Enough to keep you busy
Published/Last edited or updated: 12th September, 2016
Aside from the pepper plantations, checking out the crab market (but eating more sustainable seafood instead), hanging out at the beach, and perhaps popping over to Koh Tonsay, Kep offers an interesting range of other things to do and see.
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 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 eight-kilometre trail loop takes about three hours (or less of course by mountain bike). A number of smaller trails of varying difficulty can be followed instead.
Most guesthouses should be able to supply you with a map and a guide if required. Or drop into the Led Zepplin Cafe, just after the southern park entrance above Veranda. The cafe is an excellent source of information and has been 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.
The trails that head into the forest from the main route can be quite challenging as the hillside is steep. If you’re not moderately fit, you’re not going to enjoy it much. If you are, then they’re huge fun and it’s wonderful to be able to explore within the forests without the need for a guide. But the principal route is just as lovely too.
Atop the hill behind Spring Valley Resort you’ll find 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, 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. A tuk tuk driver will give you a tour of these and other villas strung along the foot of the hillside for about $10.
Several years ago, the villas were all completely deserted and we were told that no-one would go into them as they were believed to be haunted. It’s easy to imagine why one would believe that. A certain pragmatism seems to have since taken over, and we were told many of the old villas were being squatted by families. Many have also been tagged by graffiti artists, creating a oddly beguiling blend or clash of old worlds and new, the chic with the street.
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.
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 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.
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. They 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 explaining which stalagmite and stalactite formations look like which animals.
Without leaving the mainland, Angkoul Beach is a narrow, sandy beach about 25 kilometres from Kep. A few snack vendors and fishermen usually hang out here, but it’s otherwise generally unpopulated (though quite rubbish-strewn). Half the fun is getting there. One option is to follow the road towards the Ha Tien border for 24.5 kilometres, 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.
A number of tour operators have sprung up to meet the growing market. Kep Autrement offers tours by moto, tuk tuk or boat. Les Copains d’Abord offers trips out to the islands for about $50 per boat.
It was closed on the day we found it, but the Black Cat Art Gallery, on the track just below Vanna, looks like it offers an interesting diversion with a sculpture garden and outdoor paintings.
If you’re looking for a spa, well, this is Cambodia and there’s always one to hand even if they’re not immediately obvious. The Veranda Natural Resort has a spa, with reasonably expensive treatments, but in a lovely setting. For something more low key, head to Golden Hands at the bus station. It’s simple, but pretty and clean, and we genuinely had one of the better massages that we’ve enjoyed in Cambodia. A traditional Khmer massage is $6, while an oil massage $10 for an hour. They also offer scrubs, facials, manicures and waxing services. Le Flamboyant will soon have their own spa online as well. Knai Bang Chatt has a spa, with a range of pricey but undoubtedly indulgent treatments, including an aromatherapy massage for $41 for one hour, body treatments, facials, and more. The prices are pretty reasonable when you consider the location. And $49 for a facial is actually very good for any decent spa in Cambodia, let alone one as luxurious as this.
On the rutted road out to Jasmine Valley — which is now closed — the Butterfly Farm is a hobby project run by the wealthy owner. A friendly member of staff demonstrates 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.
This is not quite Disney World, but it is a relaxing way to spend half an hour or so, and photography fans may be difficult to extract as they chase shots of the impossibly elusive and beautiful bugs.
Yoga practitioners have a surprising range of options. The Butterfly Farm hosts hatha yoga classes on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings at 10:00, for $5 a class. Veranda Natural Resort also has classes on Friday, Saturday and Sundays at 07:00 and 17:00 for $12. Knai Bang Chatt offers morning (06:00) and evening (17:00) yoga classes for $15. They can also organise private classes for $25.
There is now a ranch in Kep, offering horse riding treks across the countryside and nearby beaches. The horses are small, so a weight limit of 90kg applies, and treks range from $20 for a one-hour trek, to $35 for two hours.
Shopping in Kep requires a certain dedication as the pickings are thin, though not completely devoid of interest. At Koki on the market square over the beach, you’ll find some very pretty blouses, kramas and some souvenirs, while the market itself sells trinkets, souvenirs and basic clothing like T-shirts and shorts. You’ll find a similar array of tacky souvenirs at the Crab Market as well. Probably best not to buy the coral. On the other side of the road, at the bus station, Signature Cafe has stones, beads and amulets that you can make up into your own jewellery. The Shop at Veranda Natural Resort is the closest you’ll get to anything resembling a supermarket in Kep. One side is dedicated to souvenirs, with some quite substantial sculptures, carvings and silverware among the kramas and other objects. On the other side, there is a small selection of toiletries, including sun screen, and snacks. At the far end of the town, you’ll find Kep Market, a large art deco building with plenty of clothing, food and practical housewares.
Kep In Touch: T: (096) 37 23 489.
Kep Oceanarium: Koh Tonsay Pier, Kep; T: (016) 715 444; www.facebook.com/pages/Kep-Oceanarium; open daily 08:00-18:00.
Kep Autrement: T: (087) 320 140; www.kepautrement.com.
Les Copains d’Abord: T: (097) 623 6176; www.lescopainsdabordkep.com.
Black Cat Art Gallery: Kep Hillside; T: (096) 588 2667; www.oliviermenge.ch.; open Tues-Sun 11:00-21:00.
Golden Hands Spa: Bus station, Kep; T: (036) 666 6636; open daily 10:00-23:00.
Veranda Natural Resort: Kep Hillside; T: (012) 888 619; open daily 10:00-22:00.
Knai Bang Chatt: T: (078) 333 684; open daily 10:00-22:00.
Kep Butterfly Farm: Jasmine Valley Rd, Kep.
Plantation Ranch Kep: Jasmine Valley Rd, Kep; T: (097) 847 4960; www.kep-plantation.com
Koki: Kep Beach; T: (036) 676 6667.
Signature Cafe: Bus station, Kep; open daily 07:00-21:30.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.