Ghost villas of Kep

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Andrew and Angela write:

Villa 10Like so many places Cambodia, the country’s decades long conflict has left lasting scars on the coastal town of Kep.

Our bus from Phnom Penh passes within eyesight of Phnom Voar where three foreign backpackers were imprisoned and eventually murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1994. These mountains near Kep sheltered among the last of the Khmer Rouge to hold out against Government forces.

But the most visible reminder of the war is in the ruined villas of former French colonial authorities and the Cambodian elite that haunt the coastal areas and hillsides of the town.

Villa 23Kep was a high-roller resort town in the sixties. King Sihanouk had a small palace here and the story goes that whenever he was in residence, he had white sand shipped in from nearby Sihanoukville to beautify Kep’s naturally brownish beach.

Now all that remains are the ghost villas. There seem to be dozens, some dating back to the French colonial period in the early twentieth century, others displaying Khmer architectural features from the fifties and sixties.

Villa 31All are gutted, either destroyed by the Khmer Rouge or ransacked by the locals for building materials. Overgrown with weeds and bushes, walls are pock marked with bullet holes or covered in graffiti (‘Sokea was here 28-09-02′). Roofs are long gone. Once elegantly crafted wrought iron gates now lead to nothing.

For one US dollar you can view the remains of Sihanouk’s palace. A small sign at the front says the money will be used to clean up the place; at this rate they’ll need a lot of visitors.

There are hints of grandeur among the remnants: in the stone fences, broad balconies, patches of decorative latticework, and stunning views of the mountains and coast from doorways without doors, windows without glass. The one villa still with a roof was designed for cars to be driven straight on to the top of the building, the rest of the villa suspended from the cliff below road level overlooking the sea.

Ruined spirit house, KepWhile some villas are occupied, most sit empty. We walk through the ruins, picking our way over a groundcover of rubble, cow dung and garbage. When we walk through one doorway into a room with no ceiling and plants growing from the floor Tash says, ‘Where’s the inside gone?’ On this same site amidst a tangle of vines is a spirit house, also in ruins.

Much is made about the eeriness of the old hill station of Bokor, with its huge abandoned French-era casino. Kep gives Bokor a run for its money. Parts of it feel like a ghost town, and it gives real meaning to what the Khmer Rouge must have meant when they declared 1975, the year they took power, to be ‘Year Zero’. The destruction of everything old. The restarting of time.

Villa 17In Sihanoukville, there’s another French colonial era hotel called the Independence Hotel. This one has been done up, tastefully in this case, although few Cambodians would ever be able to afford to stay there. In the lobby is a selection of reproduced black and white photos taken from the hotel’s heyday in the sixties.

The war was already brewing in the jungles in the country’s north, although one would not know it from the pictures of Europeans sunning themselves by the pool.

One photo is particularly striking: in the hotel’s dining room, set for full service, two dozen or so Khmer wait staff in their white jackets and black pants stand to attention at various points around the room.

Whatever happened to these people? How many of them survived the carnage that the Khmer Rouge unleashed upon the country? Year Zero: one world ends another starts and destroys what came before it.

It is unlikely that the ghost villas of Kep will be around for much longer. This time rising land prices and real estate speculation will destroy them for good.

To view photos of the ghost villas as a slideshow, click here.

For more on our trip to Kep, click here.

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5 Responses to “Ghost villas of Kep”

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

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

  2. liv4day Says:

    What great pictures

  3. GadgetMan Says:

    haunting, breathtaking, disturbing… wow (how eloquent)

    thanx

  4. 24 hours in Kep « Alison in Cambodia Says:

    […] decided to back early, but I’d lie to give Kep another chance at some point in the future.  This website has a neat post on Kep, including some lovely photos of some buildings I didn’t get to see on […]

  5. Another Perfect Travel Day: Kampot and Kep, Cambodia Says:

    […] fishermen’s empty traps from the morning, before taking off in search of an abandoned manor.  In Kep, abandoned manors are not hard to find, and we were bounding up crumbling marble steps in a matter of […]

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