Kep-Sur-Mer, or Kep by the Sea, (typically shortened to “Kep”) was born by royal decree in 1908 and spent its early years as a station climatique, a seaside escape for French colonial bureaucrats and their families, but now the abandoned luxury homes form a seaside ghost town.
The relative stability following Cambodia’s peaceful transition to independence from France in 1953 encouraged international investment and the development of a Cambodian elite. During this boom, Kep became the premier seaside resort as the elite built villas along the gold-orange coastline. Known by various monikers such as “Cambodia’s Riviera,” or, “The St. Tropez of Southeast Asia,” Kep even flaunted a casino during its heyday. The villas took on a number of contemporary influences, from French colonial wrought iron to Le Corbusier-inspired modernism to New Khmer assertiveness. Cambodia’s aristocracy, including the charmed “Playboy King” Norodom Sihanouk, turned Kep into a Cambodian version of Gatsby’s West Egg during this period of Cambodia’s “golden age.”
And like the glitzy Long Island of the 1920s, Kep-Sur-Mer’s dream couldn’t last. Cambodia’s bourgeois began the abandonment of Kep after the Lon Nol coup in 1970. The modernist villas began to fall into decay and Kep saw fighting during the Khmer Rouge takeover, which finally put a stop to any future growth. Some reports suggest the buildings were specifically targeted for destruction by the Khmer Rouge and stripped of valuables by the occupying Vietnamese army following 1979.
Today the villas remain overgrown with flora and some, the ones not squatted by local residents, are structurally intact and worthy of, though not necessarily safe for, exploration. Their state of picturesque decay may not last long, however; increases in tourism to Cambodia have brought characteristic increases in foreign and local investment and development. Kep may yet see another “golden era.”