21 Sep Kep, Ghost Town
Kep, Ghost Town
21 September 2018
Upscale seaside resort at the beginning of the 20th century, Kep was emptied of its inhabitants with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. Deserted for 30 years, the city still retains the stigmata of this dark past.
In a region of the world in which they do not hesitate to demolish and rebuild, Kep is an exception. Next to the bustling crab market and the surrounding area’s few restaurants, stretch long and wide avenues dotted with abandoned villas, witnesses to the splendours of yesteryear of a seaside resort considered until the seventies to be the “Saint Tropez of South-East Asia” or “Cambodian Riviera”.
Located 152 km south of Phnom Penh and twenty kilometres from Vietnam, and facing the Gulf of Thailand and the 13 islands making up the eponymous archipelago, the place that the French called “Kep-sur-Mer” came into being in 1908.
Considering it an ideal destination to escape the heat of the capital, the French and Cambodian elites began to build houses in the colonial architectural style, tennis courts and a waterfront promenade there, giving it the appearance of Deauville. It was only in 1953 after Cambodia Independence that Kep really took off and became a resort for the royal family and the khmer nobility.
Although several colonial villas were restored, new houses were built in a style peculiar to the time: “New Khmer Architecture”.
Supported by King Norodom Sihanouk, this architectural movement was a blend of European modernity (Bauhaus, Richard Neutra and Le Corbusier), vernacular tropical architecture and Khmer heritage. It was characterised by the use of new construction materials such as reinforced concrete, structures on stilts, a natural ventilation and shade system and the use of ornamentation, chiefly bas-reliefs inspired by Angkorian temples.
Among the leaders of this modern Cambodian architecture we find Vann Molyvann, Lu Ban Hap, Mam Sophana and Ing Kieth.
According to the faculty of architecture, 157 villas were built between 1953 and 1975, before being gradually abandoned from 1968 onward with the American bombings of neighbouring Vietnam and even more so after the 1970 coup and the coming to power of the Khmer Rouge.
The city of Kep represented, in fact, all that the communist regime abhorred: riches, culture, the West, materialism, leisure. Those inhabitants who had not gone into exile were killed or sent to work in the rice fields.
What future for Kep?
Today, the feeling of a ghost town persists when passing beside by any of the forty partially destroyed and overgrown villas.
Some of them are inhabited by caretakers paid by the owners in order to try to somehow preserve what is left, or pending an offer of a purchase from a potential property developer.
Others are experiencing a second life and have become luxury hotels, such as Villa Villa Romonea or Knai Bang Chatt Resort.
In a country undergoing booming development, and which is seeing investments pour in, these villas may disappear in favour of new buildings. Many organisations, however, are working to preserve this legacy, such as the Vann Molyvann Project led by the American architect Bill Greaves. With the help of volunteers, he is trying to gather a maximum amount of data on these villas, a task made difficult because all of the New Khmer Architecture documentation disappeared with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge and the flight of the elites abroad.
In February and March of last year, the Vimana Association organised “KepExpo” in Phnom Penh. Through numerous documents, photographs and videos, the exhibition retraces the modernist past of Kep, and several workshops were organised to imagine its future. Starting from December 2018, KepExpo will move permanently to Kep.