Kep, a tiny town on Cambodia’s
southern coast on the Gulf of Thailand, two British women are staring at the
ghostly remains of a bombed-out seaside villa. Originally called La Perle de la
Côte d’Agathe, Kep was founded in the 1920s and was the resort of choice for
French Cambodia’s jet set. But the Khmer Rouge
had particular distaste for Kep and its sybaritic pleasures, and all but razed
the town in the 1970s.
of the women points out a trail of wetness on the villa’s walls and floor
where a dog has peed. “Oh, dear,” she tut-tuts. “It looks like the
building is crying.”
than a mile down the road, rising from the ashes of Kep like an extravagant bird-of-paradise,
is the chic 11-room seaside hotel, Knai
designed in the ’70s by a protégé of Le Corbusier.
No one is crying here. All is luxury and escapism; lush plantings and an
infinity pool are combined in a way that fairly screams “James Bond love lair.”
Sprawled poolside is a muscular young Belgian gentleman engrossed in his Ian McEwan.
The man idly smoothes out the waistband of his black designer swimsuit, the
greatest irritation he will face all day. Tonight he will dine under a gorgeous
palapa-style structure by the sea, and perhaps join other guests for a midnight
swim in the Gulf of Thailand.
many Americans, Cambodia means only two things — the majestic temples of Angkor
Wat and the Killing
Fields of Phnom Penh.
But there’s another Cambodia — the southern coast — that is beginning to
emerge as a popular alternative to the heavily trafficked beaches
Here, in towns like Sihanoukville
— which, in its heyday in the 1960s, used to draw visitors like Jackie Kennedy
travelers are exploring the unusual pleasures that occur at the intersection of
the luxurious present and the ravaged past.
my boyfriend, Greg, and I spent a week on the coast this November, we
experienced two firsts, both involving tiny bubbles. First, we went swimming one
night in Kep among phosphorescent plankton (it’s as if thousands of underwater
fireflies are doing a nonstadium version of “the wave”). Later we went into
a pharmacy in Sihanoukville and, for $2.80 for 20 tablets (U.S. dollars are
accepted everywhere), bought one of the unheralded marvels of modern life:
was not the Cambodia I expected — the tiny bubbles Cambodia. I’d had a
sneaking suspicion that my first trip to the land of Angkor Wat and ancestor
worship and rampant friendliness might somehow change me, but I expected this
change to be triggered by the fact that about one fifth of this country’s
population, including most anyone educated, was wiped out by Pol Pot in
the 1970s, or that the United
dropped more bombs on Cambodia during Richard
presidency than it dropped on Japan in
World War II.
OU’D be hard-pressed to find a town center, let alone a bricks-and-mortar
store, in Kep’s bucolic center, but there’s a buzz of activity at the series
of shacks along the water that form the crab market. Here fresh crabs are pulled
out of wooden cages that you can see just offshore, and, for $7, cooked with
curry and stalks of local Kampot peppercorns to produce an exciting variation of
everything I’d ever eaten while wearing a lobster
bib. Kep is also, oddly, without a decent beach — the sienna-colored sand at
the half-mile-long town beach is clearly the world’s largest accumulation of
Cajun rub — but you can take a 20-minute boat ride out to Rabbit Island, where
a scattering of pale, tubby Britons and gorgeous Danish girls laze on good sand
or on the porch of rented huts and sunning platforms, all amid a scrum of
mangrove trees, chickens and slightly confused cows. We set ourselves beachside
and Greg pulled out a cigarette pack emblazoned with the name of France’s
handsomest-ever movie star — Alain Delon — which he’d bought for 30 cents
in town. I thought, I am surrounded by at least three kinds of beauty.
also took day trips from Kep to a temple cave and to Bokor
Although taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks are plentiful and cheap in Cambodia,
we’d decided to hire, at $45 a day, a kind and shy 28-year-old Phnom Penh
driver named Toun Bon Thim to take us around in his car, including our
subsequent nine-hour drive from the coast up to Siem Reap
to visit Angkor Wat.
Bon Thim and Greg and I stepped out of the car near the trail to the cave
temple, we were greeted by a small band of giddy and adorable Cambodian children
who wanted to guide us. The kids — led by a hilarious 14-year-old boy in a
T-shirt emblazoned “Parental Advisory” — led us through a muddy rice field
to a steep set of wooden stairs (“203 steps. Easy!,” Parental Advisory
coached me. “Easy for Mr. New
Soon we were peering down in a stalactite-dripping cave in which sat a very
well-preserved seventh-century brick temple, about the size of four phone booths.
Parental Advisory looked at my popped eyes and, aping the helium-pitched voice
of a flip teenage girl, he exclaimed, “Ohmygod!” Suddenly I wanted to revoke
every sarcastic comment I’d ever made about Angelina Jolie
and her Cambodian child; I longed to take Parental Advisory back to New York
with us, and turn him into America’s next comedy sensation.
most of the two-lane roads that link Cambodia’s bigger cities have been
improved and repaved in the past 10 years or so, anyone who jiggles his way in a
Jeep up the 19-mile road that is being built on Bokor Mountain in nearby Kampot
is vividly, if not violently, reminded of earlier road-based pittedness: by
journey’s end you realize that if you were a gallon of paint, not only would
you be thoroughly mixed, you would now be a solid. (Loung Ung, a Cambodian
writer and land mine activist who has returned to Cambodia some 30 times since
escaping in 1980 and moving to Cleveland,
told me that before the roads got better, she always packed sports bras for her
trips back there.) The top of Bokor Mountain is the site of an abandoned hill
station, including an eerie, burned-out palace hotel and a Catholic church where
sometimes the fog sneaks up on you so thick that you can’t see your hand in
front of you. The site was the setting for the climax of the 2002 Matt Dillon
crime thriller, “City of Ghosts.”
every place in Cambodia has a ghost story attached to it,” Ms. Ung said. “I
think it’s because we practice Theravada Buddhism: our gods are able to cross
between the borders of the world. And we believe that our ancestors are always
with us. When so many people died in our country in the ’70s, we ended up with
a lot of haunted, unresolved lives. It’s not fear, it’s respect.”
Greg and I got our own taste of unresolved living one afternoon in Kep. We were
staying at a place called the Veranda
— a series of funky bamboo and wood treehouses, many with terrific views of
the Gulf of Thailand and the Vietnamese island Phu Quoc. Greg was lying in the
hammock on our porch when he heard a series of mewling, feline cries coming from
above him, followed by a soft thump. When he went into our bungalow, he saw
first the air vent over our bathroom ceiling and then something more unusual: a
kitten had landed in our shower. That night over drinks I told a fellow guest,
“I think it’s a message from on high.” The man concurred: “Yes. And the
message is: a kitten has landed in your shower.”
theme of untethered animals is one that reasserts itself not infrequently in
Cambodia. After Kep, we spent a relaxed day in sleepy Kampot — a placid
riverfront lined with colonial-era buildings increasingly being renovated by
expatriates — pottering around the second-hand bookstore and taking in the
view of Bokor Mountain.
Kampot we drove three hours to the coast’s most developed town, Sihanoukville,
a drive during which we dodged cows, dogs and a monkey that had parked in the
road in the manner of an irritable and recently deposed dictator. But the more
common life-threateners were other human drivers, whose conception of the word
“lane” can only be described as elastic. I asked Bon Thim if most Cambodians
believed in reincarnation, and he said yes. I posited, “This may explain why
they drive this way.” Equally thrilling to behold were the loads that we saw
heaped onto motorbikes — huge, jodhpur-shaped bundles of firewood or morning
glories; a bureau and a desk; four twin mattresses; an IV drip; a family of
four. Bon Thim told us: “On New Year’s, when workers travel home, there is
even more stacking. Sometimes 20 people stacked on the roof of cars or trucks.
Sometimes driver has someone seated between him and his door.”
Sihanoukville, we reveled in the pleasures that the rest of the coast, however
lovely, had denied us: white sand beaches, shopping, non-restaurant-based night
life. The beaches ranged from the utterly pristine and private one at our hotel,
— where Jackie Kennedy and Ms. Deneuve are said to have stayed and which
earned the nickname the Ghost Hotel after the Khmer Rouge used it as a redoubt
during their occupation of Sihanoukville — to the very crowded Occheuteal,
lined with food shacks and vendors. During our visit to Occheuteal, I bought a
bunch of litchis for a dollar from a woman carrying them on her head, but passed
up requests to rent an inner tube (50 cents an hour), be massaged in my chair
($6 an hour), have my back hair “threaded” ($5), or hear a blind man sing (unspecified).
Greg and I parked ourselves at one of the food shacks and started
people-watching; we rewarded ourselves with mango shakes (mango ice and
sweetened condensed milk are put in a blender and frothed to a fare-thee-well).
shop in a country where the average daily wage is less than a dollar a day is to
suddenly want to pay retail. Some of the arenas of this strange inclination are
more direct than others: both of the shopping haunts that drew our attention
were charity-based. On the muddy, trash-flecked dirt road that leads to
Serendipity Beach, the northwestern end of Occheuteal Beach, we found the
Cambodian Children’s Painting Project, where kids who are kept out of school
and forced into selling wares or themselves on the beach are given free language
classes and painting lessons. We each bought a painting ($4 each, plus $1.50
each for frames). A few hours later we found ourselves at Rajana,
a gift shop whose proceeds go to teaching young Cambodians handicraft skills. We
marveled over the jewelry made from recycled bomb shells ($28 to $32) and key
rings made from recycled bullets (95 cents), prior to buying lots of silk
scarves ($6 to $30) and lemon-grass candles in bamboo holders ($1.75).
of the tinkly piano-bar womb of Sihanoukville’s two high-end hotels — the
Independence and the Sokha — the town’s night life caters mostly to
backpackers and beach bunnies, some of them just in from party capitals like Phuket or
Vang Vieng, and eager to shimmer and effloresce over cocktails. A stroll down
Serendipity Beach will bring you in contact with fire throwers, mystics, British
Vogue photographers, sex tourists and many, many opportunities to indulge in
something called a “vodka bucket.” Here is the youth of the world, working
hard to forget the inequities of working for an understaffed and poorly run
N.G.O.; here is the youth of the world, working hard to remember the name of the
French dude they just made out with. The signs of these revelers’ impact on
the local economy are not hard to find — certain beach bar/guesthouses offer a
free night’s lodging to those of their young customers willing to hand out
fliers on the beach for an hour; the business card for one local bar included a
map which pinpointed the locations of 1) the bar 2) an A.T.M. and 3) the
Greg and I had been home for two weeks, I contemplated whether my day-to-day
life had been changed by the trip. I’d stopped e-mailing Bon Thim by then;
I’d also burned through our lemon-grass candles, and distributed all our
scarves and effervescent codeine and Alain Delon cigarettes. I’d given up
trying to recreate the fabulousness of the mango shake that I’d had on the
beach. I’d even — was it possible? — stared at our sunset-at-Knai Bang
Chatt pictures so long that I had robbed them of their power. Things seemed
fairly ... status quo. A wonderful status quo — but a status quo nevertheless.
then I remembered. We’re adopting a cat.
LUXURIOUS PRESENT MEETS THE RAVAGED PAST
THERE AND AROUND
leg of the triangle that is Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville-Kep
will take about three and a half hours by taxi and cost $30 to $60, depending on
your negotiation skills. A tuk-tuk to Kampot or Bokor Mountain and back will run
about $25. The ever-reliable Toun Bon Thim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several airlines, including Cathay Pacific (with a stop in Hong Kong)
and Korean Air (with a stop in Seoul),
have flights from Kennedy
Airport in New
York, with round-trip fares in April starting at about $1,300, based on a recent
Bang Chatt (Phum Thmey Sangat Prey, Thom Khan Kep; 855-12-879-486; www.knaibangchatt.com)
serves breakfast at a rough-hewn 24-foot-long table under a palapa overlooking
the sea, where dinner (about $38 for two) is also served. Guests have use of
Hobie Cat sailboats. Doubles from $150 — U.S. dollars are accepted at hotels,
restaurants and shops — in the high season (October through March); otherwise
the Veranda (Kep Mountain Hillside Road; 855-12-888-619; www.veranda-resort.com)
doubles start at $25. The resort’s bar and restaurant, with the sight of
gorgeous sunsets, is quite good, and serves mostly Western food (dinner for two,
about $26). Doubles from $25.
Independence (Street 2 Thnou, Sangkat No. 3; 855-34-943-3003; www.independencehotel.net),
stylishly refurbished in 2007, is, along with the Sokha, Sihanoukville’s most
luxurious beachfront property. You’ll need to take a tuk-tuk (about $5 one way)
if you want to go into town or to the public beaches.
Doubles from $140.
(to the left of the restaurants at the crab market along the waterfront in Kep;
855-12-435-096), the crab with Kampot pepper is the local specialty. The shrimp
tom yum soup and the shrimp with Kampot pepper are also worth trying. Dinner for
two, about $20.
(River Road, Kampot;
is on a balcony overlooking the river. A delicious fish amok — a kind of
Cambodian curry that is steamed instead of boiled — is served in a banana leaf.
The cook is a former sous-chef at the InterContinental in Phnom Penh. Lunch for
two, about $15.
Molop Chrey (Krong Street, Mondul 3, along the waterfront of Victory Beach in
Sihanoukville; 855-34-933-708) is a long-established seafood restaurant, serving
fresh fish, shrimp and crabs along the waterfront. Dinner for two, about $16.
Massage (Champey Inn, 25 Avenue de la Plage, Kep), the setting (under a palapa,
and not too far from the sea) is especially nice. Expect to pay $10 for
traditional hourlong massage; $15 for oil massage.
Mountain. Visits to the top of the mountain are in a state of flux while the
road is being built. You may be required to go with a ranger in his Jeep ($40,
plus $5 park entrance; ask at the park entrance), or you may be able to go in a
group tour (try Sok Lim Tours, 855-12-719-872; www.soklimtours.com)
for $10, plus admission fee.
(down the alley at 62 7 Makara Street; 855-23-993-642; www.rajanacrafts.org)
in Sihanoukville is one of a chain of nonprofit stores, with wonderful textiles,
and some clothing and knickknacks. The N.G.O.-run garden
cafe downstairs serves good light meals, and is a fine place to cool off.
ALFORD is a contributing editor at Travel & Leisure and Vanity Fair, and the
author of “How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are
Still on This Earth).”