Kep municipality – In its 1960s heyday, Kep was Cambodia’s premier resort town, replete with seaside homes and expansive villas dotting the coastline in creams and pastels.
Members of the Phnom Penh elite were drawn to Kep’s lush surroundings and the rejuvenating sea, commissioning many of the homes built in the 1950s and 1960s.
Though the homes in Kep suffered substantially during the 1970s and 1980s, the bullet-riddled art-deco structures retained enough of their former beauty to attract the eye of a Belgian interior designer vacationing in Kep in 2002.
Belgian nationals Boris Vervoordt, an interior designer and antiques dealer, and Jef Moons, the owner of an agricultural company, fell in love with two skeletal villas they found on a modest piece of land not far from Kep’s crab market in July of that year.
“Arriving in Kep we could not believe our eyes,” Moons wrote in an e-mail. “All [the] beautiful architecture [that] was destroyed 30 years ago.”
Within days, the two men had put a down payment on the plot, previously owned by a former Kep municipal governor, with plans to spend their own savings to restore the buildings.
“We wanted…to revive the architecture of the 1960s in Cambodia,” Vervoordt wrote. “We tried to recuperate as much as possible, looking for original paints, floors…. We only wanted to use local ingredients, like chalk paint and pigment from the markets.”
Vervoordt and Moons worked with French architect Francoise Laveille to restore the buildings’ classic designs. A Cambodian construction team used regional materials to rebuild the two villas, and constructed a third of similar design.
What began as a personal project quickly blossomed into a private resort unique in present-day Kep. Vervoordt and Moons’ original idea was to use the compound as a vacation home where they could bring family and host business associates. But friends visiting Knai Bang Chatt, or “the full rainbow around the sun,” during construction and renovation soon noted its commercial potential.
With a state-of-the-art swimming pool, reading room, outdoor dining area and bar, and round-the-clock personal service, the Knai Bang Chatt compound is now available for rent to vacationers—at a starting price of $1,150 per night for a minimum of four rooms.
“It’s an entirely different range of accommodation,” the resort’s manager Johan Smits noted.
The owners will not rent the resort to more than one group at a time, and if all 11 rooms in the three villas are occupied, the bill will hit the $2,000-a-night mark.
Smits said most clients so far have been from Europe and the US, but added that the owners are hoping to attract more local business with discounts for Cambodians and expatriates. For the upcoming tourism high season, Smits says the compound is already half booked.
“It’s not a hotel…you can’t just rent a room,” Smits said. “I think it’s for people who really want something different, a private place.”
For those who can afford it, privacy is the resort’s main appeal. Once a client has reserved at least one of the three villas, the grounds become theirs exclusively.
“We don’t have a reception desk,” Smits said. A staff of 12, including a French-trained personal chef, greets visitors on their arrival.
In addition to training staff and keeping the business organized, Smits acts as a personal guide and assistant to visitors—arranging travel, catering to food preferences, and bringing in anyone from masseurs to dance troupes to Phnom Penh university lecturers, depending on the wishes of the guests.
“As long as it’s…safe and it’s legal, it’s no problem,” Smits said. Smits once organized a traditional Buddhist ceremony in Kompong Trach district’s limestone caves for a visiting couple to renew their wedding vows, and has learned that it’s possible for visitors to land helicopters in an unused airfield nearby, though this has not yet been attempted. The size of guest parties has varied from a single person to an entire cast of French actors who spent four weeks in Knai Bang Chatt while filming a movie in the area.
Knai Bang Chatt’s interior design, like its exterior, is simple but studied. Driftwood is a theme material used decoratively and to build nightstands and tables, and wood-plank beds follow traditional Khmer design. Each of the three villas is themed by color, with mottled sponge painting on the walls and floors to match.
Cambodian antiques and more recent art and pottery adorn bedrooms and common rooms, placed amid shells, wood and even a large piece of whalebone. Windows and spectacular views abound—even the showers have full windows onto the ocean.
Well-kept gardens add color to the property, which is mostly covered by lawn. Guests can relax outside in traditional wooden chairs or on two large white canopy beds, one poolside, and one beachside.
The reading room, with a view of the pool and the ocean beyond, is a cozy space with a small collection of books and board games. Lyrics to retired king Norodom Sihanouk’s song “Beauty of Kep,” published in Kambuja magazine in 1967, are framed on the wall, and a photo album documenting Knai Bang Chatt’s restoration rests on a large desk.
There is no television in the resort—and because Kep has yet to install a ground telephone line, also no Internet. Smits says that most guests enjoy the respite from technology.
For all the resort’s emphasis on luxury and privacy, however, the owners say they want visitors to get to know Kep and its people.
Three percent of the profit from Knai Bang Chatt is being used to establish several development projects in the area, and the resort offers a range of private excursions to expose visitors to life on Cambodia’s south coast. Guests can also take the more typical tours to places like Rabbit Island or Bokor National Park.
Smits says visitors to Knai Bang Chatt are always struck by the kindness of locals, and delight in the novelty of a $1 roadside haircut or a morning trip to Kampot’s market.
“These people are not really used to that kind of travel,” he said.
The owners of Knai Bang Chatt acknowledge that a client base for luxury accommodation in Kep is small. They are currently discussing the possibility of including Kep in package tours with luxury hotels in Siem Reap, which Smits says are enthusiastic that Kep might become an exclusive alternative to Sihanoukville.
Standard guesthouses in Kep have expanded significantly in recent years, and Smits says the arrival of dependable electricity and a ground telephone line, planned to happen in the next year, will make a big difference.
“We are trying to put Kep on the map,” he said.