Bypass Bali and Head to this Undiscovered Gem Instead

Skip the Bali crowd and venture out to this serene Cambodian beach town.

The small province of Kep, on Cambodia’s southwestern tip, is unlike the more populous areas in the country we’re always hearing about. It operates at a slower, quieter pace, and though Cambodia’s economy benefits greatly from tourism, this seaside retreat offers a unique, affordable, and quieter alternative to Southeast Asia’s more trafficked destinations, like Bali and Siem Reap. It is a locale rich in activities—cultural, athletic, and rejuvenating.

Stay

Kep has no shortage of lodging that’s only a short walk from the Gulf of Thailand—a popular meditation oasis. Picturesque, colonial-style boutique hotels, such as the treehouse-inspired Tara Lodge Haven of Peace, tend to draw yogis and quiet beach seekers. Located on a small dirt road, beset by lush, green trees and other quaint B&Bs, the Tara Lodge features spacious second-floor cottages with breathtaking balcony views of the surrounding forest and gulf. Relax by the swimming pool, indulge at the spa, and mindfully enjoy a complimentary breakfast at the treehouse-style café: Here you’ll find long wooden tables for mingling, surrounded by thick foliage and gorgeous views of vibrant plants, birds, lizards, and other wildlife—plus the freshest fruit smoothie life has to offer.

Tara Lodge is a quick jaunt (less than 150 meters) from the Vagabond Temple Yoga and Meditation retreat: an ideal destination for those interested in yoga, Reiki, and sound-healing sessions. And during our stay, the lodge manager Alexis (delightfully friendly and French) was full of local recommendations to fit every temperament.

Kep, Cambodia

Eat

Kep’s most notable food feature is its Crab Market—a huge, open-air forum where fishermen drag crab cages right out of the ocean and merchants wait to sell their daily hauls to locals and tourists alike. The market buzzes with dozens of languages and competing aromas of fresh meat, produce, and sweets for sale. Coal grills sizzle with kabobs, while carts on the market’s outskirts hawk freshly ground sugarcane juice, which resembles a tasty lemonade treat.

Kep’s provincial neighbor Kampot (they once were a single province) is famous for its production of peppercorn, which comes in several different colors and flavors and adorns almost every dish in the region. (Through a 1940s screwball-comedy-like-misunderstanding, Alexis’s French inflection made it sound like we simply had to order the paper crab curry at Holy Crab, Kep’s best restaurant. The pepper crab curry did not disappoint.)

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Play

Kep boasts beaches reminiscent of Padang Padang Beach in Bali, but for some heart-pounding entertainment, a hike up Phnom Chhngok (Chhngok Mountain) is a true delight—albeit relatively easy. A short half-hour tuk-tuk ride can take you from Kep through a small village to the foot of the peak. Local children, excited to socialize with visitors, don headlamps and offer tourists sneak peeks of the hidden temple inside the mountain. In the main cavern, a 1,400-year-old carved temple to Shiva is guarded by two natural stalactite sculptures aptly nicknamed the mother and baby elephants. While the temple itself is about the size of a phone booth, dozens of tourists from many countries squeeze through in an hour or so. (Compare that to the thousands of people who crowd Angkor Wat temple each morning.)

To cool off after your hike, swing by Kampot’s Secret Lake (which is hardly a secret) for a quiet waterside retreat. It’s the perfect spot to practice a little yoga in one of the perimeter’s small pagodas or out under the sun by the water’s edge.

Before you leave Kep, take in the tranquility at the Butterfly Garden. Located in Kep National Park, on which the Tara Lodge sits, the Butterfly Garden’s hiking and cycling trails are great for all fitness levels and feature enclosures that display the full butterfly life cycle.

Ultimately, Cambodia’s youngest and smallest province provides practically perfect provisions, picturesque places to rest your head, heart, and soul, and activities for staying active and inspired.

Kep, Cambodia

Insider travel tips

  • Like in Indonesia, the exchange rate of the Cambodian riel is extremely favorable to the dollar (about 4,000 riel equals 1 USD) but unlike any other country in the region, Cambodia takes American currency everywhere. So save yourself the hassle and expense of the airport money-changing stations. 
  • Kep doesn’t have an airport, so the easiest way to get there is to fly into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. A taxi aggregator service such as BookMeBus can provide a private driver for the three-hour (or so) trip from Phnom Penh to Kep for the approximate price of $6. 
  • Traffic lanes are merely suggestions in Cambodia. The common driving etiquette consists of swerving back and forth on narrow roads trying to pass the vehicle in front of you while dodging oncoming traffic. It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily carsick. 

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