23 January 2013

Kep: crab capital of Cambodia


The drive from Phnom Penh to Kep takes about 3 hours and was particularly pleasant in the air-conditioned comfort of a nice car, luckily with a very good driver as the roads can be hazardous. The secret to driving here appears to involve never hesitating while always keeping a keen eye on everything else on the road, including dogs and cows, people and bicycles, motorbikes and tuk tuks, cars, trucks and buses.

As with the road down from Siem Reap, the countryside outside of Phnom Penh was mostly flat but as we got closer to the coast there were hills, some quite rugged, and in Kep our hotel, the Beach House, was built on a hillside overlooking the beach and the waters of the Gulf of Thailand.


A statue of a woman looking out to see for her fisherman husband
at the end of the main beach at Kep
After dumping our bags, we headed straight across the road to the beach for a paddle as the boys had never been to the seaside before and, bearing in mind they are 17 and 24 years old, were incredibly excited – their wide white grins were a joy to see. The sea was incredibly warm, almost as hot as the humid tropical air.


Kep is particularly famous for its delicious crabs and, just as other places have huge statues of their typical food product (Ohakune has its carrot and Woombye its big pineapple), so Kep has its large statue of a crab – a male crab I am reliably told – something to do with the width of the central plate on its tummy!

Later that first afternoon we walked the 3 kilometres around the bays to the crab market. A small troop of monkeys were feeding and frolicking in the trees above one of the old abandoned houses that litter the coast around Kep. According to our guide book, Kep was founded in 1908 as a beach resort for French colonials and thrived for 60-odd years as their favourite holiday destination. But then the French abandoned their luxurious villas after independence and many still stand, empty crumbling shells of once magnificent buildings.


Both the sunset, which we enjoyed at the one of the restaurants near the crab market, and the crabs we ate later were superb, as were all the other types of fresh seafood we savoured in Kep – prawns, shrimps, fish, squid and octopus. Seafood is my absolute favourite food so I was in heaven, except for one meal. Be warned, “deep-fried prawns in powder” is actually battered deep-fried prawns, with more batter than prawn and nothing else to accompany this rather disappointing dish.

Kep is quite spread out so the following morning’s walk took us a few kilometres in the opposite direction to the market, to the pier where the boats to Rabbit Island depart. We booked for the following morning and spent the rest of the day relaxing, the boys and Marianne swimming in the sea and the hotel pool, me sitting on a chair overlooking the bay, sometimes writing, sometimes just enjoying the view. Another evening, another sunset, more beers and succulent seafood! 

We woke to the sound of rain, which became almost torrential as the morning progressed. But the locals assured us it would clear by lunch time and it did allow some time to catch up on blogs and emails and writing. We also made a new, bright green friend, which turned out to be a coconut locust that looked like a leaf – its method of protection from predators, I assume.

The locals were right about the weather, so we tuk-tukked round to catch our boat around 11am. There we encountered a problem: we had paid for a private boat so we could come and go when we pleased but our boatman tried to rip us off by bringing a parcel of locals and 2 German backpackers along for the ride. No big deal, you might think, but if you don’t stand up against scams like this, the local people will continue to try them, tourists will become disgruntled and not return. So, we argued the point and eventually negotiated a refund of $10 off our initial price of $30, which means we actually got the return trip for $5 per person, cheaper than the usual $7 or $8 per person price.

It was a slow pleasant chug out to Rabbit Island in one of the wooden longboats the locals normally use for fishing. I’m not sure why the island is so-named as there were no rabbits and it wasn't shaped like one either; there was just a line of small wooden huts roofed with palm fronds and a sprinkle of shack-type restaurants designed for those tourists seeking a desert island experience. Everything was fairly basic and the island might well resemble paradise except for all the rubbish everywhere.


The island is relatively small, just 6 kilometres around and there’s supposed to be a track circling the island. But it is very overgrown and, in places, difficult to negotiate, so we only managed to visit 3 bays before the path petered out. To continue we would have had to clamber over jagged rocks or risk severe scratching by forcing our way through the sometime spiky undergrowth so we did neither. It was still a nice walk, watching crabs scuttle along the sand, collecting shells, and paddling in the warm water. The locals who don’t earn their living catering to the tourists are fishermen and we passed a tiny village of 4 or 5 scraggy huts where the men were repairing their nets, chickens ran squawking about and shy children peeked at us through hut windows.

It was nice to see the island while it was still relatively unspoilt as I imagine a return visit in 5 years’ time might find a concrete-block resort building dominating the beach front, though I fervently hope that won’t happen.

A woman checks the crab pots

We enjoyed another magnificent sunset – I took 55 photos in just one hour! – and salivated over more delicious seafood, and that is certainly how I will remember Kep, for its fresh succulent crabs and the stunning colours of its sky as the sun went down.

Locals swim as the sun sets over Kep beach