The Lost Charms of Kep-Sur-Mer

Famed as the 'Cambodian Riviera' during the heady days of the 1950s, the sleepy seaside town of Kep has yet to regain the charms that saw it labelled Kep-Sur-Mer

I have a fond spot for lost colonial resort towns. After a decade spent living across Southeast Asia - a list of tropical places that has taken in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Phuket and Phnom Penh - I’ve discovered they’re more common than you’d think.

Malaysia has its many hill stations, where the presumably humidity-adverse British would beat a retreat in a desperate search for cooler weather (although one fancies they didn’t need much of an excuse to take a gin-and-tonic fuelled holiday). From the strawberry fields of the Cameron Highlands, where the Thai silk king - and supposed CIA spook - Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared on a post-breakfast walk in 1967, to the 833 meter high Penang Hill, reached by a bright blue funicular railway.

Thailand - never colonized, as the locals will proudly tell you - lacks such European settlements, apart from a smattering of lovely old buildings by Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river, while the French - clearly in love with Vietnam, where they lavished attention on Saigon and Hanoi - were barely in Cambodia long enough (1867 to 1953) to build much, though they did at least make a start on the Bokor Elevation Station, a 1,000 meter high rocky edifice that looks directly down into the blue ocean and the looming Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc (it’s a sore point for the Khmers, who pointedly call it Koh Tral), constructing a hotel, post office, and Catholic cathedral before the actions of the anti-colonial Khmer Issarak guerrillas made French control of the mountaintop untenable.

In the joyous thralls of independence, and under the leadership of Norodom Sihanouk (a hugely interesting character who was King, abdicated to become Prime Minister, then ran the country under one party rule, was a close friend of the nascent People’s Republic of China, supported the Khmer Rouge after he was ousted in an American-backed coup, was put under house arrest in the palace after he realized the brutality of the regime, then became king again, abdicated again, and passed away in Beijing in 2012), a bright new future beckoned, with a huge countrywide building programme of ‘New Khmer Architecture’ a modernist 1960s style spearheaded by architect Vann Molyvann that integrated the ideas of Le Corbusier and traditional Khmer design.

Of course, an aspirant middle-class needed a place to vacation, and Kep, with its sandy beach and palm-lined coastline, beckoned. Prime plots of land were snapped up, and smart modernist vacation homes constructed, with Sihanouk reserving the best - a superb slice of headland looking out to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) - for himself. Sadly, like with much of the country, tantalizing progress came to a shuddering halt as the promised ‘Cambodian Riviera’ was instead wracked by civil war, with even Sihanouk’s hilltop palace left unfinished. Over the following decades, through civil war, Khmer Rouge rule, Vietnamese occupation, and yet more civil war, buildings slowly decayed, were stripped for supplies or ruined by squatters - the dream of Kep-Sur-Mer was over.

However, though most of the mansions sit in overgrown fields, daubed with graffiti, elements of this brief shining moment remain, in the form of two stylish resorts that are flying the flag for Kep tourism. Firstly, there’s the welcoming reception building at the Samanea Resort, which was once the residence of the occupying Vietnamese army chief in the 1980s (yet another story in the area’s troubled history) and then used as a decidedly unglamorous cowshed. Then, just a kilometer or so down the road you’ll find the sensitively renovated 1960s-era mansions at Knai Bang Chatt, colorful buildings that sit in harmony with a restored fisherman’s cottage known as The Sailing Club.

On a recent Saturday evening’s visit to the latter, as dusk turned to darkness and the sun set over a long pier jutting out into the becalmed sea, an acoustic guitarist played the musical backdrop for a crowd of well-dressed expats and locals, mostly down from Phnom Penh for the weekend. As we mingled together for dinner and drinks, kids playing hide and seek in the sand as we enjoyed a dinner of barbecue seafood, it was possible to see what Kep-Sur-Mer could have been - and what plain Kep may yet be.