The road to Kep is the same that leads to Kampot, but stops a half-hour sooner along the coastline. We pass through the muddy flat lands sparsely marked by coconut trees and irrigation ditches, then into the low southern mountains, a few rocky hills jutting up out of paddy, some with pagodas on top, some with cell towers. We are riding down the largest hill with dense green sloping up behind us, and then suddenly there is the sparkling sea ahead of us. The highway makes a few sharp turns and then winds along right next to the beach, where sun-baked boys are pulling in crab traps and fishing nets, and further on, a few women make slow business letting out beach shacks and hammocks to picnickers. A few meters on, the bus station is a paved area next to the roundabout that marks the center of town: a few plastic chairs for waiting travelers, a bar, a guest house, and a sign advertising boat tickets to Rabbit Island. Four tuk-tuk drivers compete for your business as you de-board the bus, each gouging the other—you can get across town for 2000 riel, 50 cents, if you hold out to the last driver.
If Kampot has just launched a tourist revival, then Kep is about a decade behind. Its long pebble beaches see ladies squatting over crab traps, and naked children taking a bath, daily laundry washing, and cattle brought for water. Checking into a modest guesthouse directly on the Gulf, we settled into our hammocks and watched a group of boys fishing off an old wooden boat, while cattle grazed behind us. Yoshi studied their slow operation. First, the boat let out a very long net trailing an arc behind. Two boys moving from our right to left were hauling net toward the boat. A third boy walked slowly to our left along the shoreline, smacking the water with a long stick, driving fish toward the net, we guessed. Two more boys worked the incoming net from the boat.
We decided to take a walk across Kep. From our guesthouse, it was a straight line back to the traffic roundabout along a pebbly road with lots for cattle grazing, another orphanage, and a few other guesthouses. The passing traffic was mostly bicycles, groups of teenage girls in white blouses and navy skirts pedaling by and flirting with Puck, eyeing Tika. From the roundabout there is a steep dirt road leading up the central hill to a forest reserve on top, Kep National Park. The ‘park’ seems only to be distinguished by the $2 foreigner entry fee and a barricade stick that opens and shuts for paying guests, putting some credibility behind the fee, I guess. Ernest was eager for a hike, although Yoshi is never too happy about walking for exercise and Tik was pushing the limits of her stacked heels—an impulsive choice of footwear that she would defend to the last. We strolled a while on the dirt path that forms a ring around Kep’s highest point. In a few places, the forest closed in a canopy over our heads, and we could just catch the colors of birds’ wings flashing over us. Ernest was all ears, and thrilled to hear the first sounds of monkey chatter from the trees. We stopped and listened to an orchestra of birds, crickets, and monkey-calls. It was amazing. Yoshi takes advantage of these moments to warn Tika against unseen predators that are waiting to leap from the next bush—it gets her every time, and then I am carrying both a tired Puck and a terrorized Tika. The heels weren’t helping her either, so it seemed this hike would be a short one. They are lucky to have a pack-mule mom, because I had brought a few changes of shoes, water, Neosporin and band-aids.
We hiked back toward the gatekeeper and the moving stick. In a number of places the canopy opens up, and we stopped to admire views way out into the Gulf of Thailand. These openings aren’t an accident, though. It seems every Tom-Dick-and Harry setting up the next backpacker house in Kep is carving out a chunk of the canopy, putting up elevated guestrooms, and marketing sea-views. It kind of bugs me that they call their places eco-lodges, as if recycling the timber into hotel flooring is a conservation project.
We made our way out of the forest and down the hill road leading back to the beach and a short line-up of crab-stands that forms the Kep restaurant district. We sat on the sea wall for a while, I drank a beer and the kids had Fanta and jackfruit. On our right was the fish market, and at the back the traps and nets were being unloaded and sorted in buckets. Women picked them over to purchase for the restaurants next door, and road-side vendors grilled fish, squid, and crabs. Puck leaned out over the sea wall to watch the back-of-market business, and got a few good salty blasts to the face. Then Yoshi tried it too. We were a sweaty, stinky group.
Before heading to smash and eat our share of crabs, we took a stroll down this mainstreet Kep. Again we passed the burnt-out concrete skeletons of once-fancy seaside villas. Behind garden walls and half-broken gates we could see in some yards the tarpaulins and corrugated metal of makeshift homes. A few families had even settled right in the frames of destroyed mansions—living like aristocrats except for plumbing, I thought. How long will it take to retrofit this place into something livable for the people today? The next lot was a grass clearing with an intensive volleyball match going on. It seemed to be the place where all of Kep’s young men were hanging out that evening. Puck pulled himself up on the fence to watch, and Ernest explained to his siblings the process of bumping, setting, and spiking the ball. A few boys put on theatrical expressions when I took their pictures. Then my boys said all the staring was making them feel awkward.
That evening we hammered and slurped crabs in a shack on the edge of the water. A few well-trained cats placed themselves beneath Tika’s and Puck’s chairs to catch the many droppings. It turned into a game. Then Tika spotted a few Khmer girls on the pebble beach behind the shack and joined them to collect seashells, which she brought me one by one for safekeeping, except for one, that contained an enormous black beetle.