Cambodia

Explore the beautiful ruins of former French colonial resort of Kep

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It’s mango season in Kep, an ancient French colonial resort on Cambodia’s southeast coast, but the ripe yellow fruit is unpicked in the villa garden behind the town’s park.

Despite the grand gates, the building itself is in ruins. Vines shade the balcony steps, and creepers blur the dramatic angles of concrete and terrazzo.

It’s one of hundreds of modernist-style mansions scattered across the coast, and was a getaway for the wealthy in the capital, Phnom Penh, in the 1950s and 1960s. These are the glory days of this laid-back town.

About 12 miles from the border with Vietnam, it offers picturesque views of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, and its relatively fresh climate and breezy winds have earned it the nickname “the St Tropez of Asia”.

Knai Bang Chatt in Whitehorse, Cambodia (Photo: Perowne International)

fit for a king

After Cambodia gained independence in 1953, King Norodom Sihanouk embarked on a massive program of public buildings and infrastructure to propel his country into a modern international society. Apparently fond of the modernist style himself, he commissioned French architect Laurent Mondet to build the stunning Principe Villa in Siem Reap – now perfectly restored – as well as another villa on the coast of Kep.

He also appointed Vann Molyvann, a Cambodian student of Le Corbusier, who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as national architect, leading the so-called Neo-Khmer architectural movement – a fusion of modernist ideals with local Khmer culture. As many as 60 local architects set out to take elements of traditional Cambodian houses – such as open floor plans and stilts that provide shade and airflow in a hot, humid climate – and reimagine them in minimalist steel and concrete.

The presence of the king turned the sleepy coastal town into a stylish resort, with dozens of villas sprung up, complete with swimming pools and tennis courts. Few records have survived, but Vann Molyvann himself is undoubtedly responsible for several Kep retreats, and his disciples and admirers are responsible for many others.

Abandoned villa in Kep, an old French colonial resort on Cambodia’s southeast coast (Photo: Tim Alden)

Talking to the locals, there are many rumors about these elegant ruins, now gradually engulfed by lush tropical vegetation. This one belonged to the princess; Vann Molyvann certainly remembered that person when he visited shortly before his death in 2017.

Wandering the abandoned boulevards overlooking the turquoise sea, you could easily imagine yourself on the French Riviera, if not for the avenues of fiery orange jacaranda trees. The sprawling gardens are still scented with jasmine, and exploring the roofless rooms are charming, sometimes elegant tile or terrazzo patterns.

The strong diagonals and rectangles of the modernist style are still there – apart from the main house and underground tank, you can make out the kitchen – but the windows, doors and fittings are long gone. Now only skinks — nimble silver lizards — are sunbathing on the patio, while croissant-sized millipedes huddle in airy bedrooms. Cambodian families are “looking after” some of the ruins as they wash their clothes along the corridor.

dark day

Noble life came to an abrupt end in 1975 when hardline communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas emerged from their jungle camps and took over the country, which, despite its neutrality in the Vietnam War, had been devastated by American bombing . Even now, many Cambodians find this era too painful. Pol Pot’s brutal regime abolished money and property ownership, and those who were able fled abroad.

Abandoned villa in Kep, an old French colonial resort on Cambodia’s southeast coast (Photo: Tim Alden)

Ironically, the abandoned villa survived the dictatorship even if the occupants didn’t. But when the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979, the starving population was so desperate that people stripped the buildings of everything of value — including metal floor joists — and took them to nearby Vietnam The border, where you can exchange for food.

When the area finally returned to stability in the late 1990s, the previous owners had 10 years to provide documentation of ownership, but as records under the dictatorship were destroyed on a massive scale, few were able—and even less able—to rebuild. Instead, these once-beautiful buildings have withered away, waiting for the land to become valuable enough to be sold and redeveloped.

things are getting better

It is only in the last decade or so that Cambodia’s battered economy has begun to recover, and the sleeping white horse has begun to wake up again. A new road from Phnom Penh is under construction that will halve the current three-hour drive from the capital, and some of these modernist gems have been restored to their former glory.

These include three of the best designed, once owned by provincial governors and royal relatives, sitting just off the coast near the legendary crab market in Hakuba.

Knai Bang Chatt in Whitehorse, Cambodia (Photo: Perowne International)

Belgian car owner Jef Moons told me he immediately fell for their calm good looks on a 2003 SUV trip to Cambodia and put down a $500 (£409) deposit, with a canvas full of cash a few weeks later Backpack returns to complete the transaction. He and French architect Francoise Lavielle set out to recreate every modernist detail – from doorknobs to stair railings – using local artisans and materials.

The result is Knai Bang Chatt (the Khmer name for the halo around the Buddha’s head), a fully sustainable retreat that grows most of its own food and goes to great lengths to work with the local community, support local schools and provide for its staff Specially designed accommodation.

Knai Bang Chatt in Whitehorse, Cambodia (Photo: Perowne International)

Moons added a state-of-the-art western kitchen and built Cambodia’s only sailing club next door, as well as its own signature restaurant. Here guests can relive the relaxed luxury of the 1950s and spend peaceful days in the well-preserved swimming pool and gardens.

But while Kep remains a charming backwater for now, its more modernist legacy seems unlikely to be treated well. There has been a huge construction investment boom along China’s coast, and new casino and condo locations will soon be found; rapidly rising land values ​​will soon turn those overgrown and ruined plots into little gold mines.

Travel Essentials:

Destinology is offering an eight night trip, including three nights at the B&B at Knai Bang Chatt (Garden Room) and five nights at Six Senses Krabey Island (Hideaway Pool Villa) from £3,325 per person, based on two sharing, including return from Thai Airways Flight London to Phnom Penh and full private transfer.

Local Food: Kampot Chili

The rich quartz soil and mild coastal climate have made Kampot province famous for its pepper production, and some farms are happy to take tourists on a tour. Most are within a half-hour tuk-tuk ride of Hakuba, and it’s well worth the effort if it’s just to see picturesque fishing villages and lakes full of lotus plants along the way.

Pepper plants grow in many parts of the world, but the ideal conditions here make peppercorns exceptionally rich and sweet, with an almost floral flavor that makes them beloved by chefs around the world.

While the same product from nearby Vietnam and Thailand sells for $2 (£1.65) a kilo, the prized Kampot black pepper will fetch around $50 – more than double the price when it arrives in Europe.

Kampot Chili

Climbing plants grow in long alleys, much like English hops, and are protected from the scorching sun by a makeshift palm frond “roof”. At Sothy’s, a certified organic farm, the water is mixed with locally grown quinine and lemongrass as an effective deterrent against caterpillars, while the farm also grows its own neem leaves for use as a pesticide. Bat guano in the numerous nearby caves provides additional fertilizer.

The different varieties of peppers we’re familiar with in the West actually all come from the same plant, producing about a kilogram a year – the fruit is just picked or processed differently.

Green peppers – the unripe fruit – are rare in the UK but are a key ingredient in many Khmer curries, often fermented or pickled and sold in vats at the White Horse Market, shallow alongside prawns and crabs that thrive in the Gulf of Thailand water. Chili peppers turn red when ripe and are mainly used in beef or pork dishes, as well as to flavor ice cream.

The black peppers we are most familiar with are red peppers, which are boiled and then dried in the sun for about 10 days, a process that brings out the strongest flavor, while milder white peppers have been peeled. I made sure everyone brought lots of samples.

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