Jean Pierre Gabriel
Luxurious Knai Bang Chatt at the seaside in Kep offers guests a chance to help local villagers.
Kep, a sleepy seaside town on the south coast of Cambodia, midway between the Vietnamese
border and the provincial town of Kampot, is now home to what is surely one of Cambodia's
most exclusive and luxurious resorts - Knai Bang Chatt.
But unlike many of the establishments catering for Cambodia's high-end tourist market,
the Knai Bang Chatt owners claim they are not seeking to make huge profits from tourist
"We will never take profit out of the country," said Jef Moons, one of
the resort's owners. "What we want to do is share with people Kep itself."
This guiding philosophy of Knai Bang Chatt - the name refers to the rainbow aureole
encircling the sun, which in Buddhist symbolism provides divine protection - is explained
by the story of its foundation.
Moons and his business partner, Boris Vervoodt, had been travelling through Cambodia.
They hired motorbikes in Sihanoukville, intending to drive through the country's
endless vista of rice paddies, but on their way they happened to stumble upon Kep.
"We entered Kep and saw these beautiful skeletons of houses, all destroyed,
all burnt by the Khmer Rouge," Moons said. "We saw the town and just thought,
'Imagine living here; imagine living in this beautiful nature and people'."
Consequently, the pair began making inquiries about buying property in the area.
Despite initial refusals, they were told the deputy governor in the area might consider
selling some of his properties as he needed money for the local election. After that,
things happened rapidly.
"Can one day change your whole life? Yes, it very definitely can," Moons
said. "Three days [after arriving in Kep] we ended up buying three houses -
one from a princess, one from the vice governor, and one from the head of customs
[with a] down payment of just $500."
The seaside property consists of three villas, one of which was built in 1962 by
a protégé of Vann Molyvann, a seminal figure in Cambodian architecture.
Since their purchase of the property in 2004, this villa has been restored by Moons
and Vervoodt, and two more built, their style very much in keeping with the original
feel of the property.
"My aim initially was to create a family home - to share the beauty of Kep with
friends and family - and this is still the aim," Moons said. "We have just
opened up for local people at special rates so they can enjoy the property, but the
most important thing is that this is not a hotel, it is a private home for those
who want the best."
Expatriates living in Cambodia will now be able to rent rooms at Knai Bang Chatt
at reduced rates (down from an average of $400 a night to a maximum of $150), though
they will not be able to reserve rooms more than two months in advance of their stay.
This new policy reflects the fact that although there is undoubtedly more money to
be had courting Cambodia's high-end tourist market, Knai Bang Chatt is not motivated
by profit alone.
"We want to enable people to have a glimpse of what Cambodia really is,"
Moons said. "Kep is not a tourist spot, it is real life - and now we have started
our aid program we will be able to offer people the chance to get involved in that
real Cambodian life."
Knai Bang Chatt has entered into a memorandum of understanding with two development
organisations - Bridges Across Borders (BAB) and Sustainable Cambodia (SC) - with
the intention of supporting a village in Kep.
The resort may be an oasis of luxury, but Kep itself is a deeply impoverished area
in need of much development assistance.
"This was one of the last remaining Khmer Rouge strongholds," said Eang
Vuthy, 25, a volunteer on the Knai Bang Chatt/BAB/SC cooperation project. "From
1993 to 1996 there were still armed and active Khmer Rouge fighters in the area.
Now it is peaceful but the people have only just emerged from the jungle, just emerged
A lack of development in the area, coupled with a collapse of the market price of
primary commodities, means many communities around Kep are struggling to make ends
"These are good people, this is good soil; and if they had education on how
best to use it, it could be a wonderful place," Vuthy said. "But people
are selling their land in this area - the price of vegetables has dropped so much
that they cannot make enough money to support themselves by farming."
BAB conducted a survey of the area and identified one village - Chamkar Bei‚ which
was most in need of development assistance. Chamkar Bei was the last village in the
area to be created, when 100 Khmer Rouge families came down from Phnom Vour in the
mid 1990s and laid down their arms in return for land. Despite some improvements
in living standards - cases of malaria have declined and food security has improved
markedly - Chamkar Bei remains poor, with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment.
Through their work with BAB, SC and the Chamkar Bei village, Knai Bang Chatt hopes
to remedy the incongruity of having a luxurious resort nestled amid poverty-stricken
"The huge inequality in the world between the rich and the poor is a cause for
great concern," said BAB country director David Pred at a village workshop on
October 7. "We believe that those of us who were lucky enough to be born in
rich countries have a responsibility to use our privilege to work to change the world
so that more of humanity can also enjoy better lives."
Knai Bang Chatt's Moons has established a foundation in Belgium which will provide
additional funding for the project. But though the money is coming from foreigners,
the project will be Cambodian through and through.
"It is bottom-up development," Moon said. "It is all about respect."
The Chamkar Bei community was optimistic at the October 7 workshop that this new
project would really help to make a difference in the village.
"Other NGOs have come to work in the village before but they have not stayed
for long," said a woman village elder. "They came and did some weaving
projects and sewing projects - it was quite useful but it didn't last."
Now, when rich foreign tourists or local expatriates visit the "ultimate private
experience" that Knai Bang Chatt proclaims itself to be, they will have the
option of tearing themselves away from the salt-water swimming pool, eschewing the
perfectly prepared meals and fine wines (if only for a few hours) and taking a trip
to Chamkar Bei to watch the project evolve over the next three years.
Hopefully, Moons said, visitors will be eager to take this opportunity. The aim is
that visitors will be so inspired by their stay in Kep they will donate to the foundation
and support the development work in the area.
Moons is convinced this strategy will be successful, guided in part by his personal
experience of how deeply Cambodia can get under your skin and inspire a desire to
help what he believes is a beautiful yet impoverished country. His own visit in 2004
resulted not just in the creation of Knai Bang Chatt, but in the recent adoption
of a Cambodian child.
"Cambodia was one of the most beautiful countries I had seen," he said.
"The nature and the people are amazing: kids who speak no English but say everything
with a smile, old people who are at peace with themselves and the world; it is the
opposite of life in Europe."