Cambodia’s tourism thrives on the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, but could the ruins of holiday villas dating back to the 1900s revive the fortunes of what was once Kep Sur Mer a premier resort for colonials, nobles and Cambodia’s elite?
French colonials founded Kep in 1908 and built holiday homes overlooking a short 1km pebble strewn beach. From their balconies they enjoyed breathtaking views of the Gulf of Thailand and nearby Phu Quoc island in Vietnam.
After the nation’s independence in 1953, Cambodian royals, nobles and socialites descended on Kep for weekend breaks besides the seaside. The 164-km journey from the capital took four hours by car and more likely six by train to a station 7 km short of Kep.
Some of the 1920s’ villas were renovated by the 1950s, but the independence era inspired hundreds of new villas reflecting what came to be known as the new Khmer style architecture.
Villa owners dubbed Kep the St Tropez of the East, such was their enthusiasm for the 1 km stretch of beach and hilly real estate.
At the height of its popularity in the mid-1950s to 1970, more than 200 extravagant villas were built turning the quiet bay and its hilly surrounds into a holiday playground. It quickly earned a reputation for its lavish parties that drew celebrities. Jackie Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve apparently were guests in Kep.
It was the era of flower power, hippies, the Cha Cha Cha and the Twist. Rich traders and professionals, doctors and lawyers rubbed shoulders with royalty, the powerful and political. Kep’s social circle enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle of expensive wines, champagne, fine food, luxury cars, black-tie dinners, posing at the casino and all-night beach parties on Tonsay (Rabbit) Island, the largest of 13 islands that make up Kep’s archipelago.
By 1964, the then Prince Norodum Sihanouk built his own villa on a headland and turned the posh resort into a setting for his films. He took a leading role and even recruited military and political friends to join the casts. Among the 50 odd songs he composed one nationalistic ballad, “Beauty of Kep City”, romanced the beauty of an emerging resort destined to capture the imagination of travellers.
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