From my diary on day three of my stay in Kep:
The most difficult thing about Kep is that I’m having a hard time figuring out which buildings are restaurants and which just have outdoor seating and their inhabitants preparing for dinner. Eastern Kep is a garden village: the houses spread for kilometers, in-between there are orchards or empty spaces. When I do find a restaurant, I never know whether they’re about to open or to shut. Once, I thought I’d ordered fried rice (the only dish on the menu) just to be asked – after thirty minutes of patiently waiting – by the owner’s daughter who had just returned from her English lesson when I would leave. I first thought I’d misunderstood the question. But it turned out I’d misunderstood the mother’s understanding of my order. Fortunately, the misunderstanding was resolved, and within ten minutes and under many apologies, I received a generous serving of fried rice.
As a slow traveler, the question of where my next (cheap local) meal comes from is often the most important exploration-related decision of the day. But Kep is not just a stop for a few leisurely days by the Cambodian coast. Even though it is much quieter than Kampot and Sihanoukville to the West, it also has many sights and activities to offer the more active traveler.
These days, much of the residential Kep village has moved away from the coast to Highway 33. But as a visitor, you’ll be much more interested in what I call Coastal Kep, the former French resort, and today’s beach vacation destination.
Eastern Kep, the old French town with a grid-pattern of streets, and large properties with mansions that mainly lie in ruin is a bit of a hippie haven. You don’t see many foreign tourists here. But the ones you see mostly wear dreads and those baggy pants you can buy in Goa.
Western Kep, with the Crab Market, has dozens of hotels and lodges sprawling from the oversized main road into the mountain that is Kep National Park.
Please note that only a few of the properties on either side are actually at the beach/the sea.
I spent the first week of my stay at the Rusty Keyhole Kep all the way on the eastern side. The Rusty Keyhole offers simple traditional bamboo huts for cheap-cheap $8 per night. It’s quiet and chilled; there is a small restaurant on site. To me, it was a bit too far from the local street food and many sights.
So I moved to the West side of Kep to the Tree Top Bungalows. The off-season price for slightly larger and nicer bungalow was also $8. Being close to Kep National Park (see below), I also wasn’t exactly close to the local street food but the night market was a mere 10-minute stroll away, and the beach was also closer.
The southern end of Kep is one long beach. The western part of that beach offers a small lagune with very shallow water and white sand, while East of there you’ll find less sand but many bamboo cabanas that you can rent to chill for the day. Buy some food from the vendors around for a picnic or head to the restaurants near the bus station. On weekends, locals will come all the way from Phnom Penh for a relaxing day by the water.
For a more remote beach time look at Rabbit Island.
Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsai) sits right off the coast of Kep. From the pier on the eastern side of Kep, near the post office, boats leave regularly. On the island, you can just lounge in the sand, or you go for a hike on the 6 km loop trail, having a look at the small mangroves, while you’re at it. You can also spend the night in one of the bungalows on the beach (that might or might not have electricity).
The sea off Kep is the home of the Blue Crab, and that’s the main draw of the Crab Market. On the market itself, you’ll find fresh seafood – not just crabs – as well as grilled seafood and meats on skewers.
I went ahead and splurged on a kilogram of fresh crab, shared with a friend. The kilo cost us $4 between the two of us; the crabs were then whisked away to a kitchen where they were expertly cooked. Add to that rice (also on sale on the market for about $0.25) and a cold beer (buy any drink to sit down at the tables scattered throughout the market area) and voilá you’ve got yourself a delicious meal!
If this sounds too adventurous for your taste, you can also sit down in one of the many restaurants right next to the market – most of them cater to tourists, so they’ll be nice and clean but slightly more expensive (around $6 for seafood mains).
Note that the market is not open at night. So come no later than six if you want to try the fresh $4 crabs.
Extra tip: The cheapest local food in coastal Kep can be found on the East side of Kep, along the main road from the post office to the Bamboo Cafe.
Kep National Park sounds exciting, but it is mainly a mountain (or rather hill at 182 m) with a forest.
The park features an 8 km loop to hike as well as some additional paths, well-marked thanks to the passion of the guys at Led Zep Cafe at the Western entrance to the park.
Make sure you bring sturdy walking shoes, insect repellent, and enough water/snacks.
The best way to tackle the park is to enter via the path that comes up near the Veranda Resort. Don’t worry about the entrance fee: if there is nobody at the gate house a man on a motorcycle will find you and sell you the ticket for $1 or 4,000 Riel (make sure you get the actual ticket).
The main route has some smaller climbs but largely meanders about halfway up the mountain through dense forest.
Occasionally you’ll find markers offering to take you to points of interest. Note that the “Gibbon Valley” is no longer home to many gibbons but is a small resort with bungalows in a lush green valley. Follow the signs to Gibbon Valley regardless of the lack of monkeys, stop for a cold drink at the resort’s bar and then continue to the Butterfly Farm for some fairer wildlife. After passing the farm, find the small path that leads you through an orchard back up to the main loop to be guided to the ascent for Sunset Rock.
If you just want to do the Sunset Rock, let’s say, for sunset, plan about 40 minutes to walk up from near Wat Samot and don’t forget to bring a torch to help you on the way back after sunset.
Extra tip: My preferred Kep sunset spot is just South of the restaurants at Crab Market. There, you can sit on the waterfront and enjoy the food you might have just bought at the market while staring at the sun setting to your right.
Monument hunting is a bit of a fun way to go exploring the village. The monuments are spread out, so it’s best to equip yourself with a bike or a tuk-tuk.
Our guide for the La Plantation Kampot pepper tour, Mr. Somnang, was extremely knowledgeable about the history. So my recommendation is to get a guide to drive you around (you can easily combine this with a tour of the pepper farm and other sights in the area).
But if you want to go exploring on your own, here are some of my favorites: Number one is still the giant Blue Crab at the far South of Kep in the water, but there is also the White Lady (near the Crab), the Deer (on the Eastern side), the Independence Monument (in the French colonial part of town), and the White Horse up by the Highway 33 roundabout in New Kep.
Extra tip: If you are looking for Mr. Somnang you can contact the Rusty Keyhole, or you might even be able to spot him around town: When I was in Kep he was the only one with a shiny new red Indian-style tuk-tuk (everyone else has a motorcycle with attached passenger cart).
The coastal region along to the West up to Kampot and the East towards the Vietnamese border has long stretches of salt fields, which make finding beaches harder but offer picturesque destinations for photo excursions.
You can read more about my excursion to the Kampot pepper farm here. But beyond the pepper, there are cashew plantations in northern Kep as well as endless smaller fields, vegetable gardens, and fruit orchards to explore on a bike or motorcycle you rent for the day.
For all the bird spotters among you, head to the small mangroves near the Samanea Beach Resort.
Trainspotters currently won’t get their fix of actual running trains around Kep but the old French railway line is still visible in parts at the Northern end of Kep (New Kep). The Kep railway station would have been East of the White Horse Statue roundabout on Highway 33, opposite Dam Nak Chang Er Market.
Coming from Kampot, catch the minibus from the central bus station.
Coming from further away, you can also just go to Kampot and catch the minibus from there, or you book via Virak Bunthan as they – to my knowledge – are the only company selling bus tickets to Kep from anywhere in the country (you might have to change buses in Phnom Penh). I bought my ticket in Battambang: starting with a sleeping bus to Phnom Penh and then changing into a regular bus (a tuk-tuk ride across town to the second bus included).
The cheapest way would be to get on any mini bus leaving for the border from the bus station. You cross the border on foot, catch another mini bus on the Vietnamese side, and then find the transport of choice in Ha Tien, the next town about 4 km from the border. Note, that the bus station is outside downtown Ha Tien.
The easiest way is to book the transport all the way to your destination in Vietnam via your accommodation or at one of the agencies at the bus station, so you don’t have to get Vietnamese money out at the border (or pay in USD) and you don’t have to figure out the Vietnamese transport system during your first ten minutes in the country.
I paid $15 to get from the Tree Top Bungalows all the way to my hotel in Chau Doc (the journey took two mini buses and a bus over the course of 6 hours plus a handler helped us with the border procedures). You can also book the boat transfer to Phu Quoc Island or the bus to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City or even a Mekong River Cruise. Everything is handled with stunning precision to make sure you get to your destination.