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Progress At A Price

By: EAS Staff Posted: July-08-2009 in
Kep Crabs
EAS Staff

From sleepy, down-at-heel beachfront town to a modern resort destination, Kep is on the move and, hopefully,
in the right direction

Once a playground for the well-heeled citizens of pre-war Cambodia, the seaside resort of Kaep Sur Mer (“Kep”) is experiencing a development boom that will either confirm its place as Cambodia’s premier holiday destination or turn it into a naff holiday camp to be avoided at all costs.

Back in the 1930s and up to the 1960s, it must have been the place to visit. Drive into the town along its coastal, tree-lined boulevard and you can imagine what a fine time everyone must have been having. In those days its stunning French villas and Vann Molyvann art-deco concrete houses looked out over amazing views of the Gulf of Vietnam and beyond. Famous for its crab, Kep is surrounded by gloriously lush hills that funnel soothing ocean breezes into your face. In Cambodia’s heyday, life was easy and weekends were for relaxing with your family.

The onset of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, however, undid it all in a flash, destroying the town and razing most of its beautiful architecture. Few houses survived and those that did are pockmarked with bullet holes. Almost overnight Kep became a Khmer Rouge stronghold and a forgotten backwater. Fast forward to a couple of years ago and it was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide as a quiet, if somewhat boring diversion from many of the other Cambodian destinations.

In 2006 there were only a few places to stay and I saw only a handful of travellers. I ate glorious crab, took a boat to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) and explored the dirt tracks at the base of the hills that are the backdrop to the town.
My gorgeous bungalow overlooking the bay cost $8, beer was 50c and I remember being amazed at how undeveloped such a great place could be. It was on the coast, had everything going for it and . . . yet . . . where was everybody? It must only be a matter of time, I thought.

Kep 2008: little did I know how right I would be. Convoys of Mercedes were streaming in every weekend: land-rush/development hysteria had started. Drive into the once-quiet back lanes and you will see clusters of Khmers carrying suitcases stuffed with cash wielding yellow measuring wheels, intent on doing land deals at every turn.
Swaths of hillside forest are being cleared and fenced, guesthouses are going up overnight and villas are being restored to their former glory.

You can now spend up to several hundred dollars for a night at the glorious Knai Bang Chatt resort or as little as $20 at places such as Vanna Bungalows or Kep Lodge. Even though the once rustic crab shacks are being renovated, thankfully the tasty crawler is still cheap. But the small port has been developed, there is a new marketplace underway and power blackouts are almost a thing of the past.
The sleepy Kep of old is pretty well gone forever; Cambodia’s development has finally and deservedly caught up with the south coast. If you can, go and see these places now because at the present rate they will all be vastly different destinations in five, two or even one year.
Hopefully, though, it will continue to offer the relaxing break from Phnom Penh that we all so desperately need. Unless, however, some thought is given to the way the development is undertaken, the glory that is one of Cambodia’s jewels could lose its lustre and be ruined forever.

Republished with the kind permission of the Cambodia Pocket Guide

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