As the tropical dream of a French wealthy class, pretending to be adventurous for just being a colonist, Kep-sur-mer was founded in 1908 as a resort town where once were a few fishermen huts. Kep was a daring experiment, the vanguard of a new Cambodia, to display of the avant-garde of the most modern, or modernist, country in South East Asia.
Here King Sihanouk let loose is fantasy of a great Khmer nation, guiding-light for a cultural renaissance of Indocina, in a recently independent Cambodia (1953), still de facto under the rule of a foreign nation.
New Khmer Architecture that was the name of the experiment, a meltin-pot of western modernist ideas from Bauhaus, Richard Neutra and Le Corbusier and traditional Khmer architecture. Stilted houses with impossible stairs, wide windows with bizarre geometries, wide porches and terraces.
Protagonist of this era was Vann Molyvann, Cambodian architect from Kampot who studied in France, few years before many of the Khmer Rouge leaders ironically did the same. Molyvann is undoubtedly the leading figure of New Khmer Architecture, having worked on more than 100 projects from 1953 to 1970, when he managed to escape after the Lon Nol coup and so lived through the Khmer Rouge era.
Nowdays some are unmissable, still lining the boulevard where Catherine Deneuve drove her Cadillac during les années d'or, some are hidden in the bushes and require a bit of exploration to be seen, those are the worthiest. Tropical ivy crawling the twisting staircases, awkward graffiti decorating the walls, greenish for mosses and lichens, ageless unfading rubbish scattered on the floor of wacky balconies.
Some other instead, have been occupied by poor families, buffaloes eating the wet grass, clothes hanged outside glassless windows, children playing with handmade toys. Some more had been bought by wealthy people and are undergoing restoration.
A quest to be the South East Asia's Saint Tropez, godspeed.
A trip to Kep is a dip in Cambodian history, in the tragedy of his fallen grandeur, the tale of a bright future that never came true.
Kep is 20km east of Kampot, on the coast, very close to the Vietnamese border.
If you wish to know more about our bicycle trip in Cambodia, check this series of articles
For hints about traveling in Cambodia, see our guide to travel Cambodia on a budget