Kep is staging a slow but steady comeback. Over several years, many of the beachside plots, which hosted nothing but ruined villas and tangled jungle for decades. While visiting the town’s hotels, it’s quickly apparent that it wants to be more upscale and subdued than Sihanoukville and even Kampot. In a very uncharacteristic step for Cambodia, development here for the most part seems slow, careful and planned.
New accommodation options and improving services for visitors may be signs of the changes to come, but much stays the same. Among Khmers, Kep remains best known for its fresh crab, and on weekends hordes of locals descend to eat all the crab they can get their hands on. For Phnom Penh-based expats, Kep remains an ideal weekend getaway.
Kep may have to emphasise its other charms soon, however, as over-crabbing is decimating stocks and bad practices are destroying valuable coral and grass reefs that were forever in the making. These also provide the breeding grounds for the fish and crab that have become Kep’s economic lifeblood. Ethical local restaurants now refuse to serve locally sourced crab — we’d advise you skip it too and go for a sustainable seafood option instead. (Go for goldband snapper, red snapper, calamari or tuna, our chef friend tells us.)
Much of Kep maintains its ghost-town ambiance: although things feel bustling enough by the bus station area above the beach, and the crab market up the hill at the western end, there’s a big stretch of nothing much happening until you reach the town ‘proper’ with the market and Koh Tonsay pier. You may feel that you blinked and missed something, but if you spotted the white naked woman statue, the welcoming crab and the mini Independence Monument, you likely didn’t.
Kep’s popularity is based on taking it easy rather than a long list of available activities. The imported white sand beach is not even a kilometre long, but the sea is perfect for a float in a car-tyre or a potter around in a sailboat. The sunsets across the bay to Bokor National Park are stunning and this is a great place for a lazy spell in a hammock.
The islands off Kep are worth a visit and we’ve got a soft spot for Koh Tonsay, better known as Rabbit Island. It’s also easier to visit farms producing famed Kampot pepper from Kep rather than Kampot — it’s worth stopping at a farm just to see how this world-class product is grown.