31 December 2019
When we first learned that the four of us needed to leave the country and return by 26 December to activate our NGO visas, it was assumed that we’d head to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for a few days of R & R. After all, it’s only another 90 minutes, depending on traffic, from the border to HCMC, we enjoyed our time there in 2012, and haven’t been back since.
But there were a few factors that made this option less appealing to us. For one, Lori would have to take time off (Christmas, unsurprisingly, is not a national holiday here…well, I am a bit surprised, actually, given that Cambodians seem to get every other international holiday off), whereas she did have time off around New Years.
Riley’s nursery school would be in session during this period (and we’d be paying for it), but not around New Years.
While Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City are completely different cities and hardly comparable (the former is an up-and-coming capital of 1.5 million, and the latter is an established economic powerhouse of 8 million), trading one major city for another didn’t seem that appetizing to us. Particularly, since we had just spent a week in Kuala Lumpur in October.
What we really wanted was to be able to explore more of our new home. Of the six countries we visited while backpacking in 2012, Cambodia remains the country we’ve explored the least.
For these reasons, we opted for a hell run to the Vietnam border and back in mid-December to get our visas sorted in exchange for a beach holiday in Kep, Cambodia.
On 31 December, we packed out of our temporary apartment, moved our things to our new place, then hit the road for Kep just before nap time.
The four-hour drive made our visa run feel like a vacation. Both boys fell drastically short of taking their usual 2-3 hour naps. Riley managed just under 30 minutes, and Noe…well Noe didn’t nap at all.
The remainder of the drive was pretty rough, to say the least. Not something Lori and I wish to repeat any time soon (or the driver, I’d imagine). But we made it. And, after what seemed like an eternity, we spotted the Kep mermaid and knew our journey was nearly finished.
Getting from Phnom Penh to Kep
There are a multitude of ways you can travel between Phnom Penh and Kep — regular bus service, shared taxi, mini-bus, shuttle, taxi, and even by train (to Kampot).
You can also rent a car, but at US$60/day it hardly seems worth it for us, given that the alternatives cost so much less and we’d rather not have to deal with toddlers and Cambodian roads all at once.
We really wanted to make the train work, but the limited schedule and additional transfer from Kampot to Kep were deal breakers.
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With the boys at the ages they are at, hiring a driver via a trusted friend seemed like the best route. This cost us around US$45 each way and was well worth it for the ability to stop when we needed to and go on our own schedule. We’re looking forward to a day in the not too distant future when we resume taking local buses.
We knew very little about Kep before we arrived, which is both exciting and challenging, at least from a practical standpoint, and particularly with little ones.
Choosing the right lodging option at a new beach destination is easily one of the biggest logistical challenges we encounter while traveling.
Once we’ve arrived at our destination and spent a few days walking around the area, we’re able to get a feeling for the lay of the land and it’s easy to figure out the prime spots.
Yet, even with Google Earth and Tripadvisor reviews, etc., it’s often next to impossible to know ahead of time, even after two decades visiting dozens upon dozens of beach destinations.
Toddlers add another dimension, as well.
How walkable is the town? What’s the terrain like? Is our lodge on a hill and is it a reasonable climb for the little ones? How expensive and reliable is transport around town?
Do we want to pay a premium to be closer to the beach or can we get by staying farther away if it means a nicer place with more space and amenities?
Where are the majority of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, and how easily accessible are they from the beach and lodging? Are they expensive and, if so, are we going to want to self-cater some of our meals at the lodge. Is there a reasonably-priced supermarket nearby?
Beyond the beach, what other activities are there? Are they easily accessible from where we’ll be staying? Are they expensive? Are they age-appropriate for a one-year-old and three-year-old.
Obviously, staying in an all-inclusive resort on the beach removes much of the guesswork, and we get that.
But Kep, like the overwhelming majority of beach destinations we’ve visited over the years, does not have all-inclusive options. In addition to offering the closest beach to Phnom Penh, we chose Kep for the reason that it is devoid of large resorts.
We much prefer more basic accommodation in exchange for a local vibe away from the package tour groups (which shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve been following this blog for a while — the main focus of AwayGoWe is independent travel, after all).
Where We Stayed: Kep Lodge
In terms of where to stay in Kep, in the end, the decision was made for us.
We were arriving on New Years Eve, which is a busy beach holiday time for Cambodians. We had no idea how busy, but we’ll get to that. Browsing lodging availability a month in advance did offer a bit of a reality check in that most of the budget and midrange accommodation in the area was already full.
Fortunately, Kep Lodge had one bungalow remaining that met our needs. The place has excellent reviews and a number of amenities (swimming pool, breakfast included, onsite restaurant, rooms serviced daily) for a very reasonable high-season nightly rate.
Our bungalow had a small table and fridge and offered plenty of space for Riley’s portable crib, in addition to AC and hot shower.
More than anything, Lori and I really enjoyed the covered veranda with hammock, which we utilized to the fullest during nap time and evenings after the boys went to sleep.
One of the big selling points for staying at Kep Lodge is the lush garden surroundings. Lots of places in Laos push the garden aspect of their property, but few compare to what welcomed us at Kep Lodge. The carefully-tended garden surroundings are really in a class of their own.
When we booked our stay, the only thing that concerned us about Kep Lodge was its location a couple kilometers north of the municipal beach.
Generally, we prefer to stay as close to the beach as possible. As the decision was made for us, we didn’t worry to much about where to stay this time around and were simply happy to having a booking somewhere over the holiday.
In retrospect, we would certainly return to Kep Lodge now that we are familiar with the area.
Kep Beach is nice enough, but doesn’t warrant staying within walking distance. There are few amenities for Western visitors and children within close proximity to the beach.
What we couldn’t truly appreciate about Kep Lodge prior to our stay is its proximity to the area around the Sailing Club and Crab Market, both of which ended up being the highlights of our time in Kep.
Unlike the municipal beach, the Sailing Club is a short (10-15 minute) walk from Kep Lodge and offers exceptional food and facilities, clean sand for the kids, excellent swimming conditions from the pier, and stunning sunsets and scenery.
The Crab Market and nearby restaurants are a must-visit when in Kep, and the crab dishes we had there were worth the visit to Kep, alone.
We were very happy with our four-night stay at Kep Lodge and would highly recommend it to families or anyone looking for a quiet and relaxing place to stay in the area for a great value.
New Years Eve Sojourn
Lori and I had heard that Kep was the chillest place around with amazing food, nice hiking trails in Kep National Park, and a relaxed, local beach vibe.
We weren’t expecting the beach to be deserted on New Years Eve, but we also weren’t expecting it to be party central. After all, Gregorian New Year is but one of THREE new year holidays that Cambodians celebrate — Khmer New Year and Lunar (Chinese) New Year arguably being much bigger deals.
After settling into our bungalow, we took a nice long stroll along the highway towards the beach, a twenty minute walk even with little ones. Early evening was a perfect time of day for the walk, as the sun had not set but was low enough in the sky that we were able to walk in the shade the entire two kilometers.
Spirits were high on the walk and all four of us were eager with anticipation as to what awaited us at the end of the road. I had seen a few pictures of Kep Beach, but couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the area. How long of a beach would it be? Would there be many trees for shade? How about beer and food along the beach? Would there be a nice beach bar to grab a cold beer, sink my feet into the sand and watch the sunset?
So many nagging questions. Few things get me more excited than trying on a new tropical beach for size and taking it for a spin.
As we approached the roundabout within a football field length from the beach, the atmosphere quickly changed. The lazy, ambling highway quickly morphed into a sprawling parking lot where we were suddenly and ruthlessly bombarded by visions from my worst nightmares — hundreds, if not thousands, of beachgoers all headed in the direction of the water, and tour buses, my God, the tour buses. I couldn’t count them all, I didn’t want to. I desperately wanted to believe it wasn’t real. That it was all a figment of my imagination, a side-effect of the tropical weather or the Kampot pepper roasting all around us.
But we persisted. Against our better judgment, we carried on, weaving through the dense crowds and haphazardly parked coach buses to the sea, always to the sea.
Finally, we came to the sea wall, but couldn’t see much beyond it. We found an opening and stepped out into the sand. I was terror struck at what lay before us. The tide was high, corralling the masses into a thin strip of land between the water and the sea wall, which I hardly recognized as a beach as every square meter was covered by overlapping plastic picnic mats or people — mostly people.
Looking out over the sea of people that continued into the water as far as the eye could see, it was impossible to determine where the beach ended and the water began. And the trash, so much trash. More plastic bags and styrofoam containers, cans, bottles, spoons, forks, than I’ve ever seen on or near a beach. I suddenly felt sick to my stomach (I was so upset over the whole thing, I didn’t snap a single picture).
We’ve been to some popular beaches, but this was on a whole other level. It was a devastating discovery. We immediately turned on our heels and headed back up the hill to find a remorque to take us anywhere but here. Maybe in a few days things will die down. But all that trash!? It’s a freakin’ landfill!
Lori suggested we head to the Sailing Club, which she had heard great things about. A pier, great food, amazing sunset. All was not lost!
So, we beelined it to the Sailing Club, only to find that it was essentially closed to the public unless you had paid in advance for an expensive New Years Eve buffet.
Ultimately, we ended up at Kep Eden, a little ways up the same road, where we enjoyed happy hour cocktails (and smoothie for the Noe), and dinner for the boys.
It wasn’t the beach and there was no view of the sunset, but it made for a nice evening, nonetheless.
Afterwards, I took Noe back down the road to take one last look at the ocean before heading off to bed. No crowds, no trash, just me and my big boy and a thousand stars above.
A Quiet Celebration
Returning to Kep Lodge, we were happy to find the place quiet and deserted, despite there being no vacancies. It was only a little after 7:30pm, so I suspected everyone was out partaking in the New Years Eve festivities around town.
Following our brief visit to Kep Beach, Lori and I were more than content to spend the rest of the evening enjoying a couple of nightcaps alone on our front porch after we put the boys down. Yet, we had no way of knowing how deserted our lodge would eventually become.
As the bar didn’t close until 9pm, I opted to get one round at a time. I should’ve known better. At 8:30 I returned for round two, only to find the entire kitchen and dining area completely void of life.
Seems the staff had knocked off early to go party. I couldn’t blame them, given the number of patrons currently onsite, but that left Lori and I in a bit of an unexpected position on New Years Eve. We had crazy dreams of making it to 10pm and toasting 2020 in Eastern Australia.
I headed out into the night, walking down the dark and dusty road towards the main highway in hopes of scoring a couple of beverages from one of a half dozen other lodges along the way. But no luck. All were locked up and dark. Even the security guards had knocked off for the night to go party, it seems.
I looked up at the starry sky and spotted a sea of bright flickering lights in the sky moving west. Floating lanterns. I stood there for a moment taking in the unique sight. I thought about what it must be like down on the beach right about now. Part of me wished I was down there. But mostly, I was content to not be anywhere near party central tonight.
I returned to Lori, empty handed. We spent the next twenty minutes watching the lanterns float across the sky from our bungalow, which eventually gave way to an early fireworks show which we could just barely view. The boys were unmoved by the boom boom. When the show was over, we figured it was as good a time as any to call it a night.
And with it, an eventful 2019 — our first year spent entirely in Asia.