann. Caretakers live in one of the structures and a dollar is usually sufficient to secure entry to those who want to poke around a little.
On the rutted road out to Jasmine Valley is the Butterfly Farm, a hobby project run by the wealthy owner. A friendly member of staff will demonstrate the stages of growth in the Caterpillar Cage before letting you into a netted garden with adult butterflies. The gardens are beautifully kept and entrance is free, although donations are appreciated. Wildlife lovers will also enjoy Kep Oceanarium, run by Marine Conservation Cambodia on the Koh Tonsay pier. For $3 entry, it's an interesting look around 32 aquariums including reef tanks and coral propagation areas.
Further afield, the district of Kompong Trach was once a Khmer Rouge stronghold -- it was in this area that three Western travellers were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge off the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville train in July 1994 and were murdered late in September the same year. Today the threat of the Khmer Rouge has gone, and a trickle of tourists visit the district to explore a small set of mediocre caves in a limestone outcrop. The centre of the outcrop has collapsed creating an atrium-like effect and a bunch of small pagodas and shrines have been built through the network of caves. Kids will happily lead you through the caves for a token fee.
Past the caves are some pepper plantations that can be visited in what is referred to as the Khmer Rouge Mountains. These are actually just hills where ex-Khmer Rouge were resettled, given farmland and told to start growing stuff. Their pepper is outstanding -- we mean it -- outstanding. Depending on the farm you go to, generally two grades are available -- 1 and 2 -- 1 is by far the better pepper and well worth the extra money. Prices start at around US$12 per kilo (some haggling is acceptable) -- a bargain compared to what you'd pay in Phnom Penh -- though you will of course need to carry it around with you.
Pepper is also big business on the road to the Vine Retreat, a pleasant place to take a lunch break. Further on is Wat Chamcar Bei, a hilltop temple with far-reaching views, particularly pretty at sunset. The pagoda itself is no great shakes, although full of brightly-coloured mural scenes. To get there, take the beach road from Kep to Highway 33 in the direction of Phnom Penh; after about 4km turn left at the array of plantation advertising signboards. Another 4km brings you to the Vine Retreat, then follow the road as it bends to the right and continue past the reservoir to Chamcar Bei village. Turn left at the woman statue roundabout and continue straight on until the school where a very steep dirt track rises up on the left to the pagoda.
Both motodops and tuk tuks can be arranged to cover all of the above -- as a guide, it's about $3 to the butterfly farm and $7 to Vine Retreat. It's cheaper to negotiate a day rate based on where you want to visit.
Most visits to Kep include a trip to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island. For an overnight stay, the many bungalows lining the main beach cost $6, $8-12 for a private squat toilet bathroom or up to $15 if you prefer the sit down variety. These are basic one-room affairs with a mattress, mosquito net, and no electricity. Many nights are quiet, but on weekends and holidays all it takes is a group of young Cambodians with a karaoke machine to change the vibe. Mostly, though, the beach is uncrowded and sandy -- and the island's pepper crab and squid are the supremely tasty. You can hike around the entire island in about three hours, spotting remote fishing families, protective dogs, and a few birds here and there.
Without leaving the mainland, Angkoul Beach is a narrow, sandy beach about 25km from Kep. There's a few snack vendors and fishermen but it's otherwise generally unpopulated. Half the fun is getting there - option one is to follow the road towards the Ha Tien border for 24.5km, arrive at the salt fields and ask for directions. The more adventurous can try to find the shortcut, turning right at the school east of Kep market, following the dirt road to the salt fields then looking for red and blue signs, heading for the hill in the distance on the coast. After the fishing village and more salt flats, cross the ditch with a plank bridge, turn left and follow the horseshoe road around the hill.
The Kep In Touch boat tour offers a full day package for $22, either on a Kep Islands Discovery to Koh Tonsay, Koh Kapoh and Koh Tarang or a Kep Kampot Journey up river.
Kep Butterfly Farm: Jasmine Valley Road, http://kepbutterflyfarm.com
Kep In Touch: T: (096) 37 23 489
Kep Oceanarium: Koh Tonsay Pier, T: (016) 715 444 www.facebook.com/pages/Kep-Oceanarium Open 8:00-18:00
By Abigail Gilbert
Last updated on 5th May, 2014.