A feather in Cambodia’s Kep

Kep trek

We had chosen to explore the south coast of Cambodia for one primary reason – to find bioluminescent algae, or plankton, in the ocean. We’d found none in Sihanoukville, while Kampot had its own variety of glow-in-the-dark wildlife, so Rabbit Island, off the coast of Kep, was our last chance.

Only 30 minutes down the road from Kampot, Kep sits on the Cambodian coast close to the Vietnam border. We’d booked a bus, but found the agency had overbooked the mini-van by about 10 people, most of whom were on their way to Ho Chi Minh City.

Thankfully, the driver realised there was no feasible way to get us and our luggage into the vehicle – although he violently tried for about 15 minutes – so the agents acquiesced to offload the Kep-bound passengers into a tuk-tuk.

Kep ’em coming

Because it’s so close, Kep is often visited only as part of a day-trip from Kampot, but that means missing a great deal of sights that this peculiar place has to offer.

Quiet roads in Kep
Cycling around the ghost town

Arriving over wide, dusty roads, the first thing that becomes clear is how spread out everything is. Our guesthouse was a 10-minute walk to the crab market, which itself is perhaps a 15-minute walk to the beach, and a further 20 minutes to the town centre. We hired bicycles to get around – which was certainly the best way to get about.

Amazing skies in Kep
Knight Rider intro

Our first evening we spent at The Sailing Club – a gorgeous waterfront resort with a picturesque jetty jutting out towards the setting sun. We excused a bottle of slightly-too-expensive wine as a further celebratory necessity, and watched the sun pierce clouds until the world became a Knight Rider purple.

Stepping on frogs
Frog fright

It’s important to have a torch on you round these parts; although the main road is lit, many others aren’t, and you might find yourself stepping on fat frogs in the darkness, as Swarana did, to her horror.

Cycling around the peninsula is a lot of fun though. Stop in at the crab market to eat the catch of the day – which is brought in from traps in the water, straight to the pot – or cycle on round to Kep beach.

The beach itself is nice, but a bit over-exposed. There’s no shade from noon till sunset, with not so much as an umbrella in sight. But the water is warm and the sand is a beautiful off-white. Interestingly, we found out the sand was imported – Kep originally didn’t have a beach of this ilk, but the Cambodians sought to boost tourism so shipped the sand down from Sihanoukville.

Where people in Kep hang out
Hammock jungle

The area surrounding the beach is a bit uninspiring – unless you want to hang in a hammock among a hundred others. Cambodian families on holiday will noisily eat their lunch under the scores of hammock shelters, but the food in the area is relatively expensive and generally bland.

Massive crab
Kep Kep Clean!

Further round the coast, past the second giant crab sculpture we’ve found in south-east Asia (the first being in the appropriately named Krabi) you come to the main town, which retains the wider area’s openness. It’s quiet, really quiet. Stop in at Breezes if it’s too hot and enjoy a cocktail and some fried dumplings under the billowing curtains of their sea-view four-poster beach beds, if you want to really put the brakes on.

Dumplings and wine at Breezes
This is romance

There’s little to do around the town, apart from cycle past dilapidated ruins of French villas, ransacked and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Many of these buildings are overgrown with vegetation, and have become more home to monkeys and cattle than human. The smell inside, should you feel compelled to explore, is a pungent stink of cow dung.

French villa ruin
Nature reclaims its land
Take a hike, buddy
From sunset rock, Kep National Park
Big nips, mate

If you can bear the heat, Kep has at its centre a beautiful national park, comprising a couple of mountain peaks covered in lush rainforest. A local expat – owner of the Led Zep Café – has helpfully placed directions all around the park, opened trails for hikers and built signs that correspond with viewpoints’ horizons, which is a particularly nice touch.

Blossoms at Kep National Park
The pink path…

Once you’ve paid the entrance fee (about a dollar per person if I remember rightly) the road up to the trails is overhung with pink blossoms and palms, and passes one or two cafes and guesthouses.

If you’re wondering if you’ll see any wildlife inside, just say out loud: “I wonder if we’ll see any wildlife today.” Bam! – You’ll have lizards scarpering over your feet into the bush like they feed on coincidence.

Kep monkey
Little monkeys…

You’ll also probably find families of monkeys clambering through the canopy, while at your feet are bright red beetles, like an evil version of the green insect we found in the Cameron Highlands. There’s mention of a butterfly farm somewhere up there, but, frankly, the whole place is a butterfly farm.

We spent four or five hours up that mountain, drowning in sweat but loving every minute of the steep climbs, the perilous paths and the periodic panoramas, whenever the canopy broke to reveal sweeping vistas.

Kep National Park views
A view from the ridge

However, we were most thankful, upon our return, for the maze-like bar and villas of Veranda. Our limbs creaked as we lay them to rest, sipping uncommonly good happy-hour cocktails and watching another great sunset from the lofty terrace.

Heading to Rabbit Island, Cambodia
Boats have tyres in Camodia

But one thing remained – Rabbit Island, or Koh Tonsay as it is known in Khmer. Our last chance to see plankton.

It was only a hare’s breadth from the coast, so we hopped over on a long-tail, or “water-ship”, down to the island, which was covered in Buggs.

Back to basics

Rabbit Island has one beach, with an array of cheap bungalows set back behind trees and little kitchen bars. The accommodation is universally basic, though some manage to be even dingier than others: those that do have a bathroom, might not have a sink, or squatting loos – of which I have only gruesome tales.

Hanging on Rabbit Island
“Yaaaaa… what’s up doc?”

That aside, the island is very nice and peaceful. But it was the evening we so desperately anticipated. Having a few drinks after dark, we found one bar towards the end that was playing music for a group of tourists drunkenly having a dance-off.

They were on the Stray Bus tour, something we’d been introduced to by Vic and Rachael, two English girls we’d met in Krabi and then again in Phnom Penh. It sounds convenient – pay a single fee and then book yourself onto the tour, taking each segment at your leisure – though perhaps a little expensive. But they stop at all the places you’d probably like to see on a short, sharp trip through the region.

Either way, these people were drunk. But they had a Stray guide with them, who lit a fire to provide us with some light after the electricity went out at 9.30pm. It was time to head into the water.

Swimming with sparks

It is hard to explain how immensely beautiful it is to be swimming through the glinting green plankton. Kick a leg out and a bright green cloud shimmers below the surface. Lift your arm from the water and watch as a hundred little stars twinkle out of existence on your skin.

Stretch your fists out in front of you and wade quickly through the water; you’ll feel like a superhero travelling at such colossal speed through the universe, the stars and space itself will bend and flow over the contours of your body. Awesome, in the true sense of the word.

Alternatively, if you’re French and a bit tipsy, you can take all your clothes off and proclaim: “You can make your dick actually glow in the dark. C’est fantastique.”

Radioactive rods

All the wonder of nature distilled into making your genitals glow. Was I thinking too much about the inherent beauty of these tiny glowing organisms? Or was I missing out on an experience too profound for words? Was having a veritable “glow stick” a feat too incredible to fathom?

Yeah, I got naked – far enough away from the French chap, thank you very much. But, you’ll be surprised to find that having your penis glow is less spectacular than warping the universe around your fists.

But that’s just my opinion.

We left Koh Tonsay the next day, mission accomplished. From Kep, we took a tuk-tuk to Kampot, where we stayed one night before heading back to Phnom Penh. Then, finally, we’d make our way to Battambang in the north-west of the country. Unlike Hunter S Thompson in Barstow, Battambang really was bat country.

Snug as a bug
Bright red beetles in a green jungle
Kep-trekking beetles
Insect in Kep National Park
Swarana’s rainbow-etched butterfly pic
Thanks ants, thants
Climbing up the walls
Gecko found in Kep
You eye-balling me Mister?

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