Kep: Can The Cambodian ‘St-Tropez’ Be Resurrected?

Every week-end, Phnom Penh’s golden youth jumped into their glitzy cars. Their destination: Kep, along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, a seaside resort located some 160 km away from the capital. The drive was fast—just two hours on average—quickly bringing this party crowd to enjoy the beaches of the seaside resort with all kind of entertainments, From barbecues toseafood dining, water skiing and clubbing. The fame of Kep was international. Jacqueline Kennedy, Catherine Deneuve and, of course, the Cambodian Royal Family were spotted at this resort retreat. “Cambodian Upper Class came almost every week end there. Youngsters danced the cha-cha-cha and the twist. It was Kep golden days, a time of relative airiness”, describes Serge Rémy, a French native who works as a consultant with UNESCO on various urban heritage preservation projects.

But… that was all 50 years ago. Kep epitomizes in many ways the turbulent history of modern Cambodia. French colonizers created the resort, originally called Kep-sur-Mer, and it was built essentially as an exclusive destination for the French living in the protectorate. The small town would remain a French retreat until Cambodian independence. Its fate changed and fame arrived.

“Following the independence in 1953, Prince Norodom Sihanouk had then the vision to turn the resort into the Saint Tropez of Indochina, a piece of French Riviera in Southeast Asia”, points out Rémy who, a few years ago, organized Kep Expo, an exhibition and seminar dedicated to the seaside resort. From royals to jetsetters—Kep was Cambodia’s version of La Dolce Vita.

Eventually wealthy Cambodians built villas inspired by the principles of Le Corbusier. “We believe that in its height days, Kep had some 200 villas built in what was called the ‘New Khmer’ architectural style, with leading architects being inspired architects such as Vann Molyvann, Lu Ban Hap, and Chhim Sun Fong. Often inspired by international style houses built in Europe in the fifties, these villas had their own distinctive character with clear minimalist lines infused by Khmer stylized motives and details”, Rémy explains.

Unfortunately the war in neighbouring Vietnam, coupled with the Khmer rouge regime, put a definitive end to the dream of turning Kep into a Cambodian version of St Tropez. The resort city was emptied of its inhabitants, while the jungle slowly took possession of the villas, invading walls and roofs. “Basically, the Khmer Rouge did not really destroy Kep. They just turned it into a ghost town as it was the symbol of a decadent Cambodia”, says Rémy. The seaside resort stood abandoned over 15 years, until the mid-nineties.

“They are probably three dozens of villas which are still visible from the golden era of Kep, many of them however are now in a sorry state or in utter ruins. It is a civic duty to preserve this heritage, as it is part of the development of Cambodia. Not so many young people these days know that in the early sixties Cambodia was among the most modern and developed countries in the region”, Rémy adds.

TheKep Expo project was meant to highlight to a larger public the history of Kep, and to raise awareness about Sihanouk’s architectural legacy but also a way to look at plans to renovate and use again some of the abandoned villas. The project got the support of more than 60 volunteers, including Cambodian and French students.

While some villas are now in a state of despair, some others are still worth preserving, such as the former mansion of Queen Kossamak, the Mother of King Sihanouk, who built a villa in art deco style in the early 1930s. There’s also the “Cha Cha Cha Villa”, an abandoned house with its structure fully preserved and covered by art murals, and the King Sihanouk villa on a hill overlooking the resort. It is, however, closed to the public for now.

A few villas have already been lovingly renovated and turned into exclusive exquisite hotels. This is the case for the Knai Bang Chatt Resort, a series of three villas once owned by high ranking generals. They have been exquisitely restored and are now a peaceful heaven for luxury travellers. Also spectacular is the Villa Romonea, built by Cambodian star architect Lu Ban Hap in the late sixties. The house was designed like a dragon, following perfect feng-shui principles.

“We still have today architects coming here to study the volume of the house”, says Stéphane Arrii, property manager of Villa Romonea. The house has been restored to perfection. The gentle curves of the stairs are now underlined by balustrades, in a corner stands a guitar—evoking a painting by Magritte—while 1960s style furniture and tiles have been integrated into the rooms. The villa is Kep’s ultimate luxury hotel, with only six rooms which are generally all rented out at once by small groups.

So far, Kep is attracting few holiday makers, and they are mostly backpackers. According to data from the Ministry of Tourism, in 2015 the province welcomed close to 480,000 travellers—51,000 of them being foreigners. Kep’s unique heritage is an opportunity to turn the city into an exclusive destination, far from the mass tourism experienced in Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, or Pattaya. The architectural legacy, the history behind each house, is an unique opportunity to seize. Many villas could be turned into luxury boutique resort hotels, drawing their inspiration from the Art Deco district in Miami Beach for example. Then, Sihanouk’s dream of a Cambodian ‘St Tropez’ might not be that far away after all.

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