Cambodia's Kep embarks on new lease of life

The Life: Kep, neglected by tourists stampeding through Angkor Wat, is getting new life.

In Cambodia's north, the labyrinthine temple complex of Angkor Wat evokes the power of bygone leaders who built testaments to their religion. In the south, monuments of those with more recent losses prevail.

Sleek skeletons of homes, moulded in geometric concrete in the style of Le Corbusier, adorn the lush hillsides of the seaside town of Kep. Inside, they are inhabited only by riotous sea-green mould and graffiti observing that "the best of life is under."

Before the Khmer Rouge, Kep was the holiday refuge of Cambodia's elite. After the end of the genocide and even into the mid-1990s, it served as a hideaway for the last Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

But today Kep is transforming to a more modern place where eco-tourism and social programmes cater to international travellers. Think the Maldives, minus the luxury.

Some developers have taken advantage of the old homes to turn them into high-end boutique hotels that go for about US$200 (Dh734) a night, such as Knai Bang Chatt with its gorgeous but hectic dockside restaurant. We stayed down the road - everything in Kep, arranged along a two-lane street, is at most a 10-minute drive - at Botanica, which offers an experience reminiscent of how life might be in a French-Cambodian hippie commune.

Seafood is the crown jewel of Kep. In the traditional preparation, sugar-sweet crabs are fried with onions and twigs of fresh green peppercorns, a local speciality.

The other star dish, the fish amok, combines the flavours of a Thai curry with the richness of a soufflé. Bay leaves add just enough masculinity to balance the milky coconut, and the fish is so tender it flakes apart at the touch of a chopstick. In this changing town, some traditions should be kept intact.

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