2 January 2019
If there’s one thing Kep is famous for, it’s crab! Blue crab, and lot’s of it. Add to that nearby Kampot’s famous peppercorn (dating from the 13th century and widely viewed as the best in the world), and you’ve got one tasty and formidable regional cuisine.
We’re exciting to go crab-wild and indulge in something that was nearly impossible to get our hands on in Laos. And if there’s one place in Southeast Asia to get your hands on some crab after a long landlocked dry spell, this is it!
Kep Coffee Cafe
But first, some coffee. Kep Coffee might just be the best coffee shop in Kep. It might also be the only proper coffee shop in Kep. Still, I’d imagine Kep Coffee would easily give most coffee shops in Phnom Penh a run for their money.
Living in Phnom Penh, it’s easy to forget how quickly things go from espresso machines and cold brew to instant coffee just a few kilometers from the city center.
If it’s rich and strong, I don’t mind a Nescafe (or Africafe!!!) while traveling, in fact, I kind of enjoy it. It’s the taste of travel. But more often than not in Southeast Asia, the instant coffee tends to taste more like dirty water than anything, with no buzz to speak of no matter how many cups you have.
But Kep Coffee’s the real deal! In addition to all the espresso standards, they make a mean ice coffee with sweetened milk — perhaps the closest thing we’ve had to a true Vietnamese iced coffee since being back in Hanoi.
It’s a bit of a haul from Kep Lodge where we are staying. Thankfully, tuk tuks are inexpensive (though the Grab App doesn’t yet work here, so you have to flag down, negotiate, and direct the old-fashioned way — I can’t speak for Pass App (the other tuk tuk ridesharing app here in Cambo), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was true).
In addition to Kep Coffee’s excellent coffee, they’ve also got a fun and funky atmosphere right next to the main pier for those looking to do a trip out to Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay).
Kep to Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay)
We really wanted to make a trip to Rabbit Island work, especially after seeing the sorry state of Kep Beach following New Years Eve festivities. But it just wasn’t in the cards this time around.
These days, we like to prioritize relaxation on our holiday trips. Living in Phnom Penh with the boys gives us ample opportunity for adventure and excitement.
Rabbit Island isn’t a difficult day trip, but more effort with the boys than we were willing to put in on a vacation. If you’re traveling sans wee ones or are more motivated than we were, here are the basics (as of 2 January 2020):
Private Boat Price: US$25 total roundtrip for a private boat — up to 6 people (foreigner) or 8 people (Cambodian). You will need to lock in your return trip time when you purchase your tickets.
Shared Boat Price: US$8 to join a shared boat, but you might have to wait a while and won’t get to choose your return time.
Island Services and Amenities: The main beach near the pier is cleaned regularly and offers tourist services such as restaurants, guesthouses, massage stands, and free use of hammocks and beach recliners with a purchase from one of the nearby restaurants. Footpaths on each side of the main beach lead to more isolated beaches, some reported to have less trash than others.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of places in downtown Kep where you can walk right along the water. However, there is a nice and shaded, if quite short, walking path near the pier.
The best waterfront walking paths we’ve found are between Kep Provincial Hall/ Lady and Fish statue and Kep Beach; and between Kep Beach and the Crab Market.
None of these are very shaded, so best to do before 9am or after 4pm, though we managed just fine with the boys at mid-morning in early January (“cool”/dry season).
The Kep waterfront is known for it’s sea sculptures, the most famous being the giant Kep Crab and the Sreysor or White Lady statue.
The Kep Crab statue welcomes visitors along Route 33A between Kep Beach and the City Center. The area also appears to be a popular place to cool off for locals.
On the eastern edge of Kep Beach sits the Sreysor/ White Lady statue, which might be the most photographed sight in and around Kep.
Returning to the beach on 2 January, we are pleasantly surprised to see a sizable and concerted effort to collect and haul away the rubbish generated by New Years Eve’s thousands of beach-going visitors.
However, seeing all that plastic waste culled together in one place, and knowing that after two days this is likely the little bit left over from a monumental clean-up effort, is nothing less than nauseating.
Also knowing that this is simply what could be collected from the beach itself (and what’s managed to wash ashore) doesn’t make us any more inclined to head into the otherwise inviting water. But that didn’t stop dozens of others.
Minus the New Years Eve trash, Kep Beach is a nice enough beach. The sand is a nice consistency (our understanding is it’s been hauled in from the islands), and there is a nice amount of shade for the boys to play in.
The water is clear and quite warm, and there was little to no surf on the days we visited.
There are beach chairs and umbrellas laid out across the beach for rent, as well as banana boats, jet skies, and all the usual scourges of Southeast Asia public beaches. Fortunately, there don’t seem to be any other water motorsports at Kep Beach.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Kep Beach (second only to the trash) is the lack of restaurants or beach bars along the beach.
There are a few local restaurants across the highway and up the hill, as well as a handful of food carts along the seawall, but nowhere to sit at a table with a beer, light meal, and a seaview like countless other beaches across the region.
Kep Beach is definitely a BYOB beach.
However, across the street from the beach there is a sizable hammock shed with dozens of hammocks, some with a partial sea view if you crane your neck and peer over your hammock neighbor without elbowing them. Otherwise, it’s a clear view of the parking lot, with traffic fumes as an added extra.
Now, if these actually fronted the sea and were spread out a bit, they’d be on to something. Something about
Taking a walk along the beach, I saw this:
Apparently, it only applies on non-holidays.
A few steps farther, another plastic trash heap.
The view of the beach from across the small bay hides the string of mid-century development that lines the main highway, making the cove appear remote and pristine, which Kep Beach is not.
The forest-covered hill rising behind the beach over there is the southern end of Kep National Park.
The “pilot” (as Noe called him) of this sand-cleaning contraption didn’t look a day over 12. Needless to say, we kept a fair distance.
Which didn’t do much in the way of calming Riley’s concerns over the mechanical sand beast. He’d breakdown sobbing and/or screaming every time the thing came within spitting distance.
About an hour on the beach surrounded by piles of trash and a big, loud, and scary sand-cleaning machine was enough for us.
Instead of taking a tuk tuk back to Kep Lodge, we opt for a walk along the water to the Crab Market.
Once upon a time, Kep was a booming beach resort town popular with the local Frenchies who developed the beach and constructed a number of villas in and around town from the early to mid-twentieth century.
Then, the Khmer Rouge came to power and Kep’s fortunes shifted, leaving dozens of mid-century colonial villas to crumble and recede into the jungle, much like this one along the road from Kep Beach to the Crab Market.
We pass several fishing boats tied up to the seawall at various points. The fishermen are hiding from the sun mending nets or napping. It’s almost 11am and warming up, so I doubt there’s much to catch right now.
…though these little guys seem to be enjoying the midday heat on the surface of the clear and placid bay.
A short while later, we arrive at the strip of crab shacks lining the water north to the crab market.
Prelude to a Crab Feast
We have a list of places to check out this evening for the full meal deal. At this point, we’re keen on a light meal for the four of us and Holy Crab fit the bill.
Holy Crab is easily the newest and most upmarket place on the strip, which we didn’t realize until after we ate there and checked out the other options.
Prices at Holy Crab are a bit above the average for the crab shack strip, but still well below a similar restaurant in Phnom Penh.
We were going to save ordering crab for this evening, but couldn’t help ourselves. Instead, we got crab noodle dish…
…and crab and avocado salad. Both were pretty darn tasty.
A Dip in the Sea
I desperately wanted to get into the water. We’d all been in the pool a few times, but I wanted the real thing. I was tired of getting so close only to have my hopes dashed. In Penang two months prior, it was killer jelly fish and pollution. This time around, it’s heaps of trash and all sorts of nasties from the local New Years Eve bash.
After naps, we hopped on a remorque to head back to the crab market. Lori and the boys were going to head directly to the crab market while I made a brief stop at the Sailing Club to take a swim off the dock, then walk the short distance over to meet them.
Noe and Riley had a blast getting up close and personal with Kep’s feisty little blue crabs at the market.
And, the rest of the catch of the day.
Meanwhile, I stroll into the Sailing Club, nod hello to the staff, and make a beeline for the dock. I was initially a bit concerned that they might ask me if I plan on eating there or if I’m a guest at the lodge. Fortunately, the staff are too busy to care, despite there being only one other patron.
I walk to the end of the dock and peer over the edge to the surface of the water about two meters below. It’s an absolutely perfect afternoon for a swim. Blue skies and hot, with a perfectly still sea before me.
I really want to jump off the dock — after all, there aren’t any warning signs and I’m just going in feet first. But I think better of it.
Instead, I follow the ladder down to the water and dip my foot in. The temperature is perfect. Everything is perfect. No other people around. No little ones voicing their requests and dismay. Just me and this perfect body of water.
I push off the ladder into the sea.
Suddenly, I feel an intense pain as my big toe hits something rough and hard. Huh? I stand up and realize I’m swimming in about two feet of water. At this point I know I’ve injured myself in some way, but have no clue how bad. It’s probably just a scrape, I tell myself, and proceed to enjoy the time alone in the tropical waters despite the pain getting worse by the minute.
Ten minutes later, I decide to call it a swim. I climb the ladder up to the edge of the dock and take stock of my injuries, which don’t appear to be much at first. Then, blood. And more blood. It appears I’ve taken the skin clean off the top of my big toe and applying pressure for a minute or two doesn’t seem to do much.
I realize I need to nip this in the bud and fast. I hobble as nonchalantly as I can straight back to the bathroom, giving a nod and smile to the staff along the way. I grab a few paper towels and go about the business of sorting this thing out.
Twenty minutes later, I hobble into the crab market and meet up with Lori and the boys. My little swim may not have gone according to plan, but it was nice while it lasted. Anyone besides me ready for a stiff drink?
We hit up a happy hour joint before heading to the main event of the evening. On the other side of the railing, the boys enjoy watching the locals harvest whatever they can from the shore and prepare their boats for the evening’s catch. The golden light of the sunset makes the scene look like an oil painting.
Kep Sur Mer
Finally, it’s time for some crab! After perusing the menu at half a dozen places, we decide to go with a place that was also recommended by a friend: Kep Sur Mer.
There are a ton of options for crab on the menu, but we decide to keep things pure and simple with the steam fresh crab, along with a couple of other dishes.
The meaty little guys were delicious, especially with a dab of Kampot pepper sauce.
We can’t say enough good things about Kep Sur Mer — the food is awesome, the price is right, and the place has a nice atmosphere — a good mix of locals and visitors. Highly recommended!
Both boys devoured everything and were out the second their heads hit the pillow at the bungalow. Always the sign of a good day!