By rediscovering their heritage, Kampot and Kep have established their rightful places on Southern Cambodia’s tourism map
The Gulf of Siam—today the Gulf of Thailand—has long been considered as a strategic trade area for seagoing vessels. And just half way between Thailand and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, a city that reaped the benefits of its positioning early on was Kampot. As early as the 17th century it was populated with Chinese merchants who were already involved in the spices trade.In the late 1800s in Europe the term ‘K & K Monarchy’ was popularly used when referring to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary (1867 to 1918). The k’s stand for kaiserlich und königlich, and can be translated as “imperial” and “royal” (Austria then being an empire, and Hungary a kingdom). Nowadays, in Southern Cambodia, there exist two cities that both begin with the letter K, share historical similarities, and could rightly reclaim the long-disused K & K title. Kampot and Kep both epitomize a certain way of life, which recalls a time when Cambodia was perceived as one of the most advanced—and happiest—countries in Southeast Asia. And since both K’s are just a 2-3 hour drive from Phnom Penh, visiting them is easy.
When the French set up their colonial grip over Cambodia in 1863, Kampot rapidly turned into the centre of the new European administration, and made its presence felt with a range of new buildings. The Lieutenant Governor’s Residence was built along the waterfront in a neo-classical style, very similar to mansions built in France to accommodate the prefecture. In addition, a hospital, the Bank of Indochina, schools, a covered market, a police station, and even a prison were all built between 1880 and 1930.
The majority of Kampot’s population were Sino-Khmer and Chinese, and they emulated this new European style. Shophouses and villas were constructed around Kampot administrative buildings, echoing in their details French architectural style. Houses were ornate, with balconies, columns, long windows protected by shutters, and Romanesque style porches. This architectural unity gives Kampot its everlasting charm. This small city of 40,000 inhabitants now has, arguably, one of Indochina’s most delightful collection of colonial heritage buildings (I could list 80 more properties of note).
But Kampot is turning trendy these days, and around the modernist-style Central Market there are bustling restaurants, cafes, wine bars and boutique hotels. Most are housed in meticulously renovated colonial buildings, generally managed by Cambodians associated with French entrepreneurs. The old Fish Market was recently renovated and reopened as a seafood restaurant (owned by an Australian couple), serving Cambodian food with a few Western influenced twists.
Although some might wish to return to the time when these decayed, fading heritage buildings gave the old town a much more quiet, old-fashioned atmosphere, Kampot still offers tourists the image of a bygone Cambodia. But get there fast as it might not last for ever. Projects for the city have been rolled out and they might change forever the small town atmosphere. A ferry pier will soon be built, with direct links to Vietnam, while a new settlement is emerging next to the train station and is slowly swallowing the old town, making a step-by-step encroachment into the historical city core.
The former city prison has already been the first victim of this modernisation push. It was recently all but demolished—save for three French style pavilions which were used, in the past, for the prison administration. They currently look like lost orphans in an empty space which will soon welcome Kampot’s first modern shopping mall.
While Kampot served as the centre of administration and commerce for Southern Cambodia during colonial times, the neighbouring city of Kep had a totally different destiny in store, one of the most dramatic in the Kingdom.
A century ago the term Kep-sur-Mer was synonymous with elegant seaside resorts. The area was created around 1908 by the French as an exclusive holiday retreat for the French population living in the Kingdom. The enclave was said to be built following the pattern of Southern seaside cities along the French Riviera, although I personally feel that Kep emulated more the seaside resorts along the Atlantic Coast. Either way, the city was a favourite getaway destination. It had some colonial style hotels and restaurants, as well as beautiful beaches. Between 1910 and the 1930s, French public servants and members of Cambodian royal family were spending their leisure time in this rather sleepy town.
Just two structures survive from Kep’s early days. One is a typical French mansion surrounded by gardens, located across from Kep’s main beach. Today its dark facades give the mansion a foreboding presence. “The French built this villa for King Sisowath who expressed his dislike for the mansion that he considered as a suburban looking pavilion,” points out Serge Rémy, a special adviser to UNESCO who has been working on various projects to save and protect Kep’s extraordinary heritage sites.
Another villa, built along the beach road in early Art Deco style, was a favourite hang-out for Queen Kossamak, the mother of Prince Sihanouk. Cambodia’s prince was, in fact, the main driving force behind the transformation of Kep from the mid-50s onwards, following Cambodia’s independence. He truly loved the area, and had the ambition to turn Kep into a kind of St. Tropez—a French Riviera in Indochina.
It was the town’s ‘Golden Age’. In the hills dominating Kep’s narrow stretch of beaches, the prince, Cambodian nobles, and the new bourgeoisie built magnificent villas. The style preference of the time was for ‘Tropical Modern’ architecture, a look inspired by Le Corbusier’s philosophy, with distinctive Khmer and tropical features added on. Well known Khmer architects of the time were Vann Molyvann and Lu Ban Hap. These “fathers” of the new Khmer architecture movement used Kep as their laboratory. In its heyday Kep was home to some 200 villas exhibiting this new Khmer architectural style.
“The town then epitomized Cambodia’s era of insouciance,” Rémy goes on to explain. “Every week, hordes of wealthy young Cambodians were driving with their sport cars to Kep. They ate in seafood restaurants along the beach, partied until sunrise, drank cocktails, and danced the cha-cha-cha and the twist.”
The international jet-set also made cameo appearances during these heady days, including French actress Catherine Deneuve, former US first lady Jackie Kennedy, and even the authoritarian Singaporean leader Lee Kwan Yew. But these glory days only lasted a mere 15 years. When Cambodia was dragged into the Vietnam conflict in the early 70s, Kep became virtually deserted. In later years, when the Khmer Rouge guerrillas took over the seaside resort, they emptied the place of all its inhabitants—deeming them as the symbol of Cambodia’s bourgeois decadence. A few villas were demolished, and the materials sold for food and weapons, while the rest of the villas were slowly swallowed up by the jungle, echoing the fate of the Angkor temples that were also invaded by untamed nature.
But Kep is now emerging from its decades-long slumber. Along the beach road hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants are now taking over. The ruins of some hillside villas are still waiting for new owners to spruce them up, although for now they provide popular photo ops for curious tourists looking for haunting memories of Kep’s golden age.
Kampot Literary Festival
From November 3rd to the 7th, 2016, the annual Kampot Writers & Readers Festival takes place (the official sister festival of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival). Enjoy poetry readings, music concerts, cooking classes, gourmet lunches, children’s events, salt and pepper tours, art exhibitions, book launches, book swaps, workshops, and much, much more. One of the writers scheduled to appear at this year’s festival is novelist and literary bluesman Arthur J. Flowers (pictured above)
Where to Stay – Kampot
THE COLUMNS: Probably the most charming hotel in the old town. Rooms are decorated with French colonial furniture, while the restaurant offers superb breakfasts and other light fare.
LA JAVA BLEUE: A colonial style property with themed rooms evoking Old Indochina, located right in the old town, a few meters from the Kampot Central Market.
Where to Stay – Kep
KNAI BANG CHATT RESORT: This luxurious boutique resort (with spa) offers 18 individually decorated, sea-facing rooms, all designed in a tropical modern colonial fusion style. In addition a superb restaurant serves fragrant Cambodian cuisine. Restoration of this resort was carried on three original villas built in the 1960s, while two new structures were more recently built using the New Khmer architectural style.
VILLA ROMONEA: This secluded villa was built in the late 60s by one of Phnom Penh’s wealthiest Khmer families. Today it’s a six room deluxe boutique hotel, generally rented by the same group of visitors for all-exclusive use. Built by Lu Ban Hap, the house was left in a sorry state but has been lavishly restored. A spa and fitness centre are available, as well as private tennis courts, and a magnificent garden surrounds the oceanside infinity swimming pool.
SARAVOAN-KEP HOTEL: Located in the city centre, along the beach road, this affordable alternative offers 17 rooms—in tropical contemporary style—and a swimming pool.