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Rising star


The good times have returned to Cambodia's sleepy Riviera, bringing a new crop of eco-lodges and chic seafood restaurants. By Fiona Dunlop

Three hours after leaving the cacophony of Phnom Penh, our taxi (costing all of $50) drops us at the gate of Le Bout du Monde. 'The end of the world' turns out to be not quite that; more the start of an exploration of Cambodia's little- known coast, squeezed between Vietnam's Mekong Delta and Thailand.


Around us, a tropical wonderland of crimson bougainvillea, banana palms, geckos, chattering birds and insects surrounds a seductive cluster of thatched huts on stilts and a blissful, lily-clad pool. At the back of this Franco-Cambodian eco-lodge, monkeys crash through the dense jungle of the National Park that crowns the hill overlooking the resort of Kep and the sapphire waves of the Gulf of Thailand.


Although formerly dubbed Cambodia's 'Riviera' when it went by the name of Kep-sur-Mer, the demise of Cambodian high society under Pol Pot's ruthless regime led to the glamorous resort falling on hard times. It's hard to believe that as recently as 1999, Khmer Rouge insurgents still hid out in the jungle, yet we spot plenty of abandoned villas, their crumbling, leprous walls swallowed up by tentacular roots in a contemporary version of Angkor. Luckily, Cambodia's bad times are now past, and it feels like Kep's star is rising again (with 70 guesthouses and counting), carving out a niche as an unspoiled coastal retreat that can easily be twinned with the delightful riverine port of Kampot, just 25km away.


The focal point of the scattered resort is the Crab Market, a line-up of stalls, shacks and restaurants jutting out over the shallows where you can feast till you burst on crabs, fat juicy prawns, squid and an incredible array of fish. All of it is freshly caught then grilled or boiled over fires in a primitive kitchen by an army of be-hatted Cham women. An ethnic oddity in this Buddhist country, Chams belong to a matrilineal Muslim community that fled Vietnam centuries ago. Their livelihood is totally dependent on seafood, from catch and nurturing (they keep live crabs in floating bamboo cages, pulling them in to order) to preparation, although now they are joined by a handful of French expats who are raising the bar in restaurant comfort and aesthetics. More upmarket still is the Sailing Club, part of the superbly modernist Knai Bang Chatt hotel further along the coast, where ace cocktails are the prelude to Asian and European dishes.


chilli-infused fish


Tuk-tuks are the mode of transport here and will putter around a deserted headland to a sweep of blinding white sand – which sadly turns out to be artificial, all trucked in. The best sandy beaches, in fact, lie opposite on Koh Tongsay (Rabbit Island), a 20-minute boat ride away, where a few backpackers hang out in huts between simple seafood eateries in a quintessential, tropical island setting. After a swim, then a feast of ginger, garlic and chilli-infused fish, I swing the afternoon away in a hammock slung between coconut palms, lapping up the warm breeze and rhythm of the waves.


Kampot lies a bumpy, 45-minute tuk-tuk ride away, past pepper plantations for which the region was famed during French colonial times (poivre de Kampot was highly sought after by top Parisian chefs) as well as a Cham village surrounding a domed mosque. Our eager driver, Mr. Somnang, stops to give us a quick tour before we are propelled back into urban Asia – albeit Kampot's entrancingly sleepy version.


Straggling along the Kampong Bay river, this appealing old port turns out to be the perfect antidote to both Kep and Phnom Penh. Gone are lazy afternoons by the pool digesting seafood feasts, or the mad forays through the traffic chaos of the capital; in their place come French colonial jewels, Art Deco and earlier, blind masseurs, French restaurants, German pavement cafés, a night market and a labyrinthine day market packed with cornucopian temptations. Entrepreneurial expats include Bart, a dreadlocked Dutchman who takes us on a magical boat tour through tunnels of giant nipa-palms to spot herons, kingfishers and egrets, before we slip into the fresh water for a swim.


Then there are balmy evening strolls beside the river, admiring riotous sunsets that light up the silhouette of distant Mount Bokor; morning walks behind Buddhist monks doing their rounds; a visit to a pepper farm; and a tuk-tuk ride south past rice fields and pretty kampongs to vast, white salt flats. Unexpectedly, this leads us to a glittering pagoda, Trey Koh, where Vann, an orange-robed monk, is teaching young novices. We stop to chat before returning to an energising fresh coconut drink at our base at the northern end of town.


riviera renaissance


The spacious huts on stilts of our riverside hotel are again inspired by Khmer vernacular but there are also sit-outs on jetties to have breakfast and even a small, sandy beach. This time our hosts are a Cambodian family, and although their culinary skills are lacking, they exude that charming, lackadaisical style that makes you feel perfectly at home – and definitively in Khmer territory. Gastronomic compensation comes with dinner at La Java Bleue, whose French chef-owner, Jean-Claude Lopez, piles on crunchy green pepper – de Kampot, bien sûr - thus proving himself a worthy catalyst in the renaissance of the Cambodian Riviera.


Selective Asia offers privately-guided tours (starting from £898 for 10 days or £1578 for 16 days ) which include the Cambodian Riviera as well as Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (Tel: 01273 670 001 /


Experience Travel runs tailor-made holidays and a 16-day Essential Cambodia package, which takes in Angkor Wat and Battambang before heading to Kep, Koh Tongsay and Kampot (Tel: 0207 924 7133 /


Both operators offer a stay at the Knai Bang Chatt hotel, or book it as part of a tailor-made Cambodian itinerary with Transindus (Tel: 0844 879 3960 /

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