Beach town Kep was popular from day one. Early in the 1900’s the French colonials started to build their holiday villa’s on a small strip of coastline overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. Kep sur Mer was born. Due to Cambodia’s independence in 1953 the French left and the villa’s residents were soon replaced by wealthy Cambodians. Hundreds of new, lavish and grande villa’s were built and Kep was transformed into an extravagant holiday resort for the Cambodia elite.
Demise of Kep
Jet-set parties continued throughout the sixties and Kep was the hippest place in South East Asia. Then, by military coup the reigning Cambodian royalty and nobility were ousted in 1970, starting the demise of Kep. Soon after, the Khmer Rouge gained popularity and took control over Cambodia in 1975 by winning the civil war. The rest is history.
The communist Khmer Rouge allegedly stripped and damaged the Kep villa’s leaving them uninhabitable and to further deteriorate. Even now, hundreds of desolate ruined villa’s still dot the landscape of Kep as a testimony to days of yore. However, Kep is making a come back. It’s not by far the exuberant and decadent destination that it used to be, but both domestic and foreign tourists have found their way back and are starting to shake up things in sleepy Kep.
I have thought long and hard about what actually is the real charm of today’s Kep. It’s not the beach, although it’s nice enough especially since it was replenished and extended with white sand from Otres. The beach is still rather small and at times plastic waste can be a problem. Also, there is some, but no bustling night life (yet), which is so typical to popular beach side resorts. So what is it about Kep? In my opinion it’s the access to the interesting hinterland with pepper farms, caves and salt flats. Combined with sea breezes, excellent seafood and an ever so lazy atmosphere is what makes Kep a worthwhile destination.
How to get to Kep
Multiple minivans and busses leave from Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville to Kep every day. For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Cambodia I always use the transport planning tool below from BookmeBus.com to book online.
Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). The tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
Unless you stick to the beach area Kep is less convenient to walk around. So, renting a motorbike ($6-$7) or bicycle ($1) makes sense even for traveling within Kep town. Of course tuk-tuks are abundant with short trips costing $1.5-$2.
Tuk-tuk rides from Kampot to Kep are between $10-$15 one way and $15-$20 for return trips depending on you negotiation skills. Use the popular taxi-apps Grab or PassApp if you want to avoid all the bargain hassle.
Things to see/do in Kep
First and foremost there’s the beach, about a kilometer long and 50 meters wide. During the week it’s peaceful and quiet and even the promenade lining the beach has but a few strolling visitors. What a difference with the weekend! Cars and busses blaring loud music are bringing group after group of weekenders from Phnom Penh. The beach is filled with families and expats seeking entertainment in the calm, cool water. Streetfood vendors behind the beach are doing good business. Modern day Kep is very much alive….on weekends.
Just 5 km off the coast of Kep is Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island). The small and quiet Island is good for a day trip or even a couple days. There isn’t a whole lot to do, but there are a few nice beaches and a hiking trail around the Island with some wonderful sights of nature. If you stay overnight you should go for a swim in the evening and behold the bioluminescent plankton.
Any guesthouse in Kep can arrange tickets for the 20 minute boat ride. Tickets cost $8-$10. Alternatively, head to the Koh Tonsay Boat Terminal before 9am and find a private boat to take you. Normally it’s $25 for up to 6 persons and there are bound to be other people that would like to share.
Accommodation is usually basic and cheap. Beware that electricity and wifi is not available 24/7 and hot water remains an illusion. There’s a row of small bungalow resorts right on the main beach near the pier. Without a doubt Kim Vouch lay Bungalow ($10-$15) is the best choice, but make sure to book ahead. For stays during weekends and holidays book far, far ahead. The Island’s restaurants are also concentrated along the main beach. They are cheap and delicious with generous portions.
The area around Kep and neighboring province Kampot is strewn with pepper plantations. Visiting a plantation is easy to do and most of them will welcome visitors with open arms. Some of them, like ‘La Plantation’ and ‘Bo Tree Farm’ even have guides at the ready that will gladly show you around and explain the production process. The tours are absolutely interesting and free, but of course they hope that you might purchase some products. And why not? The pepper is excellent and a whole lot cheaper than retail.
To find the pepper farms, venture into the countryside North of road 33. The small road 1333 has a whole bunch of farms in a row and to the east of the secret lake is where some of the bigger plantations can be found.
Motorbike tour around Kep
It’s such a joy to drive around in the Kep surroundings. This province offers some of the best rural countryside and what better way to explore it than on your rented motorbike. You don’t have to go far, the fun already starts in the outskirts of Kep town. Witness everyday rural life in the villages with traditional stilted houses. Take in the sites of small picturesque lakes and beautiful limestone outcrops popping out of nowhere. See water buffalo’s and Asian cows roaming around the rice fields and visit some of the countless small pagodas .
While the Kep countryside can also be enjoyed with a hired tuk-tuk, a motorbike gives you this unequalled sense of freedom. Just get lost while driving and find yourself off the beaten path. Literally every random left or right turn seems to lead to somewhere new and surprising.
Kep National Park
The Kep hill and its surroundings in the middle of the peninsula are granted National park status. It’s not exactly pristine nature, because of its proximity to Kep town, but still it’s a nice jungle area. There are small tracks sloping up and down and an 8km trail with signs going around the hill. The trail is good for a 2-3hr trek or up to 5 hours if you include the sloping tracks. You might even see a few monkeys, or lizards, or snakes. Admission to the park is $1. Well, if there is any staff present that is.
On road 33 from Kep towards the Vietnamese border, just before it meets road 31, take a left into the countryside to find Kampong Trach. The karst rock formation provides beautiful views of the area and houses an interesting cave network, as well as some natural swimming pools. Allow yourself to be guided for a small fee by one of the kids hanging around at the caves .
If you like to indulge in adventurous activities, then always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that also covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. I use World Nomads, because they are the true specialist in travel insurance and their price for the service is unbeatable. They cover a range of adventure sports and activities like scuba diving and even your motor bike rental adventures (if you follow the rules). You can buy cover online, even if you’re already in the middle of traveling.
Knowing they had my back has always given me great piece of mind. Fortunately I never had to claim anything, but fellow travelers I met on the road told me that the online claims process went very smooth.
Where to stay in Kep
Lot’s of options in the budget and midrange spectrum, lets say between $20 and $50. Most accommodations are concentrated near the crab market on road 33A leading up to Kep beach with a few more around the beach and in Kep town. Understand that Kep accommodation development is nothing like Sihanoukville where impersonal high rises seem to be the norm. Instead, Kep opts for a small scale, stylish and tranquil standard, which doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of budget options.
Khmer Hands Bungalows
Budget = from $10 to $30
Our favorite place when in Kep. Beautiful bungalows and a gorgeous main building housing the elevated restaurant. Rooms are basic, but in excellent condition. Owners take pride in their resort and it shows. 5 min by tuk-tuk to the crab market and 10 min to Kep beach. This place sells out fast.
Budget = from $10 to $30
When Khmer Hands is sold out we try our luck here. Often, just to find out they are sold out as well, so book ahead.
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
Stay here if you appreciate more comfort and style in a boutique resort. Very nice bungalows in a beautiful garden surrounding the small pool. Staff is excellent and of course all bungalows come with free wifi and aircon.
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
Just steps from the Kep beach with stunning views. Good sized rooms and a nice pool area.
To compare prices and read reviews check out Agoda.com.
Where to eat in Kep
First thing on your mind food wise should be the famous crab from Kep and preferably with some pepper from neighboring Kampot. Head on over to the crab market on the Western waterfront of the peninsular tip. You won’t be alone, the place is teeming with domestic and foreign tourists, especially during weekends. The market is authentic enough though.
While they name it ‘crab market‘ it’s not only crab on the menu. There’s every kind of seafood for sale, shrimp, squid and hundreds of different fish. You buy your crab by the kilo (bargain, bargain). They will pull in the cages from the sea where the crabs are kept alive and cook them right then an there for you. Sit down at one of the tables and other vendors will offer rice, vegetables and dips for sale. So, dig in, it’s delicious and as fresh as can be.
— Update (February, 2019)
The growing popularity of the market and the high demand for crab has unfortunately lead to non-sustainable methods of crab fishing. Local fishermen increasingly use trail nets, which affect the sea grass beds and coral off the coast of Kep. As a result major breeding and nursery grounds for all kinds of marine life are rapidly being destroyed. Maybe the consuming of locally sourced crab isn’t such a good idea anymore. Don’t worry, you can still visit the market and have your pick from hundreds of other delicious, but non-threatened seafood options
On the road from the crab market to Kep beach along the waterfront are about two dozen seafood restaurants. They all know how to cook up a great seafood dish, which is no wonder with such fresh ingredients. Holy Crab restaurant is very good and creative, but my favorite pick is restaurant Magic Crab. Fresh and good quality ingredients don’t need a lot of hassle. Magic Crab certainly understands this and keeps its prices reasonable as well. Both restaurants source sustainable crab from outside of Kep.
Knai Bang Chatt Sailing Club Beautiful sunsets, good food and cocktails in a chill atmosphere with your feet in the sand. That just about sums up this establishment. It’s an institution amongst the Phnom Penh expats that use Kep as their weekend retreat. And expats always know the best places.
Chankiri Restaurant Need a break from seafood, but don’t want to go back to burgers or pizza? Chankiri is the answer, although they have some excellent seafood of course. Contrary to most Cambodian restaurants that serve Western food with a Khmer twist Chankiri has a different approach. They offer Asian dishes with a Western twist, but only to balance flavors and presentation. I’m convinced! Prices are high for Cambodian standards with $14 average for a main dish, but believe me it’s worth every dollar. You deserve it!