Seafood picnic area, KepThe ghost villas of Kep hint at a sophisticated, decadent past at odds with the charming sleepy seaside village that we visited last weekend. Where once Cambodian royalty, celebrities and wealthy Europeans mingled in the town’s casinos, now ordinary Cambodians flock to Kep to eat fresh seafood and swim fully clothed in the sea.

I’d read that the seafood picnic was a rite of passage in Kep. So soon after Roo, Tash and I arrived and checked into The [lovely] Beach House and Tash had a swim in the pool (called ‘Tash’s Splash’), we headed to the beachfront where a paved promenade lined with umbrella trees separates the sand from the coast road. During the day, local women stake out patches on the promenade with woven plastic mats, anchored down with rocks and deck-chairs. When it comes time to eat, you choose a mat and order a picnic lunch from a menu. We thought the food might be cooked on the spot over a coal-fuelled brazier. But this being the twenty-first century, our orders were relayed by mobile phone to a nearby restaurant and ferried by our ‘mat lady’ on her motorbike, together with plates and cutlery.

Tash swimming with Phnom Penh touristsThe food was sensational: juicy prawns cooked with parsley and sprigs of fresh, green Kampot pepper in a delicious peppery sauce — one of the best meals I’ve eaten since arriving in Cambodia, in one of the most ambient settings.

After lunch we took Tash for a swim in the bay, just us and about 30 day-trippers from Phnom Penh. We had fun making conversation on the beach, while Tash was whisked away by complete strangers to pose for photos. She was also happy to go off with our mat lady during lunch. Sometimes she baulks at all the attention. Other times she doesn’t bat an eyelid.

By next morning I was thinking, ‘Kep is a great place for a weekend getaway, we must come back here sometime, shame the beach isn’t nicer…’ But a trip to Koh Tonsay put paid to that problem. Rabbit Island, so-called because of its shape (if you squint), is 20 mins by motor boat from the coast. We were accompanied by Phos, a young staff member from The Beach House, Touch the tuk-tuk/boat driver and, to Tash’s delight, a small black puppy. Access to the Koh Tonsay dock required Phos to yell ‘Australians!’ to a handsome policeman as we passed by his post.

Roo & Tash, Koh Tonsay BeachKoh Tonsay felt to us like a well-kept secret, though it’s popular with Cambodian tourists. We even bumped into a friend of Tash’s from Seametrey school, Moniroth, with her family. The beach is cleaner and prettier than Kep, coarse yellow sand fringed with coconut palms and umbrella trees, warm, shallow water so clear you can see the anemone shells on the sea floor. And in my opinion, development on the island improves on nature: wooden picnic platforms and hammocks mean no sand in the togs!

Tash in the hammock, Koh TonsayIn fact, development on the island is mercifully low-key. Cold drinks and fresh seafood are dispensed from modest wooden shacks and signs encourage visitors to clean up their litter.

We lunched on pepper crab, a regional specialty for which Kep is famous. There’s a giant concrete crab on the road to the Koh Tonsay dock and the promenade in Kep is tessellated with pieces of crab shell and claws. The crab on Koh Tonsay were as big as the palm of my hand, served halved in a peppery sauce. Roo finds crab not really worth the effort of eating it but for me the slow-picking pace meant I savoured the flavours.

On our last morning in Kep we visited the Crab Markets to watch the furious haggling. Women scooped crabs from bamboo cages into plastic baskets big enough to hold 2.5 kg, then killed their sold catch by stabbing them between the eyes with the tine of a fork. Tash was fascinated by the crabs, not to mention a pig rutting on the same beach.

Back on Koh Tonsay, Tash further proved her daredevil credentials by happily walking into water up to her neck, and jumping off the prow of a moored boat with Moniroth’s brothers — three times! She fell asleep on the boat en route back to Kep, black puppy on her lap.

We left the next day for Kampot [post to follow], but the return bus to Phnom Penh took us back through Kep. As we pulled up at the roundabout, the staff at the Rotong Kep Bar and Restaurant where we had dinner a couple of times caught sight of Tash through the bus window and waved like she was a long-lost friend.


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2 Responses to “Kep”

  1. Ghost villas of Kep « Oh, the places you’ll go! Says:

    […] Oh, the places you’ll go! The adventures of Tash, Ang & Roo « Kep […]

  2. sawdust Says:

    I enjoyed your piece.

    Been to Cambo couple of times, want to do a pilgramage to Kep next trip. Tough getting an idea of what to expect. How does the size of the town and level of development compare to other places in Cambo?

    Cheers, Sawdust.

    P.S. Is beer readily available on Koh Tonsay?

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