Kep is a sleepy, seaside town in the south of Cambodia, about 30 minutes away from the Vietnamese border. While many come to Kep solely for the world-famous crab sold at the markets, there are actually plenty of activities in this small pocket of paradise to keep you entertained for quite a few days. So, don’t make Kep a day trip. Get yourself a nice little room at the Boat House and take your time to explore this coastal settlement using our list of 5 things to do in Kep, Cambodia.
1) Crab Market
We had to mention this one because it is what Kep is most known for; fresh, succulent crabs cooked in the famous Cambodian Kampot pepper.
As you head into Kep itself from Kampot, the bumpy, potholed road transforms into two lanes of smooth, clean bitumen. A pleasant surprise after having your insides rattled around for 30 minutes straight.
A beautiful roundabout with a Visnu statue beckons you into the quiet township. You turn right and pass by some luxury hotels with facades fit for a Hollywood movie star.
And suddenly it’s in front of you. You’re at the edge of the sea. At the much raved about Kep Crab Market. The first few rows are filled with clothes stalls and women selling trinkets made from shells and plastic. As you near the water’s edge, you begin to hear the cries of the Khmer fishermen and woman, reeling in pots of craps or prawns, ready to be cooked fresh for visiting tourists.
The water is clear and shallow and littered with plastic water bottles and wrappers. As you make your way horizontally down this row, you pass by tens of miniature kitchens, each frying, boiling and steaming an array of freshly-caught seafood. The salesmen know why you’re there and will offer you their delicious produce at every step.
This seafood fiesta continues for about 20 meters until you reach the end of the market. Yes, it’s small. But size here is no indication of quality. Grab yourself a Mud Crab (about $12/kilo) or a small Blue Swimmer* (about $9/kilo depending on the size). Pay an extra $2 to have your meal prepared with some fresh green Kampot pepper, take a seat at a local café with a fresh coconut to drink ($1) and let your taste buds rejoice!
If lunch at the market doesn’t really appeal to you, then you can still enjoy this local delicacy at one of the many restaurants that line this part of Kep’s coastline. They begin directly after the market and continue for about 100 meters.
*Unfortunately, the larger Blue Swimmers have already been fished out of these waters almost completely.
2) White Lady and Kep Beach at Sunset
From the local crab market, you can continue walking around the small peninsula along the road that will lead you directly to Kep Beach. The walk is pleasant – sea to your right and forest to your left. Apart from the crab market and Kep Beach, the rest of the town does not really have any infrastructure and is mostly forest and beach.
This part of the town is really popular for picnics and seaside lunches and local families and tourists from the capital often weekend in this spot. Their food scraps attract the monkeys from the local national park and they come down to rummage through the rubbish bins and have their own picnic.
Keep walking, giving the wild creatures their space, and you will soon find yourself before Kep Beach; a long stretch of golden sand, children frolicking in the small waves and hundreds of families perched on the footpath with deck chairs, food and Angkor beers galore. It seems that you can actually ‘rent’ a piece of the footpath to use as a picnic spot and you will be provided with the mats and deckchairs. Just bring your own grub and alcohol.
This spot has a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere about it. Games of soccer are often played on the sand and anyone can feel free to join in. You don’t need to know Khmer, you just need a sense of humour.
Further along the beach you will find a concrete jetty and at the end of this very jetty stands the beautiful White Lady (Lok Yeay Mao). She sits with one leg tucked under herself on a rocky seat, completely bare, one arm resting on her tight, one gently clutching her neck. She looks out to sea wistfully and is said to be the protector of travelers and fishermen.
From this very point you can witness the magic of a Kep sunset. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so instead of rambling on about it, we’ll just leave this picture here for you.
3) Kep National Park
As we mentioned earlier, most of the land surrounding Kep is forest, or, more accurately, jungle. A short walk from Kep Beach, up behind the Veranda Natural Resort, and you will find yourself at the beginning of an 8km track that goes right around a small mountain that is part of Kep National Park.
The track is very well maintained, with signposts every 100m and detailed information and maps available at Led Zep café near the start of the walk. The main path itself is great and offers some great vistas of the town, beaches and islands such as Phu Quoc below. What’s more, there are a bunch of sidetracks that lead to various places of interest including pagodas, nunneries and Sunset Rock – the name says it all.
This is real jungle and while there is one ranger who charges you around 4,000 Riel to enter the park, this might be the last person you see while doing the circuit so make sure you take plenty of water, snacks and sunscreen with you.
The jungle is full of wild animals. We managed to spot monkeys (a whole tribe who were throwing fruit around before they noticed us), centipedes, dragonflies, lizards, birds, squirrels and frogs.
The main path is not difficult, mostly flat and takes about 2 hours to complete fully. If you take any of the sidetracks, you will spend longer there. It can also be done on motorbike but that’s nowhere near as fun! Most of the tracks are shaded, but it’s best to take a hat with you as the Cambodian sun is unforgiving, even if you’re exposed to it for only a couple of minutes.
Do remember that, depending on which sidetracks you take, the path does not end where it begins and you will exit the jungle near the big crab statue. From here you can either walk back to your hotel or catch a tuk-tuk.
This is a really great experience. It’s not overly touristy, there are fantastic views and you get a small taste of the Cambodian jungle. All for about $1. It is definitely worth doing.
4) Ghost Town
Apparently, Kep wasn’t always the laid-back, ambient locality that it is today with dilapidated buildings and wide, empty roads. Rumour has it that it used to be one of the most cosmopolitan spots of SEA, built by the French during their occupation, it was the place to be for Cambodia’s elite and international stars during the 50s and 60s. It was a place of decadence, debauchery and affluence.
Understandably, this all changed under the Khmer Rouge and all forms of wealth, privilege and modernity were destroyed, leaving the town deserted, a shell of its former self. The elite fled the town and their villas were abandoned, subject to vandalism and decay.
Although Vietnamese forces officially freed Kep in 1979, there is evidence that the Khmer Rouge remained in the area until as late as 1998, which goes some way in explaining why these buildings, once prime examples of New Khmer Architecture (a mixture of Modernism and traditional Khmer), still stand abandoned and run-down.
You can ask a local tuk-tuk driver to take you on a tour of these derelict villas as some of them are hard to find. You can also go by foot from Kep Beach and see where the road takes you.
A lot of Kep seems to be being slowly consumed by the surrounding jungle and walking through streets and past buildings that once held so much importance for the country is a little eerie, to say the least. Nonetheless, it’s a must-do if you’re in this part of Cambodia!
5) Local Fish And Hammock
After all that exploring, it’s now time to relax! Hang up your hiking shoes, grab a wooden-gazebo with a hammock and rock the afternoon away beside the sea. These structures can be found all along the shore from Kep Beach right up to the Ghost Town. Normally, there is a middle-aged lady sitting nearby in a deckchair and she is most probably the manager and/or owner of said gazebos. If you don’t speak Khmer, use google translate on your phone to enquire about prices.
You can lie on your hammock inside the gazebo, Angkor beer in hand, and watch the waves rolling in at sunset. Delightful!