Kep: Cambodia’s Apocalyptic Town by the Sea

The Lonely Planet entry on the Cambodian seaside town of Kep was short, promising an unusual combination of crab and a post-apocalyptic vibe.

I was already sold on the shellfish, but drawn more by the latter. I’m fascinated by the post-apocalyptic, and I wondered what an end-of-days ambiance in Cambodia might be like.

Post-apocalypticism is a rather American preoccupation: we’re the country of tech giants, politicians, and other evangelists who cry out about collapse and peddle their promises of salvation; preppers with underground bunkers who won’t go down without a firestorm; and a boatload of Hollywood movies featuring skeletal skylines, survivors deranged by hunger, and new beginnings for those who prove to be pure of heart.

American storytelling about the apocalypse is largely an expression of anxiety about the future. Cambodia is another story: in a sense, the entire country is post-apocalyptic. Everyone over the age of 45 is a survivor of the apocalyptic agrarian peasant revolution visited on the country by the Khmer Rouge from 1975–1979. Even in the twentieth century, a century of sweeping human tragedy, there are few tragedies on the scale of Cambodia’s. I wondered what this post-apocalyptic town by the sea might have to tell about this history – and the country’s recovery.

I had no idea what to expect as we rode into Kep, but a feeling of anticipation had settled in my stomach. It was that feeling of being in for something, the kind of feeling that curdles – or dissolves – depending on what way things go.

The drive from Kampot had been uneventful, filled with the familiar sights of country life in Southeast Asia: kids in uniforms walking home from school, women cooking over open fires, and men navigating scooters overloaded with handwoven baskets and chicken crates. Stretching out towards the horizon, the farmland was as flat as the sea.

The desolate salt flats in the countryside outside of Kep.

As we turned onto the road into Kep, the dusty thoroughfare merged into a wide boulevard, with roundabouts, decorative sculptures, and landscaped medians. It was suddenly, and strangely, European. The grounds were well tended, but there was no sign of anyone.

Aside from our tuk-tuk, there was no traffic on the street going either into or out of town. It felt like the town had been shuttered for the off-season, but we were arriving at the height of the high season. I scanned the road, searching for a sign of movement. The emptiness was conspicuous. Like there were actually people here, and we were being watched.

We asked our driver to drop us off at the beach in the center of town, where we’d read there were a few decent mid-range hotels. This was the first time we’d seen the sea in Cambodia. We stood with our backpacks slung on our shoulders, looking out onto the ocean as the clouds advanced quickly into the bay from the mainland, squaring off the sky with a low-lying ceiling. The humidity seemed to grow more stifling as the clouds curtained off the sun.

The Kep beach.

An empty beach in a tropical paradise is a rarity. It’s the goal of traveling to places like this. But here, it didn’t feel like a triumph. More like a sign, maybe a warning. The silence had a mass to it, muffling even the squawking of the monkeys defending their place in the trees.

The friendly monkeys of Kep beach.

We checked into a modest, three-story white stucco hotel directly across from the beach. The lobby and the pool were empty, the balconies were empty, and the Internet didn’t really work, adding to the growing sense of being cut off from the world here on this small corner of the Cambodian coast.

After setting out bags down in the room, we headed down through the lobby to see about renting a scooter to get a lay of the land.

The lanky, impressively tan Dutch manager caught us in the lobby and suggested we stop by the restaurant for a coffee before heading out for the day. He seemed relieved to have guests to break the silence.

We agreed that we could use a coffee after our journey, and took a table overlooking the empty beach. We were sipping our drinks when he pulled up a chair, conversation pouring out of him as if he were a sailor who’d just come ashore after months at sea.

The eager conversation, partially in German, partially in English, meandered from the impending inauguration of Trump to what Dutch people think of the Germans. After learning we ran a business in Germany, he told us why we should try to avoid doing business with the Dutch, and explained how he had come to be marooned in Cambodia for the better part of a decade. It was one of those effusive conversations that happens on trips like these, when you meet people who hunger to be heard after having been living far from home for so long.

Time was pressing on, and I gently navigated to the topic to what we should try to see in Kep. He shrugged, not telling us much more than the Lonely Planet blurb had. “The crab market and the abandoned French villas, these are really the only two things to do in Kep,” he said.

“How many villas are we talking about here?” I asked.

“Oh, dozens at least. Well over a hundred, I think. Who knows. They were built by the French, and when the French colonists got kicked out, the new Cambodian elite moved in. Then the Khmer Rouge came and killed off all the elites. Now, they’re mostly abandoned, except for a few squatters. But don’t worry about them, they’re used to people poking around the ruins.”

“Is it safe to go walking around the villas? What about UXO?” I asked. This is an acronym everyone who travels through Laos and Cambodia learns about, where unexploded bombs still haunt the landscape in rural communities. Because of this unfortunate reality, tour books warn not to deviate from marked paths, especially in rural areas.

“Yea, that’s no problem here. Just don’t go traipsing through the deep jungle. The villas are safe, just a little creepy is all.”

With that intriguing preface to Kep, we rented a scooter and headed out, following the road west to the crab market. We thought should start there, at Kep’s first attraction, since it was morning, and there’d still be a lot going on before the midday heat arrived.

The crab market of Kep.

The crab market began at the docks, and where the waves were sloshing noisily as the fishermen heaved their loads onto shore. The contents of their bamboo traps, shells clattering, were then dumped unceremoniously into plastic buckets, which were whisked away to be sold at the adjacent market. Out of the water, the crabs writhed like insects plucked of their wings.

Markets like these are a fixture of life in Southeast Asia. Messy and noisy and hurried, buyers and sellers were negotiating vigorously over their purchases, and fragrant scents were competing with unsavory odors, while plastic flip flops were squeaking across the wet pathways through tables heaped with vegetables freshly shorn from their stalk, hunks of meat, sacks of rice.

Having eaten our fill of crab and tasted the fresh peppercorns for which the region is famous, we decided to set back out towards town to see the second thing Kep is famous for.

All of this happy commotion at the market had almost made me forget the strange, empty quiet we’d just encountered, but as soon as we rounded the corner, heading back along the coast towards the center of town, the conspicuous emptiness was back.

Driving along the wide, empty streets towards the center of town, the grand boulevards and promenades dwarfed our small motorbike, lording over our shadows already shortened in the midday light. The roads had clearly once been set up to accommodate a large city, not a small town.

The ageing infrastructure felt oversized and oppressive, but it didn’t seem like it had been made that way on purpose. Something was definitely off here: the scale. The town just felt too big for what it was. With its grand scale and decorative elements, it must have been built during a more manicured, optimistic time, to accommodate the happy traffic of a booming resort town. Better times that were, in any case, long gone.

Maybe what I was picking up on wasn’t emptiness so much as the chilling feeling of having been emptied out.

At another roundabout not far past our hotel, we turned up from the main road along the sea towards an elegant maroon monument. Like a temple, but more monumental, a kind of Cambodian take on the Arc de Triomphe. The towering edifice, with its intricately carved façades, stood at odds with the dirt roads and dense jungle. Its monumentalism attested to a departed grandeur.

A Cambodian take on the Arc de Triomphe in Kep’s neighborhood of abandoned mid-century French villas.

Squinting through the foliage, looking to spot the first ruins, I spotted a grey break in the monotony of the green. We padded through the brush, carefully avoiding roots and trash in our sandalled feet. At the clearing stood the concrete skeleton of a home, with a giant centipede spray-painted onto the wall and a staircase leading to a second floor that was now the rooftop. I tested out the stairs with the tip of my toe, and the crumbly stone turned me around. I could imagine the furnishings, the plants pruned back, and the cool breeze floating up from the ocean and in through the big windows.

This overgrown home was peaceful, like a cemetery so old that no one is alive anymore to tend to the memory of the dead.

The overgrown jungle, Kep.

The ruins here are anything but ancient, but houses don’t last long once they’re abandoned, especially in wet, humid climates like this. The jungle grows relentlessly, worming its way in through any opening. Storms had long ago done away with the roofs and windows. With no one to maintain the homes, moss and mold and rot, vines and leaves moved in. Only the tile, bleached by the sun and rain, was hardy enough to withstand the elements.

Tile is one of the only elements that remains relatively intact in the abandoned villas.

The second home we visited on what was becoming a strange real estate tour had held on better than the first. The lawn was closely shorn, and the walls of the first floor were intact. The clean lines, modern shapes, and big windows still conveyed that characteristic optimism of midcentury architecture. It must have been a fashionable home for fashionable people.

One of the more intact abandoned midcentury villas in Kep.

Now, though, the midcentury optimism reads as tragically naive. We had learned at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh that when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, most foreigners had already fled. Anyone who had once lived in homes like these – the French colonists, Cambodian intellectuals, government officials, businesspeople – were declared enemies of the state. For the Khmer Rouge, embracing a western-inflected modernism like this, or wearing glasses, or speaking a foreign language, were grounds for immediate execution.

Like the minor temples reclaimed by the jungles around Angkor Wat, walking through the space felt like a kind of trespassing, not so much on someone’s property, but on someone’s memory.

What must have been the living room of an abandoned villa in Kep.

During the war, Kep’s villas were emptied of anything of value – furniture, fixtures, piping – to be sold in neighboring Vietnam, just a few kilometers away. Once this was stripped away, the moldering homes were of little use to the locals, most of whom had never lived in these houses to begin with.

As we walked through the ruins, though, there were a few signs of people living there: plastic bags, water bottles, blankets, empty cans of food, T-shirts hung to dry. We never saw anyone, but we were in fact trespassing, and doubly so: on the former residents who locked the doors when they were forced out, and the current residents, who moved in once it became clear that the ones who had the keys were never coming back.

Though there were some unofficial residents living in these homes, there had been no real efforts to rebuild. The only beautification came from the elaborate graffiti inscribed on the grey concrete slabs.

The neighborhood does have a good deal of desirable real estate, with large tracts of land and sea view lots. I’m sure someone will come in and redevelop it someday. Maybe the Chinese (who, for now, are busy developing other parts of Cambodia).

The rooftop view from what used to be the second floor in one of Kep’s postapocalyptic midcentury French villas.

Having tiptoed through a dozen of the homes, we decided to head back to the hotel as the sky darkened towards that quick, pitch-dark nightfall of dusk near the Equator.

On the way back, the emptiness I’d felt earlier felt less unsettling. Even the abandoned villas weren’t truly abandoned, and life in Kep has continued, but mostly on its peripheries: at the crab market, along the main beach, in the farms dotting the salt flats outside of town. At the center, though, the ruins remain as an undeniable testament to that fork in the road when the trajectory of their history veered violently off course.

Though we’d seen the sights on the first day, we stayed in Kep for almost a week. There was something magnetic about that languid emptiness, and we went back to the villas nearly everyday, wandering through the empty lots, driving aimlessly down the silent streets. It was hard to move on.

While Kep has survived, the past seems to remain the town’s gravitational center. Life hasn’t moved on so much as around, orbiting the prime real estate the past continues to occupy in the present.

The ruins are the survivors of a way of life that was disappeared, and places we call post-apocalyptic, like Kep, and my hometown of Detroit, might be a physical symptom of insufficient reconciliation with a traumatic past. The Germans have a good word for this because they’ve spent the last 80 years doing it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. But in other places, it seems, this step gets skipped over – for lack of resources, to avoid reopening old wounds, for lack of a better idea.

This, I think, is how trauma works. It pries its way in to the center and spreads out from there, carving cracks into the foundation. This eventually loosens the floor and the window frames, cracking tile and glass. Then the rain comes, and saplings take root until it becomes too much for the structure to bear. Without repairs, the walls fall down.

It’s plain to see that all this will eventually have to get cleared, but the task is back-breaking, and becomes more daunting the longer it remains there. Left behind, but not really forgotten.

A villa in Kep with trees growing through the windows.
A red fence recalls the cheery home this French villa must once have been.

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