While Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples are its biggest tourist draw, beach-bound tourists — particularly those looking for more than the backpacker-on-a-shoestring itinerary — are waking up to the unexplored beauty that this steamy-hot country has to offer.
The low-key beach town of Kep and the riverside village of Kampot, a three-hour drive south of the capital Phnom Penh, offer rough edges but simple charms, along with nearby islands like Koh Tonsay, where the crab in peppercorn is served.
Ask for the crab
The proprietor of the thatched-roof and bamboo-walled restaurant will acknowledge the order in sign language and broken English. She’ll shuffle across the seaside grass over to the dock where the crab cages sit, steeping in the Gulf of Thailand’s tepid waters.
She’ll return with a bucket of crustaceans and fry them in an iron wok over a charcoal fire in her open-air kitchen, searing them in a sauce made largely from sweet, fiery Kampot peppercorns. She’ll bring you a heap of steaming seafood, pepper sauce, paper napkins and beer to the shaded picnic tables. You’ll eat the crab — soft-shells and all — sucking the sauce from your fingers, drinking the beer to blunt the fiery pepper and thank the stars that few people have discovered the culinary and aesthetic pleasures of this southern coastal region.
The Kep-area beaches also offer alternatives to better-known regional beach resorts like Thailand’s Phuket and even Cambodia’s own Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville was a favorite of jet-setters (Jackie Kennedy visited in the ’60s) before the country was beset by the horrors of wars, coups and the Khmer Rouge. These days, Sihanoukville’s luxury resorts have plenty of attitude, having been rediscovered by growing numbers of nouveau-riche Cambodians and others. Sleepy Kep, in contrast, seems to attract a clientele that spurns Sihanoukville’s swagger.
A simpler life
The town of Kep consists of a collection of modest residences and hotels tucked into the foliage off crumbling pavement and dusty roads, along with rows of motley shacks and several grand villas, many of which still show the ravages inflicted by the Khmer Rouge who sneered at Kep’s bourgeois trappings. Kep Beach is mostly a stretch of rocky sand directly under the main road, though that doesn’t stop the locals from swimming along the stony promenade. Notable local landmarks include an unusual nude statue of a fisherman’s wife and a monstrous statue of a crab. The 16-room Beach House hotel and its tiny swimming pool hides just above the beach in the tropical hillside foliage, offering sweeping views of the gulf.
Bending around the promontory to the west and north is Kep’s main drag, the Crab Market: a line of bamboo and thatch shacks where you can find crab, fish, prawns and squid, not to mention laundry service, tourist trinkets, boat rides, motos (mopeds), cold beer, cheap drugs, Internet connections, massage services and just about anything else you can imagine. The circus mix of locals, backpackers and proper tourists is a prime spot for people-watching.
Farther up the coast are Kep’s nicer accommodations. Inland and up in the hills, there’s the Veranda, with a wooden restaurant and bar on a slope with a vista of stunning sunsets over the water. Waterside, Knai Bang Chatt has the swankiest lodgings in town with an emerald infinity swimming pool and stylish, modernist building. The hotel’s Sailing Club next door has a dining room perched on piers over the water and a small sandy beach where you can sip vodka tonics while the waves lap your toes. Kep Malibu Estates, despite the unusual name, is also perched inland, its swimming pool and grassy yard up a dusty road past rundown shacks and the disconcerting sight of impoverished farm families tending ragged plantings and staring blankly at passing tourists.
Head to the islands
For many, the islands just off of Kep are the real draw. Phu Quoc is the largest, but it belongs to Vietnam and it’s some distance away. For that reason, Koh Tonsay — translated as “Rabbit Island” — is arguably the most popular. Like many things in Cambodia, getting there is not entirely for the faint-hearted. Most hotels have connections with boat operators, or you can arrange a boat ride at one of the Crab Market shacks. The skinny boats, built mainly for fishing, are powered by crate-sized outboard engines with propeller shafts the length of a small tree. Their narrow width means they pitch and yaw more than most people feel comfortable with. That said, they move fast, and the 30-minute ride to Koh Tonsay (about $10) takes you out into a bay past poetic scenes of fishermen tending lines and seine nets.
The island reportedly was used at one point as a prison colony by the country’s long-ruling monarch, Norodom Sihanouk. Today, however, its dense interior foliage keeps most visitors limited to the crystalline waters that slosh the whitish sands on its north side, where simple wood platforms are dotted with hammocks and thatched roofs. Just inland are the open-air kitchens and shacks of the half-dozen families who cater to tourists. For overnight stays, many families rent bungalows that are nothing more than enclosed shacks with wooden sleeping platforms and mosquito nets.
For most visitors, lounging on the beach platforms, alternating between swimming in the bathwater sea and drowsy contemplation of swaying palms is the most activity one can muster. Occasionally, wiry, naked-to-the-waist Cambodian men shimmying high into tree canopies, hacking at bushel-sized bunches of coconuts with machetes and letting the green fruit thud to the ground, spooking unsuspecting tourists. For less than a dollar, they’ll trim off the husks for you, lop a hole into the top and pop a straw in it for the freshest coconut milk you could possibly hope for.
More crab (or squid)
But when hunger truly strikes, it’s best to find crab. The size of golf balls, these crustaceans are caught by traditional hook and lines, and left in cages in the water until mealtime. For less than $5, the cook/hostess prepares a mound of the animals, cooked in oil and peppercorns of Kampot — a once-famous Cambodian agriculture export — and beer for two.
The instinct is to equate crab with lobster, use your teeth to dismantle the shell and suck the meat out. But the shells are so soft, you realize it takes less effort to just eat the crab, meat, shell and all. With pepper sauce tingling on your tongue and cold beer washing it down, gorge yourself on Kep’s finest culinary offering — and enjoy a place while it remains untrampled by the crowds.