Monday, March 19, 2012

Travel Cambodia in and Around Kep Open But Undeveloped

Travel Cambodia in and Around Kep Open But Undeveloped.

ON a sunny weekday in Kep, a seaside village about halfway along Cambodia’s coast, the crab market was heaving. Women in straw hats and rubber boots stood knee deep in the surf shouting out prices, periodically darting into the sea to pull writhing specimens out of wicker baskets. Children of all ages ran through the stalls; it seemed as if the entire town had congregated in this one main square.

Nearby, suspended over the water overlooking the South China Sea, rickety open-fronted restaurants were perched on stilts. At one of the smallest, the Seagull, I sat with my son and husband watching wooden fishing boats move slowly along the coastline as the family who owns the spot prepared what would be the finest steamed crab I had ever tasted. Even my one-year-old tucked into the white buttery meat.

It was a scene that felt quaintly out of time, made all the more novel because we were somehow able to exist seamlessly within it. No one tried to sell us souvenirs or offer to guide us around town. It was just life as it had always been and always would be.

But of course this wasn’t true.

While we sat, lucky guests in this rustic tableau, not far away new bridges and roads were being completed; luxury resorts, casinos and golf courses mapped out; shopping malls planned.

All this in an area of Cambodia occupied by the Khmer Rouge as recently as 1995.

Like so many places that have dropped from, and re-emerged in, the traveler’s gaze, this area of southwestern Cambodia is in the midst of a now-familiar cycle. First come the backpackers, lured by tales of simple coastal villages and untouched island beaches. Next come the pioneering hoteliers, establishing in-the-know outposts of taste and luxury. Finally the big money arrives and, with it, the big plans.

Right now the area around Kep is still in that traveler’s sweet spot — mostly itself, but with roads and a few boutique hotels here and there for those who want them.

Yet as I would see over the course of two weeks, change is afoot. The crowds will surely be coming, but before they do I wanted a chance to see it for myself.

JUST a few hours from Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, Kep started out as a stylish retreat for the French in the 1920s, and by 1960 was called the St.-Tropez of Southeast Asia (Kep-sur-Mer), with modernist colonial villas built along the coast and weekenders arriving in vintage convertibles. When the Khmer Rouge set up camp here in the 1970s the French beat a retreat, and the villas fell into disrepair.

In the last five years, however, a number of these structures have been turned into boutique hotels — properties like Villa Romonea, which opened in 2010, and Knai Bang Chatt, which opened a few years before.

Villa Romonea was the dream second home of a Khmer woman who built the house in 1968 with the help of a famous local architect, Lu Ban Hap. It was the last villa built before the war, and the owner and her husband, a pharmacist, were killed in the early days of the Pol Pot regime. Now British developers have taken over.

The six-room hotel with its saltwater infinity pool and tropical grounds is representative of the kind of small-scale enterprises that have been spreading across southwestern Cambodia. Many are run by foreigners who discovered the area early on and wanted an excuse to stay. Jef Moons, Knai Bang Chatt’s Belgian owner, first saw Kep in 2003 while on a vacation. He then proceeded to buy a Le Corbusier-influenced villa, which he restored initially into a vacation home and then, in 2006 — a hotel. “I first fell in love with the people in Cambodia,” Mr. Moons said, “but also with the nature. It still feels remote.”

Over the course of my stay last year, I tried out both hotels. Each, set along the tranquil rocky coast, proved difficult to leave. One could camp out for days, sitting at waterfront tables watching the boats pass by and taking brief strolls into town. They were also incredibly good spots to be with a baby; everyone from cooks to hotel managers treated my son like a visiting celebrity.

But I was eager to explore the surrounding countryside, in particular the inland region to the northwest and the beaches and islands up the coast — areas, I had been told, whose futures were already being plotted by Chinese, Russian and Cambodian conglomerates eager to make their mark.

Our first trip was to Kampot, about an hour away. One can arrange to hire a car and driver but we decided to rent motorcycles. After leaving the baby in capable hands at Knai Bang Chatt, we sputtered along, passing countless oxen knee deep in rice paddies, bustling markets and clusters of little villages made up of traditional stilt houses. 

Decades-old Toyota Camrys seem to be the local car of choice (I noticed one with California plates), which shared the road with an assortment of scooters, bikes and vans that double as buses, not to mention the water buffalo, chickens and pigs that shuffled about amid the traffic.

In Kampot, a quiet city set alongside pepper plantations and forested hills, we drank coffee at one of the cafes that have sprouted in the crumbling 1920s verandas that front the lazy Praek Teuk Chhu River. Kampot was once one of the country’s most important ports, and is still the center of Cambodia’s pepper production; its streets are lined with turn-of-the-century colonial buildings, now mostly in disrepair.

As we sat watching boats make their way along the river, we were again struck by the startling lack of hawking here — especially compared with many tourist towns in Vietnam and Thailand.

Another observation: There were few people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. The reason for this speaks to the horrifying fact that between 1975 and 1979 a fifth of the population was wiped out under the regime. The Khmer Rouge endured in Kampot through much of the 90s, much later than other parts of the country, and almost every person I met lost at least one close family member or friend.


No comments:

Post a Comment