Kep & Kampot – Cambodia’s south
The road journey from Phnom Penh to Kep is arguably the country’s finest, and certainly its most scenic. After one hour out of the city you find yourself surrounded by lush rice fields, sugar palm plantations, rocky outcrops and limestone karsts and gilded distant pagodas. No high rise, no neon lights, no architectural eyesores, just bucolic and ravishing countryside. And all this before reaching ones destination.
The sleepy towns of Kep and Kampot are a combined destination, that is to say it is rare to visit one without the other. Both have their charms and their points of interest and the nearby countryside is meant for exploration. Located near Kampot and the Kep road are a number of caves in limestone karsts amidst lovely rural scenery. The most interesting being Phnom Chhnork, which is home to a pre-Angkorian ruin and religious shrine. Inside are brick structures from the 5th century AD amongst the stalagmites and stalactites that are formed within the cave (see vertical pic below). Delve further into the hills behind the coast and you will find numerous pepper plantations, of which the region is famous for.
Kep, as a town, was, until the mid 1960′s, something of a prestigious getaway for both French and Cambodia’s elite. Grand colonial villas used to line the waterfront and former King Sihanouk built a holiday home overlooking the waters of the Gulf of Thailand that was, sadly, never occupied. Cambodia’s civil war of the 1970′s saw to the complete demise of Kep as a resort attraction. All the villas and grand homes were stripped of their entire contents by a local populace in desperate need of money and food as the Khmer Rouge plunged the country into the dark ages. The abandoned homes today make for an erie sight and a wander through them brings alive its recent turbulent history.
In these more modern times the allure of Kep is finally starting to make a comeback with several gorgeous private residences now open as hotels for the high end traveller. Still, the pace of life here is about as peaceful as one could ever find in Asia today. Many of the streets are deserted of people and only the famed crab market comes alive in the morning with the return of the fishing boats with their catch and in the evening dining frenzy by both locals and foreigners alike on some of the freshest and most sumptuous seafood around.
The appeal of Kep, to many, is a hark back to the days when Asia was far less developed than it is today and where beaches and life on the coast was simple, relaxing and devoid of commercial ventures.
Certainly as time goes on, and Cambodia’s tourism industry grows beyond the main attraction of Angkor, Kep will regain some of its lost appeal. For now, those of us in the know, will revel in its attractions before those changes inevitably take place.
Where Kep appeals for it coastline and forested mountains, the provincial town of Kampot, lying some 45 minutes from Kep, is a hidden gem of a French colonial establishment, albeit a faded and rustic one. Here, more than any other town in Indochina, with the exception of Luang Prabang, will you find street after street of wonderful, old French and Chinese shophouses. The waterfront, facing towards looming Bokor National Park, is lined with restored homes now housing hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. The atmosphere again is of old Indochina filled with charm and ambience. Many of the homes away from the river are in a state of disrepair and it is to be seen whether these will be lovingly restored or if they will fall under the ever threatening hammer of modern development. The old former French built market hall has recently been cleared with only its structural barriers left as a historical reminder of what once was (see pic below). For now, Kampot is a lovely little town to wander through, if only to taste a past before the onslaught of change.
As a photographer to the region I found an abundance of subject matter. For me, the countryside provided the most vivid scenes but I was also warmed by the traditional life of Buddhism in these parts and how accessible the people were. It is an evocative part of Cambodia and one that I hope benefits from tourism but, at the same time, maintains its natural and historical attractions as they are so rare in a crowded Asia today.
See more images from Kep and Kampot in this gallery