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Kep travel guide

Kep Introduction

| 04 Sep 2011
Last updated 04 Sep 2011

The French established the first major settlement at the picturesque coastal town of Kep-sur-Mer, as it was known during colonial times, in 1908. From the the outset, it was a seaside escape from the capital Phnom Penh.

It was during Sihanouk's rule in the 1960s that the town peaked. Newly independent Cambodia was at peace and a nation of artistic and architectual ambition was taking shape. Kep was the preferred playground for the country's new elite. They were led by Sihanouk, who indulged his love of film making here, using the main beach as a location.

A remarkable period of building inspired by Europoean trained local architects adopting and adapting the styles of their education. The exploration of the tragic ruins of this brief architectural spring make a bizarrre modern era contrast to the exploration of the Angkorian ruins in Siem Reap.

Kep may once have been the grooviest beach town in South East Asia. But its fall was hard and final.

The Khmer Rouge arrived in Kep years before they took control of the rest of the country in 1975. The party was over. Pol Pot's men reserved a special contempt for the town and its shameless bourgeois ways. Those Kep residents, the owners of these mansions, that didn't escape the country before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge, are unlikely to have survived.

In 1979, when the Vietnamese ousted the Pol Pot regime from Phnom Penh, the area around Kep became a Khmer Rouge stronghold. The pockmarks on many of the buildings around town date back to the late 1970s and 1980s battles between Vietnamese forces and the Khmer Rouge.

The unique architectural heritage here is in desperate straits. A handful of buildings have been restored and there are plans for more. But the survival of most of the relics of Kep's 1960s heyday looks unlikely.

Kep's setting is beautiful; wedged between lush forested mountains and the sea. The pace is wonderfully sedate. If you've come from a teeming Vietnamese city, the border is only a short drive away, you may suffer some culture shock before its peaceful delights take hold.

There's not a lot to do here but Kep's laid back vibe and its impressive range of well priced, boutique resort hotels has made it very popular with international travellers and Phnom Penh based expats.

Some travellers make an easy day trip to Kep from Kampot. If time allows, Kep can easily consume at least a couple of relaxing days and many travellers choose to unwind here for as long as a week.