More/October 2010/travel feature

The best Kep secret
From bustling crab markets to ancient caves, two Canadians are eager to make themselves at home in Cambodia
By Jane Mundy

Cambodia is the land of opportunity and inconvenience, as my friends from Victoria know firsthand.

In 1991, Lorian Roberts, age 50 and her husband John, 62,were part of the first organized tour to arrive in Cambodia when Siem Reap (the gateway city for Angkor Wat, meaning “City Temple” and jewel of the Khmer empire),  had only one hotel and no running water. The Khmer Rouge (a communist organization that became a terrorist organization, known mainly for genocide and famine it caused) was still terrorizing villagers in some hillsides, but that didn’t deter these intrepid travellers. Two years later, hearing about deserted villas for sale in the south, vacated in the 1970s, the couple returned and traversed the pot-holed road from Phnom Penh to Kep. “It was my dream to restore one of these French Colonial ruins,” says Lorian. “I told John I wanted to be a kept woman — but he thought I meant a Kep woman.”

The couple discovered many villas (Kep-sur-Mer was a favourite spot in the 1960s with Cambodian elites and royalty) in decaying splendour for sale. The Khmers (an ethnic group comprising about 90 percent of the population don’t want anything to do with places where bad things happened, and throughout Kep it’s easy to find walls pockmarked with KR bullets. Then John found a hillside property with a breeze and view clear to Phu Quoc island in Vietnam, 45 km south of Kep.

It was love at first sight. “Being surrounded by the tropical Kep National Park appealed to the botanist in me,” says Lorian, “it was a quiet and untouched paradise.” However, several years would pass before they could move into their dream home. The lengthy process was in part because they spend half the year in Canada where Lorian teaches Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) and John is a commercial fisherman.

I first visited Kep two years ago, when John and Lorian’s house was in the first phase of construction, and it was big. “I didn’t plan on this size,” Lorian admits. “Initially we hired an architect, but when we returned to Canada nothing got done.” So Lorian drew up plans. Trouble was, Lorian scaled the measurements in feet and, during her absence, the contractor interpreted feet as meters. By the time she realized the mistake, the first floor was built.

Yet, even with constant supervision, the bigger house resulted in further frustration. For instance, the walls had to be primed with anti-fungi and UV protection paint, which comes only in white. But the painters couldn’t understand why it had to be painted white first. “We found out later that the contractor had hired workers, not painters,” Lorian explains. “There aren’t many tradespeople here because there isn’t enough construction or they haven’t been taught how; usually Vietnamese or Thai workers are hired. We knew they were inexperienced — and so were we — but we wanted to hire locally so it was a big learning curve for all of us.”

Lorian asked for drop cloths, but the painters felt they were unnecessary and said they’d simply clean afterward. So Lorian bought 10 kilograms of rags to mop up the paint-splattered floors. Sorting through the rags, she found a pink ballet tutu. “The next day we inspected the cleanup and saw a painter on his homemade scaffold wearing the tutu over his clothes — to keep his clothes from getting dirty — yet he was still slopping paint everywhere.”

And it didn’t end there. The builders decided to grind, sand and polish black granite slabs intended for the bathroom counters. “Everything was covered in fine black soot. All the walls had to be cleaned and given another coat of paint,” adds Lorian, laughing. “In Cambodia, you do everything twice.”

Thankfully, John and Lorian kept their sense of humour. Cambodians themselves have had the massive task of rebuilding their country after the KR’s ruinous reign, and Kep was one of the last remaining KR holdouts. Although the country is peaceful now, and warmly welcomes investors and travelers, some scars remain…

It’s mid February when I fly into Phnom Penh airport and arrive at John and Lorian’s now complete home two hours later. Within minutes, I am sipping a gin and tonic, floating in the pool just steps from their impressive terra cotta house, palm trees and a gazillion stars overhead, listening to nothing but the cicadas in the surrounding jungle.

There isn’t much to do in Kep, but that’s also its appeal. The big attraction is the crab market. By 7 a.m., Khmer ladies have set up shop selling trinkets, banana fritters and Vietnamese coffee. Teens in western garb—jeans and t-shirts–haul crab traps ashore from nearby boats while older ladies in bright cotton shirts and matching trousers sort and sell them live, or you opt for the sweet blue crustaceans from steaming cauldrons. An open-air restaurant along the “strip” will cook them for you, served with fresh green Kampot peppercorns, rice and morning glory (a kind of water spinach). One morning, we choose a table near the action and plan the afternoon’s activities.

It’s a toss-up — a boat trip to one of the nearby islands or a “Kep City tour” including a visit to a pepper plantation, a salt field and King Sihanouk’s old mansion. After a few phone calls, John arranges a private boat to Kohpo Island; the famous Rabbit Island was apparently “crowded” with a dozen or so tourists. Six of us board a crab boat at Champey Inn near the crab market, along with three cooks, coolers stuffed with seafood, a few cases of beer, and beach furniture. About 45 minutes later we disembark and have the beach to ourselves, for just under $100. The Khmer concept of an outing always involves food: whole barracuda and skewered squid hot off the grill, and a few dozen steamed crab and camembert-stuffed baguette for Lorian, a vegetarian.

Nightlife in Kep also revolves around eating, and with 37 guesthouses (typically half hotel, half B&B) to choose from, several serve decent meals. “We first hired Claude, our guard/gardener,” says Lorian. “His wife, Oan, wanted to learn to cook so we took them to restaurants at the crab market and showed them our favourite dishes… now we prefer to eat at home.” The evenings Oan is in charge, she performs magic. One night, with only two propane burners, she serves us nine dishes, including deep-fried mushrooms and banana leaf, fried ginger fish, vegetarian and beef curries, morning glory salad and curried fish soup.

One of the days Oan is off, we visit the nearby Verandah resort for breakfast. With raised wooden walkways connecting private bungalows, the resort serves fresh croissants and bread baked onsite. And Kep Lodge, overlooking the ocean, offers a sinfully rich cheese fondue for dinner along with some stellar wines — hard to come by in Cambodia.

Because he has to do it so often, John is intimately familiar with the hour’s drive from Kep to Kampot. There’s not much more than seafood and a few basic provisions sold in Kep, although you can buy so-so imported wine, ice and beer at the crab market. Kampot is a charming riverside town with decomposing mansions sandwiched between garish tin-roofed “Khmer-modern-Riche” (as they’re called locally) homes, a string of cafés along its riverfront and a few nightclubs.

Kampot is also the hub for exploring natural and historical wonders of the region. After checking into the delightful Rikitikitavi Guest House, we decide to take an evening river cruise. Just in time for happy hour we cool down with a watermelon margarita in the upstairs bar and watch the river action — fish boats heading out to sea, food vendors hawking fruit and sticky rice to Khmers out for an evening stroll. Just before sunset, we climb aboard Darren Knight’s (Australian expat and owner of Kampot Dreamtime Tours) 34-foot wooden barge that had once belonged to King Sihanouk. She’s seen better days, but the diesel engine is quiet, and the vista from the Kampong Bay River — of villages and shipyards, salt fields and mangroves — is amazing. Everyone on the riverbanks waves at us furiously.

As the river widens into the estuary of the South China Sea, just a few miles from Vietnam, the “Kampot Armada” plows past. The fishing fleet of about 20 lime green and orange 50-foot vessels is heading out for the night, its occupants happily waving as Khmer hip hop drowns the sound of their engines.

First thing on the agenda the next day is the Kampot market. It seems as though the entire population of Southern Cambodia is haggling, buying fish and seafood, vegetables and spices, much of it unrecognizable to the Western tourist, under one blistering hot roof. I buy a few kilos of Kampot pepper — sought after by chefs worldwide — and lots of bottled water. Although the journey to the Phnom Sorsia limestone caves are the most convenient caves to visitin between Kep and Kampot, it’s going to be long, hot and dusty, by tuk-tuk, a three-wheel auto rickshaw.

If you go, spend a few extra dollars and book a car with air conditioning, and take lots of small bills — 1,000 riel notes are about 25 cents — to pay the throngs of kids who offer their services as tour guides. John calls these little entrepreneurs “baby gangsters,” but they’re clever and entertaining and love the opportunity to practice their English . One 11-year-old also speaks French. Our “guides” lead us up 300 steps to a breathtaking view of checkerboard rice paddies and the entrance of Rung Damrey  Saaknown locally as the White Elephant Cave. The kids are quick to have us guess animal shapes among the stalagmites and stalactites; further on the right is the 100 Rice Field Cave and there’s also an ancient shrine where you’re asked to make an offering to myriad Hindu gods. (Before Buddhism, the Khmer kingdom was Hindu.)

We plan on visiting 100 Rice Field Cave but — second mistake (first mistake was the tuk-tuk) — they are blistering hot by midday. Fanning ourselves on the way back, we pass a few grim-faced tourists cycling to the caves.

After almost two weeks of lazy days, reading, swimming and playing Scrabble and numerous day trips it’s time to head home, but not before Lorian and I get a blast of Phnom Penh night life and shopping. And not before detouring to Sihanoukville and Kirirom National Park. The “Snook” is tacky and crowded with beach hawkers, but it’s also home to the Independence Hotel Resort, built in 1963 and recently renovated with a private beach and sand like baking powder. We spend only one night, but could easily have stayed a few more days lounging under the hotel’s thatched roof huts and gorging on buffet seafood dinners. Sadly, I have a plane to catch.

Kirirom National Park is a two-hour drive from Sihanoukville. At the top of “Happy Mountain”in the park are the ruins of King Monivong’s palace, now a popular picnic spot, and a 360-degree view of lush jungle. It may seem incongruous that several mini garden centres sell wild orchids and wood in a national park, but hey, it’s Cambodia. Canadian rules do not apply. Lorian fills the car with cinnamon bark (for cooking), a piece of rattan for flower arranging and several orchid plants, and we head to “The Penh.”

Thankfully, there are several oases in this bustling metropolis. Even with air conditioning on full blast I feel as though I am having one big hot flash, but soon after checking into the Villa Paradiso in downtown Phnom Penh my body temp is back to normal. Owners Sandra and Phillip Hoffmann have converted a magnificent Khmer home, situated a few blocks from the Royal Palace, into a boutique hotel, with each room differently themed.

As a tourist, if you keep an open mind and go with the flow, Cambodia is full of enchantment. Everywhere, the people are welcoming and I arrive home relaxed and stress-free. Building a house here is another story. But to Lorian and John, it was worth the battle to be able to spend half of every year in this captivating and now peaceful land.

photos by Nicolas Axelrod