27th September – 1st October 2018
After almost four weeks on the road, we’re gasping for a bit of beach therapy. We haven’t seen the sea since dipping our toes into the South China Sea in Hoi An; it seems a lifetime ago having crammed every bit of every day with abundant excitement and thrilling new experiences. Bus journeys, motorbike and tuk-tuk rides as well as a fair amount of hiking and cycling have left us in need of a well-deserved rest. We are on holiday after all.
‘Don’t bother with Sihanoukville,’ a friend in the know advises us. ‘If you want the beach, go to Kep instead. Stay at The Beach House, awesome location overlooking a sumptuous stretch of sand and sea.’ She lived in Cambodia for a couple of years and is better acquainted with the country and places worth a visit. Kep hadn’t been on our agenda, but with no fixed itinerary, and accommodation booked last minute and on a whim, flexibility forges our path through Cambodia…
Kep is a mere 30km from Kampot so we get a tuk-tuk across. Probably just as comfortable as a bus journey as long as we wear our dust masks en-route… I have to be honest, it probably is the first time I have bothered with one preferring to put up with the air impurities rather than being suffocated by the heat.
And indeed, as my friend intimated, Kep is definitely the place to be. Less overrun by tourists than Kampot, but clearly still on the ex-pat map, it has a lot to offer. From the vibrant crab market along the seafront to a trip with the locals to Rabbit Island, from hiking and biking in the National Park to peddling the cycling routes along the coast. And of course, watching the locals enjoy a day at the beach. A lot to sample in just a couple of days.
We never make it to the Crab market early enough to watch the fishing boats pull in; only very early risers have that privilege. By the time we arrive, the market is busy and bustling and we watch on as locals bargain and barter to get the best price for Kep’s highly prized blue crabs, their distinctive electric-blue legs and claws twisting and writhing inside the large bamboo baskets. Just over the wall, several bamboo baskets bob in the sea, storing more crabs in the coolness of the water until they are sold. We return to the market in the evening as the sun casts its last shadow over the water and, still, fishermen and women are milling around, eager to find buyers for the last few crabs in their baskets.
We actually don’t get to sample Kep’s delicious crab until we venture to Koh Tunsay (Rabbit Island), an idyllic paradise just a few miles off the Cambodian coast. The island is best accessed by small local boats which not only ferry tourists and locals to the island, but also much needed provisions to feed those visitors.. With mainly palm trees as vegetation and very little else in the way of edible produce, the island relies on the daily deliveries of food, coconuts, more coconuts and probably crabs as well…
Whereas Liz and I spend the day exploring the nooks and crannies of the island,
splashing in the refreshing waves, lazing about in hammocks and engaging in other touristy antics,
locals have other priorities. For several hours I watch a woman trudging the length of the beach in search of cockles, a hard day’s work for a pitiful heap barely covering the bottom of her red bag.
Before heading back to the mainland, we gorge ourselves on a sumptuous lunch of succulent crab, although not the ‘Crab and Kampot Pepper’ version Kep is famous for. A pity, but at the hotel we have already indulged in a finger-licking awesome ‘White fish and Pepper’ dish and the delectable pop-in-the-mouth green peppercorns are simply to die for…
Of course, tourists are not the only ones making the most of the being near the seaside and at the weekend Cambodians take full advantage. Only, they seem to do it quite differently from Westerners. No crowded beaches here! We watch on as early in the morning hammocks, colourful umbrellas and jazzy mats start cluttering the pavement. Slowly people start filing in and by lunchtime, every little space is crammed with men, women and children tucking into picnics or taking a nap. Even the hammock shelters on the opposite side of the road are heaving whilst at least some daring souls are braving the sun to get to the coolness of the sea. But the beach remains largely deserted… The party mood lingers until later in the evening when dark falls and more food is shared among families and friends. Not a single local is going home with sunburn here..
Not much of a beach bum myself, I look for distraction on the hillsides. Liz and I take an early morning hike into the National Park, which is just a short distance from our hotel. Somehow we struggle to find the official park entrance and we may have added a few unintended miles to our journey, but thankfully a couple of French tourists who set out much earlier than us kindly point us in the right direction… After stopping off at a pagoda on the way, we meander along an easy path. By then the weather has hotted up quite a bit and we only manage a short hike, barely scratching the surface of what the Park has to offer. Definitely worth another visit, if I make it to Kep again sometime in the future..
On our last day in Kep, we rent some bicycles to venture a little further along the coast. It’s a hot and sweaty trip but interesting to get a glimpse of the lives of local fishermen and their families. The track is pretty isolated as most people are sheltering from the late morning heat . Fishermen have long since returned with their morning haul and only children are out and about enjoying a little fishing or a dip in the murky water surrounding their homes.
Kep definitely deserves to be on the tourist map, but then again, it’s attraction for me is the absence of tourists… and the little French bakery in the centre of town, a reminder of Kep’s colonial past as a thriving resort for the French and Cambodian elite until the early 1970s. Not only does the bakery offer the finest Arabica coffee in town – a must for Liz – but it is a magnet for foreigners missing a bit of home: croissants, pain aux chocolat or pain aux raisin, bread that looks and taste like bread… And of course conversation. Few of the foreigners we meet here are tourists. In actual fact, most seem pretty settled in local life or are engaged in voluntary work, such as the French twenty-something engineer who is involved in the construction of a youth centre. ‘At the youth centre, local youth leaders provide counselling and activities for Cambodian teenagers,’ he explains. ‘The widespread killing of teachers and intellectuals during the Khmer Rouge regime war has left a whole generation without educators and positive role models.’ As everywhere in Cambodia, spectres of the genocide still lurk in every corner…
And then there are the sunsets… From the hotel balcony overlooking this stretch of the Gulf of Thailand, to cycling or hiking along the beach towards the Crab Market, the views are breathtaking. Certainly some of the most impressive ones I have seen on my travels so far…
Oh this sounds like such an idyllic time Lieve. Keep sounds just lovely, and your photos are wonderful.
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Thanks for reading, Alison. Kep is definitely a place worth visiting another time, when I need some respite from my normally hectic life. Although at the moment I am still in the UK and far from busy, but can’t wait to get going again probably via Cambodia and even Kep… Who knows! I keep on planning but sometimes things just don’t work out…
I am looking forward to reading about your adventures in Rishikesh in due course. I may need to learn the art of relaxation and yoga very soon…
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Hi Lieve. Enjoyed this essay. It put me in the mood to laze on a warm beach and eat seafood.
The way you describe the lady with the red basket is a perfect match for the photo. It was a meager day for cockles.
Bye till next time.
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Thanks for reading, Neil. Kep was an awesome place… Wished I was back there right now.
Great pictures and a lovely read. thanks for sharing
Stay well and laugh when you can