Until recently, most American travelers to Cambodia would marvel at the vast Angkor Wat temple complex and then spend two or three days relaxing poolside in the nearby city of Siem Reap, before continuing their Southeast Asia itinerary in Vietnam or Laos. However, it is increasingly possible to regard Cambodia as a destination in its own right. The capital, Phnom Penh, is worthy of a day or two’s exploration; the exceptional river cruise company, Aqua Expeditions, offers journeys down the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh to the Mekong Delta; and along a stretch of coastline known as the Cambodian Riviera — a nod to the country’s French colonial past — an increasing number of upscale resorts provide competition for beach properties on the Thai islands of Phuket and Koh Samui.
From our first stop at Shinta Mani Wild (read our review here), it is a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Sihanoukville, a port of nearly 150,000 inhabitants. The city itself is of diminishing interest to visitors, since it has become a major focal point of China’s developing Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese investment is transforming the harbor facilities and the highway system; the new high-rise apartment buildings are intended primarily for Chinese nationals; the casino business is burgeoning; and road signs in Mandarin are increasingly replacing those in Khmer. However, Sihanoukville still provides a point of departure for the Koh Rong Archipelago and other offshore islands.
Three years ago, we visited Song Saa, an idyllic 24-villa private island resort, located 45 minutes by speedboat from Sihanoukville, which became our 2016 Hideaway of the Year. (It remains a recommended property with a rating of 94.) On this occasion, we had opted to spend a few days at Six Senses Krabey Island, a 30-acre microdot, located 15 minutes by speedboat from a private jetty on the mainland. (The property opened in March.)
On a sunny day, skimming across smooth azure water, the boat ride was far too brief, and as we approached the island’s pier, I felt rather shortchanged. Still, the welcome was warm and the densely forested island looked intriguing. A golf cart took us up a steep hill to the resort’s main building, which houses an airy reception area, a sunset bar, AHA Restaurant and an ice-cream parlor next to a 90-foot lap pool. Formalities complete, we were driven to our Oceanfront Pool Villa Suite, one of 40 freestanding accommodations that are dotted all over the island.
It was immediately apparent that Krabey Island will not appeal to those who don’t like to be surrounded by trees. Most of the villas are hidden away in the forest, and many lack ocean views. Of course, if privacy and seclusion are your first concern, this may not be a drawback. Our own temporary home was accessible by a steep path — fine going down, less good on the way back up — and offered a partial view of the sea as well as a private path to an oceanfront boardwalk. A sizable deck, screened by tropical foliage, came with loungers, an umbrella and a partially shaded plunge pool; it provided an idyllically peaceful place in which to read and relax.
Inside, the air-conditioned villa offered a separate sitting area, a spacious bedroom, a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows with electronic blinds and ample built-in storage space. The adjoining gray-marble bath was well-lit and came with an egg-shaped tub (which filled extremely slowly) as well as a walk-in shower. Overall, our accommodations were tranquil, spacious and comfortable, but they seemed somehow lacking in distinctive character.
In general, Krabey Island is well-managed, and its staff are consistently charming and helpful.
It takes just seven or eight minutes to walk from one end of Krabey Island to the other, so we headed out on a tour of inspection. To our surprise, we found only a small artificial beach — if you Google the resort, the picture that appears is extremely misleading — and few places where you can find a way through the rocks in order to bathe in the ocean. Various water activities are offered, such as kayaking, paddleboarding and snorkeling, but the simple pleasure of swimming in clean tropical sea is elusive. The principal reason for a stay, it soon became apparent, is to spend time in the huge spa, which we discovered at the top of the island. (Later we enjoyed a Khmer Massage, which is far less aggressive than the customary Thai massage and involves the kneading of pressure points through loose-fitting pajamas. In addition to the expected treatments, yoga and meditation classes are offered, and if you are feeling confident, you can sign up for a comprehensive wellness assessment.)
Krabey Island is also distinguished by its food, served at AHA Restaurant in the main building and Tree Restaurant, close to the beach and watersports center. The outdoor terrace at AHA, with its panoramic view of the ocean, soon became our preferred venue for refined Cambodian dishes like samlor khmer, handmade noodles with mantis shrimp, water lily and banana blossoms, and local seafood such as pan-fried coral grouper with garlic-and-broccoli purée, river prawns, flowering chives and coriander oil.
In general, Krabey Island is well-managed, and its staff are consistently charming and helpful. However, for us, the lack of a real beach was a deal breaker. Spa aficionados will undoubtedly arrive at a more positive assessment.
The extensive spa; the panoramic terrace at AHA Restaurant; the friendly and hospitable staff.
The lack of a proper beach and opportunities for sea bathing; the dense forest cover, which must make some villas rather claustrophobic.
In addition to a menu of water-based activities, it is possible to take Cambodian cookery classes.
When planning our trip, we had considered a stay at Alila Villas Koh Russey, another new resort on a neighboring island. Being pressed for time, however, we decided that visiting two properties within sight of each other was an unjustifiable indulgence. This may well have been a mistake, as Alila is a distinguished company — in the past two years, we have recommended its hotels in Bali and Oman — and the property in question has a three-quarter-mile-long stretch of sand, which, we subsequently discovered, is considered to be one of the finest beaches in the region.
Back on the mainland, we were met by a driver who was to transfer us to Kep, a town 75 miles to the east that was once a favorite seaside destination for both the Cambodian royal family and senior French colonial administrators. (It was formerly known as Kep-Sur-Mer.) The journey took nearly three hours, as a long stretch of the road was being upgraded by Chinese engineers. En route, the unspoiled city of Kampot is a delightful place to stop and explore. Much of the French colonial architecture, including the governor’s mansion, remains intact, and there are numerous tiny cafés where you can sit and watch the world go by.
Today Kep is a sleepy place backed by green hills, with a few small hotels and restaurants and a famous crab market. Back in the 1960s, however, the town was at the height of fashion, a chic seaside enclave where King Norodom Sihanouk and his entourage socialized with high-ranking diplomats as well as Parisian luminaries like Catherine Deneuve. But French Indochine came to an end, and eventually the Khmer Rouge seized power. For Pol Pot and his cohorts, Kep symbolized virtually everything they detested — French colonialism and the Cambodian ruling class — and they systematically destroyed the lavish modernist villas as well as the royal palace. Many of the ruins still stand, pockmarked by bullets and by now semi-overgrown.
Just a handful of villas somehow survived, three of which have now been combined to form the 18-room Knai Bang Chatt resort, a labor of love for expatriate Dutchman Jef Moons. Located on a modest residential street that runs parallel to the sea, the walled property is unobtrusive, indeed almost invisible, from the outside. But beyond the reception building (once owned by a relative of the king) we found a serene enclave, with an expanse of well-watered lawn, a stretch of quiet seafront with a strip of artificial beach, a swimming pool and a shady, open-sided restaurant.
The villas were designed by the architecture firm of Vann Molyvann, a distinguished Cambodian protégé of Le Corbusier, and the most striking is the Blue Villa, which once belonged to the governor of Kep. The adjacent Red Villa was owned by the former head of customs. We found that we had been allocated to the resort’s only suite, which occupies the top floor of the Brown Villa and is accessed by a spiral staircase. It proved to be a huge, light, open-plan space, with a living area, a writing desk, an enormous rectangular tub, a separate shower and an idyllic outdoor terrace with a view of the ocean. Within seconds I had decided that if I were writing a book, and the cost were not a consideration, it was somewhere I would be happy to live for three or four months, while escaping the North American winter.
Most of the accommodations at Knai Bang Chatt are more modest, however, and in general the style of the property is understated, rather than overtly luxurious. Most Hideaway Report members would likely be unimpressed, but a minority, who prefer hotels that are laid-back and idiosyncratic, might well find the place to be congenial. Amenities include a small spa and The Strand restaurant, which serves a delicious locally sourced menu of French-Cambodian cuisine with an emphasis on seafood. Next door (and under the same ownership), The Sailing Club Restaurant & Bar provides a casual waterfront setting for simple bistro-style food. (The house specialty is the stir-fried Kep crab with Kampot peppercorns, onion and garlic.) Five-course dinners for up to eight people are also served on the rooftop of the Blue Villa.
The activities at Knai Bang Chatt are well-organized and include sunset cruises aboard a converted fishing boat, guided hikes in Kep National Park and boat tours to nearby islands — which have superior beaches — for picnics, swimming and snorkeling. Moons is currently running a marine-preservation project on Koh Karang island, having already provided an admirable example of enlightened social engagement by funding a school in the nearby village of Chamka Bei.
Given its colorful history and obvious potential, I suspect that hotel investment will soon return to Kep. Ten years hence, the town may well have recovered a little of its former glamour. For now, it is a somnolent, slightly shabby place of strangely indefinable charm.
Our exceptionally spacious and stylish suite; the delicious seafood at The Strand; the relaxing, laid-back atmosphere.
The modest size of many rooms; the artificial beach; the slightly cloudy water in the swimming pool.
It is only a 10-minute boat ride to the lovely beaches on Koh Tonsay island.