(Kep, Kingdom of Cambodia)
Cambodia makes its reputation from four cities: Phnom Penh for business, Siem Reap / Angkor for culture, Kampot for the pepper, and Kep for the blue crab (Kdam Ses) exported to all Asia.
Kep-Sur-Mer was established in 1908 for the French bureaucrats and their families, as a health resort not far from Phnom Penh. The graceful arch of the main beach is transplanted from an early 20th Century French daydream, with a broad pedestrian corniche punctuated by graceful wrought iron lamps. With a touch of imagination, it is easy to feel like transplanted into a sleepy seaside resort in Normandy.
A joyful escape for the colonial French until the late 50s, Kep used to be the last Khmer Rouge enclave until the 1990s and the conversion of the yesterday executioners into successful local businessmen and liberal politicians. Forgotten by the “barangs” (westerners), poorly served by overcrowded buses over bumpy roads, it became until quite recently the definition of a ghost city. Since a few years, with the active help of the government, local authorities and a flow of private investments, Kep became “Kep-Sur-Mer” again. Back to its past glory! It has never been so easy to go there by brand new comfortable air-conditioned buses tailored made for foreign tourists: at 150 km from Phnom Penh, this is the elegant alternative to the superb beaches of the still quite wild Sihanoukville. No cheap groups Russian here. No sex tourists. Clean, quiet (some will say monotonous), Kep rather attracts some intrepid backpackers on their way back from Kampot, lodging in the few guesthouses concentrated between the Crab Market and the Led Zep Café, in the popular and atmospheric “city center” where we could see the nostalgic ruins of the 1950s colonial villas designed in Le Corbusier's “French Modernist” style. The Khmer Rouges converted them into fisheries, letting their jungle-like gardens patrolled until now by energetic troops of monkeys.
Since King Sihanouk’s wife, Queen Monique, recently built her new villa in Kep, a new wave of high-profile visitors, mixing “barangs” working in Phnom Penh, Lexus driven upstarts enriched by the booming real estate (or more fishy operations) in the capital city, and politicians (who made Samanea their home away from home), transformed Kep-sur-Mer in the social destination it used to be in the Golden Era of the French Protectorate and the eccentric reign of Sihanouk in the 1960's. When Facel-Vega, Citroën DS, and Cadillac parked in the gardens of seaside residences, while Catherine Deneuve relaxed on the deck of her Riva speedboat.
The former “Cambodian Saint-Tropez” is being rediscovered by some elite travelers, crossing the oceans to visit Angkor and Kep only. Culture and relaxation. Hotels are growing up like mushrooms. 90% of them are improvised without any fuss for the local market, providing low-key service and accommodation. The remaining 10% can be compared, in term of excellence, with the best resorts in Siem Reap, Thailand or Bali. That was our first stay, and we naturally stayed at Samanea Resort: the address for the local elite, it counts almost all the dignitaries (MPs, ministries, generals...) among its preferred guests. More and more foreign tourists book by mouth to ear.
Samanea Resort is located a ten-minute tuk-tuk drive from the city center. While most of the hotels are located on the jungle and hills side, this is one of the rare resorts with a private beach. This is a big advantage, as the sunset is part of the most impressive which we have contemplated in our traveler's life. Imagine the fantastical Bokor Hill Station, partly covered by the clouds as always, Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island and its extraordinary beaches), and the Vietnamese Phu Quoc Island on the nearest horizon. Only a few kilometers away. And the coast, covered by a wild, totally virgin mangrove. Samanea lucky guest can discover it effortless, from a boardwalk crossing 200 meters of wildlife. We inspected this forest early in the morning, when the crustacean, birds, and lizards enjoy the benefits of this protected ecosystem. This is the one and only place in Kep for such a close and easy observation: just next door to our room!
Even if the beach is splendid, the roots from the mangrove won't allow swimming. The owner of the resort invested a lot in building a long, beautiful pier, to deal with this problem. Jumping from its extremity allows a safe experience of the clear and warm waters. A great observatory point, this is the best place ever to enjoy the sunrise, sunset, natural life, observe fishermen...and take exotic selfies which might make you lose some jealous friends...
The infinity pool is one of the largest in Kep, covering not less than 300sqm.
The 12 villas have a quick access to both pool and beach. Hidden in the lushly 2 hectares botanical park, they all have a large and well-equipped veranda where we spent most of our time, reading over our hammock, calmed down by the merry songs of the birds (we could observe magnificent parrots). Each villa has a garden, sea or pool view.
The interior is locally designed, with stone walls. Zen and comfortable, it is tailored made for a family stay or a romance. Each villa offers much space (75 till 150 sq.m for “Family” or “Connecting” suites), four-poster beds, a living area with a spacious sofa, flat-screen televisions 32″ with a DVD player (access to the extensive DVDs collection is complimentary), and an antique desk.
We liked the bathroom, with an outdoor stone bathtub, a rain shower and traditional Khmer shower surrounded by a private lush garden.
One of the most authentic SPAs in Kep, Samanea has developed a unique concept of bio-treatments. With her 15 years experience, its in-house masseuse is unrivaled in Kep. An alchemist, she prepares by herself 100% natural oils, mixing magic herbs and fragrant floral aromas. She has supervised the design of the open-air SPA with her delicate feminine touch, and equipped it with the essential elements for an unforgettable Khmer experience. More than relaxation, her treatments provide an unmatched soothing whatever the affordable SPA package you might prefer..
Designed like a Thai "sala", the restaurant isn't what we would call a gastronomic venue, but a most pleasant, casual place to enjoy a most authentic Khmer menu... featuring of course the famous crab from Kep.
As a bonus, plenty of dining options are available: either indoors, on the panoramic terrace, in guest-room/terrace, on the beach, at poolside, on the platform at the end of the jetty, or on the platform at the end of the boardwalk in the mangrove forest!
We used a bicycle (complimentary to hotel guests) to discover the surroundings by ourselves: the Crab Market, Kep Beach (and ruined villas), butterfly farm, pepper plantation and salt marshes are located a short ride away. A tour to the Kep National Park, beautiful colonial Kampot (Market, Riverside, Pepper plantation), Secret Lake, Bokor National Park, Coves of Kompong Trach, or to the Sanctuary of birds of Anlong Pring will cost you just a few dollars by tuk-tuk.
The staff is anticipating. Kep is mostly “Cham” (Muslim): honest and peaceful people, most hospitable, they developed those qualities during our stay. Preoccupied with two major things: our comfort...and the ghosts. We, unfortunately, didn't meet the harmless souls of the six people shot by the Khmer Rouges in the 1960s main villa: housing the reception and the managers' office, it has its wall still discretely pockmarked with bullets. But we shall surely come back to say “Hi!” to those permanent residents, and enjoy one more time this divinely relaxing resort.
SAMANEA BEACH RESORT: Street 33A, Kep, Kingdom of Cambodia
PHONE: +855 71 340 0600
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