KEP was already an affluent seaside resort back in the 1960s, when Sihanoukville was just a fishing village, though subsequent events were unkind to the town. Despite being eclipsed by Sihanoukville, Kep is now making a spirited comeback as a day-trip destination from Phnom Penh, though not for its beach, which is narrow, black and pebbly. Instead, Cambodians come for its food – particularly the crab. Foreigners too are arriving in ever-increasing numbers, attracted by its mellow atmosphere and excellent accommodation options. Currently, apart from just kicking back and relaxing, the main attractions here are the trips to offshore islands and beautiful surrounding countryside. These can be organized through any of the guesthouses or hotels.
Kep is a sprawling sort of place. The road for Kep branches away from National Route 33 at the prominent White Horse Monument, from where it’s five or six kilometres to the right turn to Psar K’Dam, the crab market; from here the road runs along the seafront for a kilometre or so, to the beach at Kep Thmei, where the narrow and pebbly beach broadens out fractionally. It gets crowded at weekends with day-trippers from the capital, so plan your visit for a weekday if you’re looking for peace and quiet. If you carry on along the seafront, at the end of Kep Thmei you’ll come to a massive white statue of a naked woman, Yeah Mao, of Pich Nil fame, looking out to sea for her husband. Between here to Psar Chas, the tiny market at the east end of town, and the new pier, you can still see villas which were deliberately wrecked by the Khmer Rouge and left to be swallowed up by the jungle. You’ll also see plenty of ostentatious government buildings, a vast mansion on the hill belonging to a government minister and another near Breezes restaurant, known as the Queen’s Palace, that King Norodom Sihanouk built but never stayed in. Nothing has been done as yet to repair the damage caused by the Khmer Rouge and for $1 you can climb the bullet-strewn stairway to the ruined balconies on the first floor that look through the trees to Rabbit Island.
Trips to the offshore islands are well worth making. Closest is Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), with three good beaches. Further out, Koh Poh (Coral Island) has clean white-sand beaches, turquoise water, coral reefs and great snorkelling. The huge island that dominates the horizon is Phu Quoc, in Vietnamese waters; some Cambodians still call it Koh Kut, from the times when it belonged to Cambodia. Boats can be arranged to Koh Tonsay and Koh Poh through the town’s guesthouses, or you can charter long-tailed boats on the beach – ask at the food stalls or at the new pier towards Psar Chas. The two-hour trip to Koh Poh costs $40, though it shouldn’t be considered in stormy weather.
On the hill behind Kep, you can get quite away from it all and enjoy fantastic views over the province and bay, by following a track through the jungle (access is behind Veranda Natural Resort); the hike to the mountain top will take about an hour and a half, or you can go around the mountain in two to three hours.
Traces of the town’s sombre past remain, however. The region is dotted with the gutted shells of colonial villas – tragic evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s wanton lust for destruction. Until recently, most of these were smothered by the prolific tropical vegetation and home to squatters; now some have been restored and it’s likely that more will follow, although the difficulty of establishing ownership means this’ll be a relatively slow process.
East of Kep, the coast runs to the Vietnamese border, and the newly opened crossing at Prek Chak (for Ha Tien and Phu Quoc).