The Phantoms of Kep, Cambodia

Proudly contributed by Luc Citrinot

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The 'cha-cha-cha' Villa in Kep

“My sweet, do you remember distant years, when on this shore, we built a kingdom for love’s hopes and fears, evermore?”

Extract from a poem about Kep by the late King Norodom Sihanouk

 There is an urgent necessity for preserving Kep, a seaside resort in Southern Cambodia. This is at least the thought of some lovers of this little town, a true architectural gem but also a testimony of Cambodia history. In contrary to many other seaside resorts in Southeast Asia, this city of only 19,000 inhabitants had a peculiar destiny, a colourful if not a tragic history, which truly reflects the rise and vicissitudes of modern Cambodia.

Originally, the settlement was called Kep-sur-Mer and used to be an exclusive resort destination for French public servants detached from France to work in the Protectorate. Kep turned into a welcomed serene retreat, away from the bustling dusty life of the capital Phnom Penh. “Following the independence in 1953, Prince Norodom Sihanouk had then the vision to turn the resort into the Saint Tropez of Indochina, a piece of French Riviera in Southeast Asia”, explains Serge Rémy, an adviser to UNESCO and organizer a few years ago of Kep Expo, an exhibition dedicated to the seaside resort.

KEP Beach in the 1960s

“Kep attracted then members of the Royal Family, Cambodia upper class and the international jetset such as Jacqueline Kennedy or Catherine Deneuve. In the early sixties, they drove from Phnom Penh to Kep in their Cadillac every week-end and enjoyed a sort of Cambodian dolce vita. They danced cha cha cha and twist, enjoyed sea food and waterskiing. A true golden era for the town”, says Rémy.

Under the impulsion of Sihanouk, wealthy Cambodians built villas inspired by the principles of Le Corbusier. “We believe that in its height days, Kep accounted some 200 villas built in what was called the New Khmer Architecture with leading architects being inspired architects such as Vann Molyvann, Lu Ban Hap, and Chhim Sun Fong. Often inspired by international style houses built in Europe in the fifties, these villas had their own distinctive character with clear minimalist lines infused by Khmer stylized motives and details”, adds Serge Rémy.

The war in neighbouring Vietnam and the Khmer rouge regime put a definitive end to the dream of turning Kep into a Cambodian version of St Tropez. The resort city was emptied of its inhabitants while the jungle slowly swallowed the walls of the villas; according to some, a few of these houses were even demolished with construction material being exchanged for weapon and food. “The Khmer Rouge did not really look at destroying Kep. They just wanted to turn it into a ghost town as it was viewed as a symbol of a decadent Cambodia”, explains Rémy.

“They are probably three dozens of villas which are still visible from the golden era of Kep,  many of them being however in a sorrow state or in ruins. It is a duty to preserve this heritage as it is part of the development of Cambodia. Not so many young people these days know that in the early sixties Cambodia was among the most modern and developed countries in the region”, tells Rémy, who believes that Kep should be considered as an important remnant of that time.

The project Kep Expo was done to highlight to a large public the history of Kep, to raise awareness about the Sihanouk architectural legacy but also a way to look at plans to renovate and use again some of the abandoned villas. The project got the support of more than 60 volunteers, including Cambodian and French students.

While some villas are now in a state of despair, some others are still worth preserving. Such as the former  mansion of Queen Kossamak, the Mother of King Sihanouk, who built a villa in art deco style in the early 1930s: or the “Cha Cha Cha Villa”, an abandoned house which outside structures have been fully preserved and covered by interesting street art murals. There is also former Prince Sihanouk villa on a hill overlooking the resort. It is however close to the public for now.

A few villas have already been renovated in a sensitive way to turn them into exclusive exquisite hotels. This is the case for the Knai Bang Chatt Resort, a series of three villas owned before by high ranking generals. They have been exquisitely restored and are now a peaceful heaven for luxury travellers.

Spectacular is also the Villa Romonea, built by Cambodian star architect Lu Ban Hap in the late sixties. The house was designed like a dragon following perfect feng-shui principles. “We still have today architects coming here to study the volume of the house”, tells Stéphane Arrii, property manager of Villa Romonea. The house has been restored to perfection. The gentle curves of the stairs are now underlined by balustrades, in a corner stands a guitar evocating some Magritte’s painting while 1960s style furniture and tiles have been integrated into the rooms. The villa is Kep’s ultimate luxury hotel with only six rooms which are generally all rent out for small groups.

More villas could be saved that way and be turned into exclusive retreats for distinctive travellers. Sihanouk’s dream of a Cambodian St-Tropez might not be that far away after all…

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