Travel Report: The Abandoned Villas of Kep.
The Abandoned Villas of Kep, Cambodia.
August 2020. There was a light patter of rainfall as Sladja and I climbed into the tuk tuk. The sky had been threatening this all morning, but had fortunately held off during our explorations of Kep Beach. Now, at least, we had a roof over our heads.
“You want see old villa?” asked the driver with a grin. “Yes!” I confirmed, hoping that the receptionist at The Beach House Hotel hadn’t let us down with his recommendation. “Do you know where they are?” I checked. He grinned again, firing up the engine. “They everywhere!” he laughed, “many many”.
Thus we chugged steadily down National Road, leading away from the town centre. Unsure as to what exactly lay in store, there was a mixture of excitement and curiosity in the air. Companions, if you will, for the lonely rain.
Ahead of us, we hoped, lay remnants of Kep’s illustrious past as one of South East Asia’s most opulent seaside stations. It was the French who transformed the place from thick impenetrable jungle into a playground for wealthy Europeans and the Cambodian elite. Arriving in 1908, they set about constructing a promenade, cobblestone streets, a handful of grand townhouses and a fancy hotel.
The Abandoned Villas of Kep.
“You wanna see Queen Villa?” our guide asked, suddenly slowing. We sure did. Hence he parked at the side of the road and out we jumped. However, it quickly became apparent that the gated complex was locked. All we could do was peek through the bars into the garden, where several geese waddled around flexing their wings.
By the 1930s the town (then known as Kep-Sur-Mer) had become so well-to-do even Cambodian royalty wanted in on the action. This mansion was supposed to become a summer residence for Queen Sisowath Kossawak. But for whatever reason it remained uncompleted and the Queen never moved in.
As with nearly all of Kep’s abandoned structures, there’s very little info on The Queen’s Villa. Although closed to the public, some visitors manage to get in by paying the caretaker a few dollars. Sadly there was nobody around that day and we certainly didn’t fancy hanging around in the rain.
So we pressed on, though it was barely a few minutes before we stopped again. “Old Pier!” announced our chauffeur cheerfully. Again solid information is thin on the ground, though I understand it suffered heavily from scenes of fighting in the early to mid 1970s.
The Old Pier.
Neglected for over forty five years, Kep’s Old Pier is nothing short of a safety hazard. We definitely had to be careful as we crossed it via the two remaining stone paths. I’ve seen photos of the wooden boards that once served as the central walkway, but they’re long gone.
Eventually, the pier just bleeds into the sea. Kep’s “new” Boat Pier, built in the early 1990s, provides cruises to nearby Rabbit Island. I couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t destroyed this old thing. Or, at the very least, put in some kind of fencing to stop people falling through the gulf in the middle.
Back in the tuk tuk, our driver soon branched off the main road, leading us up into the hills. And it wasn’t long before the first villa came into view. Most of the surviving structures, I’d read, date back to the mid 1950s, the zenith of Kep’s construction wave.
Architecturally, these buildings were a mix of French modernism and traditional Cambodian. This new bold movement was called New Khmer, spearheaded by a talented young architect by the name of Vann Molyvann.
The Abandoned Villas of Kep.
According to various online articles, these villas belonged to diplomats, millionaire entrepreneurs, acclaimed artists and aristocrats. Exploring that first house, with its graffitied exterior and leaf-strewn stairs, I found myself speculating on who had lived here. And what chaos it must have been when the country went to shit and they had to flee.
Some of the villas are so overgrown exploring is impossible. At the very least you need trousers and a long sleeved top, ideally with a cap and a big ass stick to beat away nettles, plants and snaking branches. What’s more, we had to keep our eyes open for creepy crawlies!
Negotiating the next villa seemed much more manageable thanks to its short grass and a number of pretty trees. In between all the scattered garbage, I should add. Nevertheless, it was so hospitable there were chickens pecking around and a few goats and cows grazing toward the back of the compound.
I was also able to climb the stairs up onto the roof. There wasn’t anything to see up there, but it was cool to gaze back down at tiny Sladja, who’d remained roadside under the shelter of her umbrella.
On the way out, there was a hairy moment or two when a pair of wild dogs came running over. They were getting all territorial, barking aggressively and half-lunging at me before pulling back each time.
What To See and Do, Kep.
Over the next hour or so the villas came and went. Some were wholly intact, with impressive latticework and sweeping balconies. In contrast, others were little more than a single tower and mounds of sad rubble.
Back in the town’s heyday, there was a large casino. Visited, some articles claim, by French film legend Catherine Deneuve and former US First Lady Jackie Kennedy. But our driver said he didn’t know if there were any remains, adding that it was probably destroyed by The Khmer Rouge.
We were up on one of Kep’s highest roads when we came upon a section of the way semi-blocked by a fallen tree. Pulling up, our guide got out to join a couple of local men who were attempting to drag it to the side of the road.
Just a few metres away, we spied an entrance gate to what appeared to be a large Buddhist temple. So we took the opportunity to stroll in for a look.
With nothing in English to indicate where we might be, I had to use Google Maps to enlighten us that we had just entered Samot Raingsey Pagoda.
Samot Raingsey Pagoda.
But try as I might, I couldn’t find out any information about the pagoda and its history. Furthermore, the entire complex was deserted, not so much as a monk in sight.
It truly felt like one of those where-the-hell-are-we? moments as we wandered through this empty, isolated temple up in the hills of off-the-beaten track Cambodia.
In fact, looking back, it was one of my favourite moments of the day. We could have been the only two people on Earth during that blissful half an hour of silence. “I think we better go” I whispered. “He’ll be wondering where we are”.
If we’d been surprised by the pagoda, that was nothing compared to the moment we drove past a sizeable penis sculpture discreetly set among the shrubbery by the side of the road!
After seven months in Cambodia we were used to phallic imagery and its symbolisation of fertility and strength. Usually these sculptures came in the form of the linga, as seen during our day exploring the stunning Temples of Koh Ker. This though was the first time we’d seen a blatant penis replica. We tried asking the driver about it but he just shrugged and laughed nervously.
The Abandoned Villas of Kep.
A short while later we began descending the twisting roads back down to the beach. Along the way, we stopped at several villas with amazing views over the beach and sea. It wasn’t until I started taking the below photo that I saw the laundry drying on the line. I’d heard that some of the old villas had squatters in them and here was the proof. “Uh Sladja, let’s go!”
In a neighbouring villa garden, we caught a delightful glimpse of Kep Lady through the branches. It seems wherever you are in Kep, she’s never far away.
Down by the main road to Kep Crab Market we stopped by one last villa with a large crumbly balcony. Here, someone has gone to the trouble of maintaining a number of plants housed in beautiful stone pots.
Inside though, it was the usual story of leaves, graffiti and encroaching jungle. When I subsequently heard a mischievous rustle in the leaves above our heads, I admittedly jumped a little. Looking up, I caught the flash of a tail followed by a short, sharp screech.
The Abandoned Villas of Kep.
Sure enough there was a monkey feasting on some snatched scraps from the roadside. He was screeching at his dubious associates, a dozen or so creatures gathered by a collection of trash containers to the side of the road.
They were fishing out bits of discarded food and generally bickering amongst each other. When one monkey stole a chicken leg from the clutches of another, all hell broke loose with an almighty chase that stretched all the way down the road. Several monkeys ducking dangerously between the passing cars and tuk tuks as they ran.
Having started the day with the Queen’s Villa, it seemed apt that we finished our tour with a brief look at The King’s Villa. Home to King Norodom Sihanouk during the summer months of the mid 1960s, this compound famously had the best views in all of Kep.
And while the entrance gate was open that day, it took just a few tentative steps to realise that the jungle was so thick and overgrown the access path was now impassable.
The King’s Villa.
“You like Kep?” asked the driver, Sladja and I exiting the tuk tuk one last time. We confirmed that yes, we did. “You like crab?” came the next question, as he gratefully stuffed the wedge of dollars I’d given him into his pocket.
Sure, we liked crab. Which was just as well, seeing as we were in the crab capital of Cambodia. With one last glance back at the hills, with its ghostly remains of a once glorious past, we began the long but leisurely walk to Kep Crab Market.
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