Back in the 1960s, when Sihanoukville was just a fishing village, KEP, 25km from Kampot, was already an affluent seaside resort. Subsequent events were unkind to the town, but today, though now eclipsed by Sihanoukville, it is making a spirited comeback as a day-trip destination from Phnom Penh. It’s not the beach (narrow, dark brown) that brings people here, however. Cambodians largely come for the food – particularly the offerings at the crab market – while foreigners linger to enjoy Kep’s mellow atmosphere, excellent accommodation options, and the possibility of trips to offshore islands and into the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Traces of the town’s sombre past remain. The region is dotted with the gutted shells of colonial villas – tragic evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s destruction. Until recently, most were smothered by prolific tropical vegetation and home to squatters; now some have been restored, with more likely to follow, although the difficulty of establishing ownership means this will be a slow process.
Kep accommodation ranges from stunning converted villas to rustic guesthouses; the very best are sumptuous and stylish while the cheaper places are generally basic, but clean. Options are spread widely, with possibilities at Kep Thmei, on the road east of town, towards the national park and near the Rabbit Island pier.
There’s nothing to do in Kep after about 11pm, but there are some excellent restaurants; crab is the local speciality. Cheap eats are a little hard to find, but the market is a good place to pick up barbecued seafood, and there’s a supermarket by the Rabbit Island pier. The crab market is flanked to the south by dozens of overpriced seafood restaurants that form the bulk of Kep’s low-key nightlife.
Kep is a sprawling place. The road for town branches away from NR33 at the prominent White Horse Monument, from where it’s 5 or 6km to the right turn to Psar K’Dam, the famous crab market. From here the road runs along the seafront for 1km or so to Kep Beach, where the narrow, dark-sand beach broadens out fractionally. Set back in a circular precinct is the transport stop, as well a couple of hotels, some local stores and several of the ubiquitous huts furnished with mats and hammocks that Cambodians love to rent out for a day’s relaxing (it gets busy here at weekends). Getting back from here to the crab market, the one-way system dictates that you head north away from the beach and take the first left at the roundabout. East of Kep, the paved road runs to the Vietnamese border, and the crossing at Prek Chak (for Ha Tien and Phu Quoc).
The beaches in Kep aren’t up to much: slim stretches of dark sand that don’t lend themselves to lounging. Luckily, a number of trips to the offshore islands are on offer. Closest is Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), with three nice beaches. Further out, Koh Poh (Coral Island) has clean white sands, turquoise water, coral reefs and great snorkelling. The huge island that dominates the horizon is Phu Quoc, in Vietnamese waters; locals still call it Koh Kut, dating back to when it belonged to Cambodia.