kep municipality – At first glance, Kep Municipality remains an unspoiled area where cows and goats compete for tufts of grass in front of government offices along the Gulf of Thailand.
Over the past five years, a few more guest houses have cropped up, and the powerful speakers of a karaoke bar at the crab market now break the quiet of the night.
Still, signs of development in Kep have so far been limited to the building of a few private villas and the construction of a small hotel near the roundabout across from the main beach.
This venture of Hedon Kep company—launched in 2003 by Philippe Lenain whose Indochine Insurance agency shut down last year—will consist of 36 Khmer-style bungalows surrounding the 1908 mansion that served as the governor’s residence in the 1950s.
Work on the area’s first major project is about to begin. Paul Cham Investment has obtained permits and a 70-year lease from the Council of Ministers for the construction of a tourism resort along Angkol beach, about 7 km east of Kep’s roundabout, said Nuon Sophea, spokesman for Paul Cham.
With an estimated cost of $40 million that will be provided by Australian and US investors, the resort will include about 200 individual bungalows, a pool and a duty-free shop, he said.
The company is negotiating resettlement with the 73 families living on that land with the goal of starting field- work in July, Nuon Sophea said.
Paul Cham Investment, whose Cambodian director is Ngeav Sicham, has completed the feasibility study and development plan for the project, Nuon Sophea said. “We intend to do nothing that would damage the environment because nature is the key factor that will attract visitors.”
The Council of Ministers also has authorized Try Pheap Company to conduct a feasibility study for the construction of a five-star casino and golf resort on Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, said Vao Sokha, the Kep director for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
The permit calls for the company to create an inter-ministerial committee to discuss plans for the island, but it has not been formed yet, he said.
For nearly a century, Kep has been Cambodia’s gem on the Gulf of Thailand, where the royal family and government officials would vacation.
The French administration started development in 1916, and the first luxury hotel opened 1917. In the 1950s, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk had a villa built on a hill with a sweeping view of Kep and the gulf. Throughout the 1960s, Cambodian officials followed his example and built weekend homes in the resort town. In the mid-1970s, the Khmer Rouge turned them into the ruins that still can be seen on the shoreline boulevard.
Today, Kep is again becoming a weekend resort where officials such as Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh and royal family members own villas. The price of land has reached $20 per square meter near the beach.
Commercial development has amounted to rumors rather than facts over the last five years. However, the lure of future benefits and lax law enforcement have affected its natural setting.
The Kep National Park, which covered 5,000 hectares in the 1960s, has shrunk to about 1,000 hectares. Its new boundaries remain to be determined, which opens the door for more shrinking.
Offshore, the coral reef extended 52.5 hectares in 2002 according to the UN Environment Program, said Chea Sopheak Makara, secretary of the Kep Coastal Resources Center, which is part of a project supported by the Danish International Development Agency at the Ministry of Environment. Today, the reef, once inhabited by sea horses, mammals and fish, has virtually disappeared, he said.
The daily catch of local fishermen has gone from 10 kg to 1 kg per day, said Chea Sopheak Makara. Without the coral reef, the size of crabs has diminished also, he said.
This wholesale destruction is mostly due to illegal fishing—particularly the use of explosives and equipment to rake the sea bed.
The rotting smell and darkening sand that tourists recently noticed on Kep beaches also was due to illegal fishing, said Chea Sopheak Makara. After fishermen discard algae caught in their trawling nets, the algae float ashore where they decay, he said.
Kep’s natural setting, its past history and its potential as a commercial resort destination have led individuals and speculators to acquire land in the area and fenced, vacant lots line the beach.
While absentee land owners bide their time in Phnom Penh, Kep’s population of 30,000 continues to live with no electricity, sewer or water systems. There is no bank, hardly any stores beside open air food markets, and very limited health care and government services.
“Damnak Chang’aur village has no access to drinking water,” said 78-year-old Ngin Sak. “We drink muddy water from the pond. We’re used to it, so it’s fine except that sometimes we get nausea and diarrhea.”
Though investors have their sights set on a future property boom, the need for wells and drinking water is mentioned repeatedly by villagers throughout the municipality.
Because of the lack of basic services, most government employees live in Kampot province and spend little time at their Kep offices.
Still, the situation has improved compared to five years ago, said Sim Son before he left his post of governor in Kep to become governor of Siem Reap province last November.
“More (absentee owners) are paying attention to Kep and contributing money for roads in the area. In the past, they would just let their land sit there,” he said.
Presently, there is no development master plan for Kep.
But for Ell Nary, the Kep director for the Ministry of Tourism, protection of the environment ought to be a priority.
“Our area’s attraction is eco-tourism, therefore development must be environment friendly,” he said.
Numerous Kep officials stress that lessons must be learned from Sihanoukville, which has lost its natural beauty in the name of development. Yet Kep cannot really be compared to Sihanoukville, which always had a port and a commercial potential to fall back on, said Chuop Kao. Kep is solely banking on tourism for prosperity, he said.
Opinion varies as to how this should be done.
“I don’t want Kep to become a honky-tonk town,” said Sim Son.
“We prefer the tranquillity of the natural environment.”
For him, this includes barring land owners from building higher than the tree tops.
But Chan Sam An, who took over as Kep governor late last year, has a different philosophy. He said he does not believe that eco-tourism alone will attract visitors in sufficient numbers, and he would welcome night clubs and karaoke bars in the area. Chan Sam An added he would have no objection to tall buildings.
However, the major decisions on the development of Kep are made in Phnom Penh, and not by local authorities, he said.
Still villagers would like to be involved both in preserving their environment and in eco-tourism, said Chea Sopheak Makara. More than 2,500 Kep households are already involved in natural resource management.
“My teacher has been teaching us about tourism, preserving the environment and reforestation,” said 15-year-old Man Rady. As she was taking cows home after school, she talked of her dream of studying English and becoming a tourist guide in Kep.