Kep is thick with the ghosts of Cambodia’s past. During the height of French rule over Indochina, Kep was known as the Cote D’Opal. It was the place to be and all of the Cambodian aristocrats kept villas there. When the Khmer Rouge swept across the country in the mid-70’s, Kep was not spared.
Given the aristocratic backgrounds of most of the homeowners in Kep, the vast majority met a grisly end. The previous owners of the Villa Romonea were dragged away by Khmer Rouge cadres and never heard from again. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine the horrors they were subjected to.
During the Khmer Rouge era, the villa fell into disrepair and was used as a fish storage warehouse. As the Khmer Rouge were gradually swept out of Cambodia, the house was forgotten. Like so many other ghost villas in Kep, it could have just faded back into the seaside greenery, had it not been for new owners who saw the house’s potential. They restored the villa to its original splendor and opened it as a hotel.
Our trek to Kep began at the River 108 in Phnom Penh. The desk had arranged a driver for us. He picked us up in a tricked out mid-size American sedan of late 80’s or early 90’s vintage. As this was E’s first visit to Cambodia, I told him we had to stop at the Killing Fields before heading to the coast.
On the way there our driver was blasting American hits. He turned back to me during a Michael Jackson song and asked
“You know this?”
As it was Michael Jackson, I nodded and told him of course I did. He smiled and replied
“Michael ve’ey good”
Despite having already been to the Killing Fields in 2009, it was very powerful and moving, even knowing what to expect in advance.
From Cheong Ek, it was roughly three hours by car to Kep. The road was very good for most of the way and we sped along as the city peeled away and the road gave itself over to the bucolic Cambodian countryside. Looking out over the fields and paddies, I pictured myself hunkered down with my platoon behind a bush in the late 60’s.
The paved road turned to red clay as we neared the immediate orbit of Kep and it became apparent that Kep is indeed a very small town. Our driver couldn’t quite find Villa Romonea, but after consulting with some tuk-tuk drivers, we managed to nail it.
We paid our driver who seemed very pleased with his tip and went inside.
You are truly made to feel like you are in your own home at Villa Romonea. We walked through the front door, and I told a woman staffer that I had emailed the day before. Mind you no money had changed hands, no credit card imprints, no passport scans. She said “of course” and showed us to a room on the first floor with two beds. It was not the nicest room i’ve ever been in, and in fact was more like a Freshman year door room than anything else. Two twin beds, a metal locker for clothing and a bathroom. The charm of the Villa Romonea lies in the fact that you never spend time in your room other than to sleep, because you can treat the entire villa and the grounds as your own (very nice pool and lawn down to the ocean).
Kep is famous for crab, especially crab served with a pepper sauce made from the nearby Kampot pepper. I wanted to grab some of the hotel bikes and head to the crab market, but E informed me that he did not know how to ride a bike, something that absolutely blew my mind, so we opted to walk. Out the driveway of the Villa Romonea, to the right, just past the amusingly named Kep Rock Cafe (yes I bought a T-Shirt, no it isn’t lively at night and yes I think all the bartenders are prostitutes waiting for johns). and then another right at the intersection brings you to the water.
The “crab market” is nothing more than an open air trading post with a thatched roof. Nearby there are wooden bars and restaurants leaning out into the ocean where you can order off the menu or bring crab from the market to be prepared. It doesn’t really matter as it’s all freshly caught daily, either on or off the menu.
Food regularly gets an outsized reputation once a specialty is reported on, but Kep crabs with Kampot pepper sauce are truly outstanding, and worth the drive down from Phnom Penh to try.
The only problem with Kep is that outside of eating crab, doing a tour of the pepper plantations in Kampot or lazing around by the pool, there isn’t much to do. There’s no beach to speak of as the ocean runs up to the seawall in most places and nightlife is non-existent.
The manager of the Villa Romonea explained to me that the people of Kep want it that way. Stephan has been in Cambodia since the 90’s. He came to Kep before there was electricity. He and the other locals in Kep have seen what happened in nearby places like Sihanoukville. They don’t want Kep to become another ghetto filled with low-rent backpackers doing drugs and scummy sexpats looking for hookers. Stephen has seen electricity come to the town and the number of guest houses rise exponentially. When he talks about the future, you can hear the fear in his voice. Deep down, he knows that he can’t stop the wave that is coming. Maybe he can slow it, but eventually enough people will read about Kep in Lonely Planet, it will be in all the travel magazines, an article about Kep ran in the NY Times just the week before my arrival, he knows his paradise will be overrun. He tells me he has already started looking into opening a new hotel on an island that as of yet has no electricity.
The Villa has sporadic power in the evenings and there is little to do but lie in bed, drink beers and listen to the surf crash outside. It’s a simple and peaceful existence, but two nights with the ghosts was enough for me. I am from the city, I need to be entertained.
Villa Romonea Report Card
Pros: Nice location, great staff, awesome pool, meals provided or they will order and pick up/deliver for you, treat the house as if it is your own, full bar in the kitchen
Cons: Nothing to do after dark, small rooms without much in the way of creature comforts
Verdict: I am not sure I will be in a rush to return to Kep as the pace of life there is very slow, too slow for my tastes. However, if I found myself there, I would certainly return to Villa Romonea, as I had a very pleasant experience.