The Most Magical Place You've Never Heard of: Kemp, Cambodia
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Seekers of tranquil, sleepy, beachy seaside resorts, come one come all to Kep, Cambodia (but keep the noise down, okay?)
This unspoiled destination is located in the middle of Cambodia’s coastline along the Gulf of Thailand. If that doesn’t sound faraway fairy tale exotic enough, don’t be surprised to find yourself blinking in disbelief as you magically transport from a breezy, open-air café for breakfast and coffee, to bouncing up a dirt trail on a tropical mountainside, then enshrouded in a cloud of beautiful butterflies within a secret garden, to hunting ghosts among abandoned mansions, then rinsed with serenity somewhere that like looks like a cover of Conde Nast Traveler. And you’re like, “Is this the same planet, or even country, let alone the same town?”
Yes. It is. It’s Kep.
One of the reasons Kep remains exclusive is its less-than-ideal accessibility. There are no direct buses or trains from Phnom Penh. You can take a nice bus to Kampot in about two and a half hours, then a 30-minute tuk tuk or taxi ride. The real way to travel though, the way I went, is to hire a private car. It’s a three-hour drive and costs $50 - $60 each way. This still may seem a long trek, but consider the road is at least fully paved, which is a new development of only a few years ago. When it was all dirt, the trip took nearly twice as long. Alternatively, you could swim from Vietnam, which is visible in the Gulf. (not recommended)
Until I make many repeat visits (which I certainly will!) I can only veritably review the place I stayed for a three-day weekend. However, I will probably always only stay at the same place because I loved it so much.
The address for Veranda Natural Resort is literally: Kep hillside road. No number. No zip code. As I entered the town of Kep, the driver asked for the address. Apologetically, that’s all I had to give him, but he coolly seemed to think that was normal and had no problem finding it. That’s because Kep literally has one big hill, and there is a single dirt road that climbs up the side, dotted with resorts. Veranda is at the very top.
The Veranda is like Robinson Crusoe’s dream castle. Rustic flagstones connect in wide, earthy walkways, shifting vertically to form curving walls. Decorative pebbles and seashells compliment the masonry, some of shells glowing to light in the evening like mermaid lanterns.
Polished wood walkways twist through the hillside jungle in corridors capped with hanging vines and enchanting lanterns. One wonderful path leads to the garden pool, a curvy oasis bathed in sunlight, another leads to the breezy restaurant overlooking the sea, while another takes you up a polished mahogany staircase to heaven.
Or reading room, whatever you want to call it. I snagged a couple of 1970s western novels here.
Since it was the off-season, I was upgraded to the Presidential Super Luxe Ultimate Dream Suite, or something like that, complete with private stairwell that curved down the garden, to their infinity pool, spilling into the sunset over the Gulf of Thailand.
Things to Do
Kep National Park
A five-mile hike up and down the jungle-y mountain is a fabulously sweaty way to get some great views of the terrain. There’s an entrance right behind Veranda, and it’s a one-dollar entrance fee. A pittance amount already, but even more so when thinking about the $30 and $15 fees I paid to get into Yellowstone and the Badlands last year.
“I hope I see some monkeys,” I though out loud. Ten minutes later, my wish came true. A pack of squirreling primates noisily eyed me from some trees overhead. And there was a widdle baby one I wanted to grab and squeeze!
The path is pretty well marked and only slightly confusing, made so in part by the Khmer script on many of the signs. But as long as you follow the nicely blazed trail, you will end up back in civilization eventually
Kep is known for its crab fishing. And believe me, you ain’t had crustacean until you’ve had a plate of Kampot pepper crab fresh out of the water.
Hot and hungry from hiking, I headed back to the hotel by way of the road along the coastline, when I passed a row in indistinct restaurants and storefronts. One, small wooden sign read, “Kimly,” which has been reviewed as the best one in town. There was no hesitation about going in for lunch.
You needn’t look past the first item on the menu, for Kampot pepper crab is the first thing listed, and that, folks, is why you go to Kep. Anxiously waiting at the table, seated right next to glassless windows over the shore, I could hear the hammer and crack of a crab being prepared in the back, soon following by a bell signaling the server it was ready. (Sorry, crab, it’s too bad you’re so delicious)
The meal was a bouquet of equally delicate flavors. Each taste was distinct yet subtle, balanced together as its own set of savory. The crab was melt-in-your mouth, salty fresh. An oily sauce dousing the dish was nutty and gently spicy, while the fresh, green peppercorns popped alongside light citrus tastes. The hands-on messiness of cracking open legs, sucking out the meat made the experience finger-licking good fun. I ate and and ate and ate and it was so good I died. This is actually my ghost writing now.
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Hunt Haunted Mansions
Most people go to Kep for the seafood. I went for this reason and this reason alone: ruined houses.
In the 50s and 60s, Kep was like the Saint-Tropez of Asia. Wealthy French and Asian elites built resort homes there, mostly in the modernist style of the time. When the civil war occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime of the time, residents fled, were kicked out, or killed. Tragically, their beautiful beach homes were stripped and destroyed. What remains now are ghostly ruins of a terrible past, and sadly the fate of these homes may be permanent as preservation action is very limited in Cambodia.
For those of you who know me, you understand my all out nerd-love for mid-century modern architecture. Despite the past destruction, the ruins that are still standing flaunt stunning expertise of the stylized modernism. Hunting the remains of midmod mansions amidst overgrown lots in a beachside jungle is basically my idea of the most fun ever. I died a second time and this is actually my ghost’s ghost writing.
Go to the Beach
I didn’t go to the beach but there is a beach and you can go.
Beach, seafood, sweeping seaside sunsets, jungle hikes and mansion hunting…and yet Kep still has more amazingness to offer: a beautiful butterfly garden tucked away in the mysterious jungle of the hillside.
It’s a bumpy, uphill dirt road to get there that can be a bit unnerving. Especially if you take a tuk tuk. Especially if the tuk tuk makes a loud crack, the driver stops, looks back at you and sheepishly goes, “Heheh,” then kicks the thing and revs it back into motion.
But now, “stand in cloud of fluttering monarchs” can be checked off of my things-to-do-before-I-die list, for that is what you will experience in the garden. There, a small lot has been cleared of jungle and replaced with flowering bushes, ornamental trees, and elegant orchids. A little gate and an entryway of dangling, wooden beads leads you into a translucent, mesh bubble, home to hundreds and butterflies.
Blue, orange, chocolate brown, and ultra-violet wings danced across bright flowers. A trickling fountain settled into a koi fish pond, and little pathways criss-crossed for visitors to take it all in.
The Sailing Club
For the more chic-y frou frou visitors, there is the serene, nautical-theme Sailing Club. Its white sand, beachfront lot has a water sports center, an open-air restaurant, luxurious lounge, and a volleyball net. You will have to remind yourself you are in Asia and not Cape Cod, while sipping a fresh lime and gin spritzer on a pastel blue balcony.
Next time I visit Kep, I will rent a moto for the weekend. It can be a long walk from one end of the town to the other, and some of the dirt trails are better for bikes than tuk tuks. However, if you’re an ambitious walker, seeing the town on foot is a great way to explore.
I lucked out on weather. Despite it being monsoon season, it did not rain once and the sky remained cloudless and sunny for all three days. I would recommend booking a stay sometime in December through February, for a better guarantee you will experience the same, however, you can likely expect a lot more crowds.
When I told people I was going to Kep the main reaction was that of surprise, because it has no night clubs or boisterous bars for drunken brouhaha. But that’s exactly why I wanted to go there. It’s peaceful, lovely, surreal and wonderful.