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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kep's ruins recall Cambodia's golden age

Kep's ruins recall Cambodia's golden age

Kep Sur Mer (Kep by the sea), a tiny seaside town near Kampot, is one Cambodian hamlet

that is only gradually finding its feet after years

of war.

The seaside family home of Om Rasadei under renovation

The evidence of a destructive past is found down almost any street in Kep, where

the skeletons of holiday villas sit idly while being quietly consumed by the jungle.

Dozens of the once plush homes in various states of decay are sprinkled around the

seaside village.

"It's a kind of ruin," says Om Rasadei of present day Kep.

Rasadei is now a political advisor to Prince Norodom Ranariddh but, as a child of

the Phnom Penh elite, he used to vacation in Kep in the 1960s, the period many still

consider was Cambodia's 'golden age'.

Today the abandoned homes give the whole town an eerie feeling of having been just

recently deserted. Some homes are structurally intact, others are clearly more in

need of resurrection rather than renovation. Elsewhere there are once-stately villas

whose only legacy is a lingering high fence, wrought iron gates and an overgrown

plot of land.

Not every house is empty. A few of the homes have been supplemented with makeshift

roofs and windows and are now homes to 'security guards', families paid by home owners

to keep squatters out. Kep's abandoned villas are so ubiquitous in the town that

they are even being used as the local Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party headquarters.

In the 1950s and '60s, flush with a peacefully achieved independence, Phnom Penh's

confident and wealthy elite appropriated Kep, the colonial retreat founded by the

French in 1908.

Known as the 'Cambodian Riviera', the town had its own casino and was frequented

by parties of diplomats and well-heeled Cambodian society eager for a swim, a sail

or a stroll on the beach. Wealthy Phnom Penhois built homes in confident modernist

styles with expansive ocean views.

Rasadei recalls his final visit to Kep before it, like much of the rest of the country,

was consumed by war. The son of the director of National Security, his family kept

a large house on the oceanfront.

"Before the war in 1967 or 1968 my father sent me to Kep with some friends to

prepare for my exams." The friends took their motorbikes on the train to Kampot

and spent their time studying, swimming and playing guitars, he says.

"I remember the car contests that were organized by the King for sports cars,

with ladies inside the car, usually wives of ministers or actresses, but it also

had the mountains, the sea, good air and good food.

"Kep during the sixties was like a kind of a Cote d' Azur. It was frequented

by rich people and high ranking people of the Kingdom, even the King and the Queen

Mother," Rasadei says.

In its heyday then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk not only kept his own villa, but his own

island as well. Ile des Ambassadeurs was a favorite spot for Sihanouk to entertain

a regular stream of guests.

The King's home is no longer occupied by squatters. The local police asked them to

move along two years ago and then took over a front room of the house as their own


It has clearly seen better days. Trees, Ta Prohm like, have taken root and destroyed

the high fence, bullet holes ring what was once the front door and all the homes'

fittings, from the ceiling lights to the floor tiles, have been scavenged.

Over the years the house, in which Sihanouk became head of state in 1960, has been

looted and abandoned and served as a barracks for the local militia before the squatters

finally moved in.

The fate of the Royal household was like the fate of Kep's other luxury properties.

With the Lon Nol coup Kep became a ghost town, abandoned by holiday makers and sometimes

swamped by the war raging in nearby Vietnam. Around 1970 Vietnamese soldiers entered

Kep and are said to have eaten all of the animals in the zoo.

That was positively civilized behavior compared to the actions of Cambodia's own

revolutionaries a few years later.

The Khmer Rouge took Kep in 1975 and set about destroying its symbols of bourgeois

culture, attacking the already abandoned holiday homes of Cambodia's elite. They

also set about destroying any remnants of the bourgeoisie in Kep by herding all the

local French speakers to a petrol station and setting it and them on fire.

An overgrown abandoned villa at Kep looks almost like a relic from an ancient Khmer era.

When the Vietnamese arrived in 1979 the houses again suffered with locals stripping

what was left for building materials to sell to the Vietnamese. The town itself continued

to live in fear with the Khmer Rouge shifting just seven kilometers away.

Roy Win, Kep's Red Cross chief, owns one of the few villas that is on the market.

It's a house with an interesting history.

During the early '90s Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin, most well known for his alleged

involvement in the 1994 murder of three backpackers, was holed up in the colonial

villa and using it as the headquarters forhis Kampot province stronghold.

"I bought the house from Chhouk Rin in 1992," says Win of her beachside


It must have been a good time to sell for Rin, who was given a new property by the

government when he defected in 1994.

Win becomes nervous when asked about the villa's infamous owner, preferring to stick

to sales talk.

The dilapidated two storey house is one of the largest in town and one of the few

colonial era properties. Surrounded by palm trees and with absolute beach front Win

thinks the house is a steal for anyone with a mind to restore its former glory.

"I paid 300 damleung of gold, but I will sell the house for $150,000,"

she says.

Win says she pays a local police official 30,000 riel each month to look after the


The house, she says, is free of both ghosts and squatters and, while it may be run

down, the building is still safe and sound.

"That is the structure of the French," says Win.

New Funcinpec Governor of Kep, Sim Son says that at least some of the houses are

structurally sound enough for restoration but others will need to be pulled down.

Son says that he hopes to see homes restored but at the moment water and electricity

are higher priorities.

"My primary idea is to turn Kep into a tourist destination but first we need

a master plan, we'll have to think about how to do it and seek input from infrastructure


Without infrastructure the town remains a long way from its former glory. Rasadei's

family home is the only one in town that is being brought back to life.

"At the time [of my 1968 visit] I didn't know I would not return for more than

twenty years. One or two years later it was the beginning of the Lon Nol war and

my parents sent me to France."

"I returned in 1992, just before the Untac election and, when I came back and

saw the place it was a real shock. Phnom Penh was a shock but in Kep the city had

just become a ruin," he says.

"The natural beauty is still there so I hope that one day there will be the

political will to remake the city as it was before."



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