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Kep Crab Market: A Lament

By: Casey Nelson Posted: September-27-2010 in
The Big Crab Monument
Casey Nelson

I like Kep. The place is dullsville, but a pleasant dullsville, good for reading books, watching sunsets, riding the area a bit and lazing about the seaside. And of course there is the crab. They build monuments to crabs in Kep, and understandably so. Crab is to Kep what Angkor Wat is to Siem Reap (...or perhaps what the bars are to Phnom Penh.) The post-Bokor tourist industry in Kep is founded on crab-lunch-at-the-seaside. Until recently that was pretty much the only reason tourists came to Kep and is still one of the main reasons.

These days there are a few proper restaurants around the peninsula including the guesthouse restaurants, but the traditional and most popular dining venues have always been been the open-air places at the seaside - the platform gazebos along Kep Beach and the crabshacks of the Kep Crab Market.

I like the Crab Market. A meal at the Crab Market is amongst my favorite dining experiences in Cambodia. The Market is an oceanside cluster of a dozen-plus rickety old wooden shacks hugging the water's edge. Almost all are restaurants, and until recently exclusively seafood restaurants. There's a lovely local feel to the whole place. Popular with the Cambodian tourists long before westerners discovered it. Downhome, friendly and real. To sound cliché, a little piece of authentic Cambodia.

In Kep for a couple of days last week, I stopped in for an early dinner at the Crab Market. Avoiding the touristy places at the south end, I chose a small crabshack in the middle, Restaurant Srey Pich, I believe. Clearly a family operation. Mom cooking, daughters serving, Dad watching the TV. It was a blustery coastal evening, ordinary for the monsoon season. The surf was all churned up milkcoffee brown and the ocean wind was blowing, sometimes hard through the restaurant. Sitting near the sea side window (for the view) I had to hold onto my half empty can of Anchor beer to keep it from blowing away. In fact after that first Anchor I switched to big (heavier) bottles of Angkor beer for only that reason, greater stability in a strong wind.

A beer and a half down, time came to order. I asked the cook if the crabs were meaty, which of course she affirmed with great conviction. I've discovered that for some reason the crabs in Kep (and the whole coast of Cambodia) are meatier some days than others. I don't know why. The crab marketeers tell me that the meatiness of the crab is linked to the lunar cycle - that crabs are thin at the full moon and fat with the new moon. Don't know if that's true, and couldn't see the moon anyway, but I have been burned before by false claims of fat crabs. Skeptical, I reiterated, "Today? The crabs are fat TODAY??" She assured me that the crabs were particularly "thom-thom" (big-big) today - that they were "skoam" (skinny) the previous week but had gotten fat and plentiful in the last few days. Just to be on the safe side I ordered the big plate of fried pepper crab for 30,000 riel (US$7.50.) It was only 10,000R more than the small plate. I also ordered a small sour shrimp soup for 15,000 riel.

The crab came fat and meaty just as she had promised, cracked and covered with stalks of fresh green Kampot pepper corns. The big plate was truly BIG. More crab than I could eat, almost. And they were delicious. Fresh and sweet. And the small sour soup turned out to be a large flaming tureen of at least 15 good size shrimp, plenty of soup for two. Along with a couple/few big bottles of tepid Angkor beer on ice, it was all quite the feast. As I ate, I watched the storm out over the ocean, murky monsoon skies and great gray sheets of rain sweeping across the water. Just out the window, a hard-faced women hauled crab traps in and out of the surf. The wind blew and waves lapped and the whole place creaked under the strain. Hot sparks scattered from the flaming tureen across the table and wisps of rain blew through the restaurant. I lined Angkor beer bottles into a wall against the wind, protecting the tureen. A dog (presumably the family dog) laid under my chair waiting for scraps, occasionally whimpering short reminders of his patient presence. I finished dinner and had a smoke and another beer. The waitress lit and relit my fag and never let my glass run dry (or short of ice.) Nice Cambodian place.

But something concerns me. There have been disturbing developments at the Crab Market of late. The Market has recently made the quantum leap from being exclusively local to having a few western-style and run places. There is now a pizzeria and an international-style bar in the Crab Market. A very bad sign for traditionalists. Instead of the sounds of lapping waves and badly dubbed Khmer TV, Western bar music now wafts through the Crab Market at night. If these places are successful, this bug will likely spread. More will follow. And I will lose my rustic old Cambodian Crab Market. Changing times.

At dinner, I brooded over this thought. Lamented even. After dinner I wandered down to that new bar to glare at this intruder, see if they had any customers. Once there sat down for a quick drink just for a look round. Pool table, 10 or 15 people the place, a lot for low season September. I ordered another, this time a shot, and moved toward the pool table. And then... Plied by temptations other Crab Market places don't offer - spirits by the shot (including the demon tequila,) cold beer, a proper bar to sit at, decent music and a late closing hour - that bar kept me there until after 2AM. And made me come back the next night too. Damn them.

Enjoy the Crab Market while you can.

Casey Nelson a.k.a. LTO Cambodia


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