The chalky, sun-bleached walls of Villa Romonea whisper of a rich past: elegant 1960s sunset soirees come to mind - the haunting voice of romantic Khmer singer Ros Sereysothea, a hum in the background of political discussions among the country’s well-heeled. A time when Kep was known as the Saint Tropez of the Far East. Catherine Deneuve came here once – the Parisian actress one of a flock of Khmer and French high-rollers who whiled weekends away in the town in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Now restored to a lavish six-room boutique hotel, Villa Romonea, originally built in 1969, is a grand structure: a wonderful juxtaposition of zig-zagging lines and curvaceous walls, atriums and windowsills. More than 150 such villas stand in its vicinity, many – peeling modernist and art deco villas peeking out of the jungle – stand deserted and scheduled for demolition.
Although several of the town’s villas have been restored and many turned into chic boutique hotels – locals are increasingly worried that the architecture of Kep’s opulent past, adored by design devotees and artists alike, will soon disappear and are calling for greater heritage protection and development management of Kep.
“Kep-sur-mer,” the French christened the town in the 1920s, and the area soon proliferated with colonial mansions and wide tennis courts.
And yet the late King Father Sihanouk, after gaining independence from the French in 1953, was vociferous in maintaining Kep as the place to be seen, and whipped up the country’s most revered Le Corbusier influenced architects - spearheaded by the revered Vann Molyvann and including Lu Ban Hap, Chhim Sun Fong, Seng Sutheng and Mam Sophana - to design some remarkable structures.
He built his own summer villa in 1964, teetering on the crest of a hill, with resplendent vistas of rocky shores and the shimmering turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand, a villa that despite never being occupied still stands today.
“These were all villas with very modern, simply stunning architecture. You couldn’t fault it,” says Stephane Arrii, Villa Romonea’s property manager, as we sit by the villa’s vast infinity pool overlooking the property’s own rice field and private pebbled beach. His was the very last villa to be built before Sihanouk was overthrown in the coup d’etat of 1970 and the advance of the Khmer Rouge.
“Now let me tell you, the story if this villa is very special,” he says in a low voice.
Madame Nhiem, the beautiful wealthy wife of one of Cambodia’s most successful pharmacists in the ‘60s, and a good friend of architect Lu Ban Hap, spent her childhood holidays across the road from Villa Romonea.
When she got married and had children, she came to live in Kep. “That family had the perfect understanding of Kep – the sunrises, the winds, the sunsets, the rain and the energy… all the specific things that make Kep special,” Arrii says.
Over the years Nhiem persuaded her friend Lu Ban Hap to build her dream house, something she had pined for since she was a little child. He agreed to draw the villa for her in 1968, and it was designed in the shape of a dragon, with a view of the ocean and Phu Quoc island.
“In 1968 it was already a mess (in Kep), there was US bombing, there were Viet Cong here, but she was obsessed with her dream house…not so many people were building in Kep at that time, there were many Khmer Rouge around too,” says Arrii.
The villa was finished just eight months before the coup d’etat, and by 1972 most people living in Kep had fled the city, alarmed by the danger enveloping them.
“The house was abandoned in 1972 – I know the kids of the family were sent to France, but the couple, they were too powerful and too believing in their country, they were not prepared to leave. They were killed (under the Khmer Rouge),” he says.
Romonea survived the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime relatively intact.
It was one of three Kep villas used by the Khmer Rouge, as a fishery, to gut and dry and then ship off fish to China.
“Of course for four years none of the population here got any fish. The people that were working in Kep under the regime, when they tell me the story of this villa, they cry. Fish was always the lifeblood of Cambodia and they had none of it.
“For Cambodian people these houses are full of ghosts and I can understand that. You cannot blame that,” he says, adding one of the reasons the gutted, moss-covered villas are not regarded by many Khmer people as beautiful is because are tangible reminders of the country’s bloody past.
“Now, the new generation…yes they are like sponges, soaking up education and information but it’s hard to put back notions of history in one generation and of course there is now this focus on emulating China and Korea and on mass consumerism.
“So yes I am worried the old villas that remain, that most of them will be razed, gone, turned into ten-storey hotels.
Watching them shave them down is hard to watch.”
Serge Remy, the project manager at Vimana Cambodia - an organisation dedicated to the research and conservation of Khmer cultural and historical arts and architectural heritage - is passionate about preserving Kep’s colonial and modernist architecture while fostering a profitable local tourism sector.
He is organising the country’s first Kep Expo – a multimedia and architecture exhibition set to open in Phnom Penh next February, before travelling to Paris and then setting up camp more permanently in Kep.
The festival will showcase a selection of contemporary artists, photographers and filmmakers who use the Kep villas as a source of inspiration.
The town has been a hub for contemporary artists such as Thang Sothea, with his kaleidoscopic villa photographs, paintings and ‘mosaics’ and young filmmaker Prum Seila, whose abstract short film, Kep Secret, was recently screened at the Cambodian International Film Festival.
Sothea’s photographs of the vivid, marbled villa walls resemble beautiful paintings. A qualified architect, he believes it essential for the villas to remain as a document of the lives lived there.
“I think we should preserve the remains and make an effort to restore them as much as we can… it reminds us about the futuristic architecture of the past. This architecture style should be passed down to the future generation of young Cambodians to inspire their creativity.”
Kep Secret features the story of children of the new inhabitants of the abandoned villas and the crackling airwaves of a radio broadcast from the 1970s: Sin Sisamouth’s tune about his vacation to Kep.
“The film is inspired by the abandoned feeling I encountered when I am in Kep,” Seila says.
“I felt that once it was a place for Cambodian composers like Sin Sisamouth to come and compose great songs people still listen to today. A place where grand films in the 60s were made. I loved using old archives.”
“I’m worried about the future of architecture here. I think the buildings in Cambodia are becoming very familiar to each other they have no more styles and uniqueness for their region anymore,” he adds.
Kep Expo aims to collate an extensive catalogue of accounts and experiences of Kep pre-Khmer Rouge to encourage its historical preservation. The Royal University of Fine Arts, the High School of Architecture Paris Belleville, Bophana Audiovisual Centre and the Cambodia Film Commission are all involved in the event.
The most recent survey by students at the Faculty of Architecture counted 157 abandoned villas built between 1953 and 1975 (in 1997 around 200 existed), many with local inhabitants paid by property owners to “guard” the properties before being demolished for development, according to organiser Remy.
He says that a series of debates and workshops at the festivals- photographic, architectural, cinematic and archival ones- will “propose scenarios for future urban development and heritage.”
“Young people are becoming educated and are admiring historical artefacts and buildings,” he says.
He says local government are on board, as is UNESCO (representative Bun Hok says there were no specific Kep projects currently but that the body would work next year with NGOs and the ministry of culture in an inventory of the villas and bring our architecture ‘trainers’ from France) but that the real barrier was a Khmer mindset that the old was ugly and unprofitable.
“For many Khmer people, to restore or renovate (the villas) is out of the question – aesthetic choices are not the same as in the sixties, also they represent the former powerful bourgeoisie. Land in Kep is so valuable and the houses are worth nothing compared to the land.”
The Cambodian criteria for belle is now firmly rooted in China, Singapore and Korea: the shiny, colossal and new, he says.
“It’s important we look at heritage in 2013 – it will mark the 60th anniversary of the Kingdom’s return to independence and will start with the King Father’s cremation on February 4.”
A short saunter away from Villa Romonea, sits Knai Bang Chatt, a set of three restored Miami-style modernist houses converted into 11 guest rooms overlooking manicured lawns and a tranquil glassy pool.
Owner Jeff Moons opened the resort in 2006 and is afraid that one of the only abandoned villas that will remain will be Sihaouk’s cliffside mansion – “it’s a tourist attraction now, as are many of the old villas, they look like old Angkorian ruins, don’t they, with the vines and tree roots.
“It’s all about destroying and rebuilding, unfortunately; we’re one of the few that respects the original architecture. Look at what they have done to the Bokor Casino – what they call restoring is blasting and rendering, completely destroyed… it’s prime real estate.”
Like Arrii, he attributes the attitude of the new generation to a desire to erase the painful past.
“(After the Khmer Rouge) what was important was to forget the past. Live for today. Feel your stomach, it’s full, we’re happy. Then 1997, elections, change. The (older generation) will destroy everything from the past. I can understand that – the past for them was not so beautiful. Why should I care for the past, all of my family were killed, don’t come in with your western ideas to keep the past, I don’t want it.
“I don’t think it’s ever too late though, the younger generation are getting educations and they don’t live this painful past. They want to travel, dream, be creative – those people know history is important, that history always repeats and that the future is built on historical events.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]
Follow her on twitter at: @ClaireKnox18