There are dogs guarding the king’s house on this quiet hill in Kep, on Cambodia’s south coast, but it doesn’t take much to scare them off. All the same, I feel more comfortable with the sturdy stick found on the dirt path leading up to the property. And the stick proves useful for clearing the jungle undergrowth that surrounds the path—the king left here long ago.
The hounds belong to a Khmer family that’s moved in to keep an eye on the place; laundry hangs on lines between trees, soup bubbles on a stove, and a matriarch in her mid-50s grants permission to explore further with smiles and a friendly wave. I don’t intrude inside—the contents, and anything else not held in place by cement, were stripped out long ago and all that’s left, apart from the structure, are bullet holes and broken tiles.
This former royal residence was once proudly part of a region glorified during the 1960s as the “Cambodian Riviera,” before war and a crazed dictator who wiped out one-fifth of the country’s population sent the country spiraling back toward the Dark Ages. Today, even as places like Kep and its neighboring town of Kampot have rebuilt much of their lost prestige, old wounds are allowed to linger in the form of dozens of buildings from this golden age left abandoned. Locals tell me they’ve been allowed to fall derelict for a number of reasons, but one in particular stands out: Why take care of the past, people wonder, when the past couldn’t take care of you?
At the king’s house, I head to the furthermost cliff point, behind an arched portico that forms the villa’s grandiose rear, to behold the famous view, over the Gulf of Thailand, of the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Here the villa’s long-dead owner, King Norodom Sihanouk, is reputed to have gazed out in sorrow and anger over the island’s lost sovereignty.
Kep’s wealthy left their tennis courts, swimming pools, and landscaped gardens to rebels and rot
He wouldn’t have known far worse was to come. In 1954, when Sihanouk was plotting the island’s return—Phu Quoc, known in Khmer as Koh Tral, has been under Vietnamese administration since a colonial carve-up in 1939—life was looking sweet for the young prince and his country while the tiny town of Kep was blossoming as an international destination resort.
By 1970, when Sihanouk was forced to flee to Beijing by the outbreak of civil war, the whole area had become a war zone, battle-scarred by U.S. bombs, radical Khmer insurrectionists, and fugitive members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN. Within a couple more years, the last of Kep’s wealthy inhabitants had fled the strife, leaving their modernist villas—their tennis courts, swimming pools, and landscaped gardens—to rebels and rot.
And that, for the most part, is how they remain. On a recent trip, I visited dozens of decaying relics of this mid-20th-century boom time, all still standing, ready to explore, tag, or even purchase. And while the region has long aspired to a return to the glory years (Kep was originally the center of the country’s saltwater fishing industry), this is still a place both in thrall and denial of the past.
Although King Sihanouk had declared Cambodia independent from France in 1953, the Paris-educated royal had no intention of repudiating his country’s colonial heritage. Far from it. Sihanouk recruited Le Corbusier–inspired architects such as Vann Molyvann, Lu Ban Hap, and Chhim Sun Fong to showcase new Gallic-and-Angkor style buildings, a movement known as New Khmer Architecture, focused mainly in Phnom Penh (such as the State Palace) but also Kep: Villa Romonea, designed by Lu Ban Hap in a dragon’s shape, is now a minimalist boutique hotel with a golf range and infinity pool; its original owners, a pharmacist and his wife, were murdered in 1972 by the Khmer Rouge.
The effect of Sihanouk’s patronage was to propel the region into an era of wealth and glamour not seen since the roaring 1920s, when the European elite first bestowed the sobriquets Kep Sur Mer and La Perle de la Côte d’Agath upon the coastal resort.
Kep beach. Photo: Martpan/Commons.
Idols from afar—Jackie Kennedy, Catherine Deneuve—joined Khmer aristocracy and local celebrities to toast the decade’s newfound razzmatazz with champagne and motor racing. There were black-tie cocktail parties, a casino, even a zoo. In an oft-quoted anecdote—the popularity of which attests to nostalgic imaginings of Cambodia’s rightful place in Asia—the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew visited Phnom Penh and wished that Singapore “will one day look like this.” (Cambodia’s current prime minister of 18 years, Hun Sen, has, instead, taken a leaf out of Lee’s own authoritarian playbook).
Sihanouk’s vision would dissolve as national unity came asunder. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge guerrillas began their insurrectionist campaign in 1963; the following year, Sihanouk started building his own Kep residence and broke diplomatic ties with America after its coup against Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1970, with the U.S. illegally carpet-bombing the Cambodian border, Sihanouk defected to the Khmer Rouge before being exiled to Maoist China.
As the chaos intensified, Kep, whose overseas reputation typified everything the Khmer Rouge sought to overthrow—bourgeois materialism, property, tradition—became a natural target for Communist reprisals. French journalist Roger Colne and his NBC crew were ambushed there in May 1970; their bodies would not be found until 1992.
But the first to arrive were starving ARVN soldiers, who turned up in 1970 and promptly ate all the zoo’s occupants. It was five years before the altogether more brutal troops of Pol Pot got their hands on the place, torched anything with a hint of decadent imperialism, then turned on the local population: French speakers, intellectuals (which could include anyone wearing glasses), and “collaborators” were rounded up, taken to a gas station and set alight, according to Relief and Rehabilitation of War Victims in Indochina, which documented U.S. congressional war hearings.
Kep was abandoned, a ghost town left to the jungle for nearly three decades, from Year Zero, the beginning of Pol Pot’s rule, through the “3 years, 8 months, 20 days” of his tyranny, up until his death in 1998. When Belgian hotelier Jef Moons first visited in 2003, it was on motorbikes along roads that became completely inaccessible during the July-September rainy season.
“Nobody wants to talk about recent history, about the Khmer Rouge,” said Moons, who co-owns three fully restored villas that form a high-end resort called Knai Bang Chatt. For Cambodians, land ownership is usually an opportunity to flatten existing structures and erect a large home, complete with ample parking space and a high wall. “Even if you have an asset that was part of the past, you destroy it,” said Moons. “Because nothing was beautiful then—everybody lost his family or part of his family. Now they all have a future in Cambodia, and the walls are there to protect them.”