Colonial majesty is rejuvenated at Kep’s Knai Bang Chatt
By Massimo Morello
This is a place where you can sit down, look out to sea and start talking about the meaning of life.” So says Jef Moons, the co-owner of Knai Bang Chatt, a luxurious boutique hotel in Cambodia’s small seaside town of Kep.
Known in the 1920s as the ‘jewel of the Côte d’Agathe’, Kep was a favourite destination of the French colonial administration. Following independence, then Prince Norodom Sihanouk planned to make it the Saint-Tropez of Southeast Asia in the 50s and 60s. Kep became a showcase for a Cambodia that was cultured, wealthy and apparently far from the war in Indochina. The villas of the new national elite were a symbol of this confidence. They were designed in the modernist style of New Khmer Architecture, a combination of the style practiced at the time in Europe by Le Corbusier and ancient Khmer forms, with a functionalism that reflected climate and territory. The master of this style was Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who also designed the Olympic Stadium and Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.
In the dark years that followed, those same villas turned to ruin. Climbing roots and India-rubber trees covered and devoured the walls, framing the gaps of former windows, drawing metaphysical designs on the walls on which mouldy greens and yellows have stained what is left of the blue, ochre and pink decorations beneath.
Knai Bang Chatt was originally one of the most beautiful of these villas, built close to the sea in the early 70s by a protégé of Le Corbusier. Moons and his partner Boris Vervoordt, along with architect Francoise Lavielle, have cleverly retained the original style in the building’s recent additions, as well as the elegant interiors, the communal spaces such as the seafront dining pavillion, the infinity pool and the roof terrace on one small building.
“We went in search of a lost time here,” says Moons. “We’ve tried to recreate a dimension of luxury and escapism, a place of refuge.” It is a natural, architectural and psychological dimension. An ideal place for discussing the meaning of life by the sea.
A crab dinner
Crab with Kampot pepper is the local speciality and one of the best places to try it is Kimly Restaurant, located among the many restaurants of Kep’s famed crab market. The shrimp tom yum soup and the shrimp with Kampot pepper are also worth trying. Bookings are preferred, tel: +855 12 435 096
A stone’s throw from Knai Bang Chatt (but outside the resort, assuring guests’ privacy), the Sailing Club is the ideal sunset bar and restaurant. Reminiscent of an exclusive members’ club in Miami or on the Cote d’Azur, it is actually a former fisherman’s house with a pier and a dock. Be sure to head there for the sunset happy hour, but arrive early to guarantee a seat.
Hand in Hand
Three percent of Knai Bang Chatt’s total income goes to the Hand in Hand Project (handinhandcambodia.com). The project helps the community development plan for Chamcar Bei village, working to help improve the lives of over 256 families, providing education, clean water and economic opportunities. The Sailing Club sells fun items such as regenerated plastic bags, designed and made in the ‘funky junk’ plastic recycling project.
The past and future of Kep will be examined in the Kep Expo, an event set to open on 12.12.12 in Phnom Penh, before travelling to Paris and finally returning to Kep. This permanent exhibition aims to promote and recreate Kep in a limited space through an audio-visual tour. It will also run workshops and projects that develop the skills of young Cambodian artists and students. Director: Serge Remy (email@example.com).
Tel: +855 78 888 556. For queries or reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org or knaibangchatt.com. Rates: doubles from $150 per night. See website for offers and special stays.