The crumbling villas are one of the first things visitors notice when they arrive in the Cambodian province of Kep, just 2.5 hours drive from the country's capital of Phnom Penh on the southern coast. At one point ostentatious, the villas are now relics, stripped of their beauty and left to decay.
One of the villas, a three-story behemoth, shows how the decay has taken root: The moss green tiles that once covered the bathroom walls are cracked. The exterior has been overtaken by vegetation, while entire floors have caved in inside the fragmented structure. A tree sprouts out of the corner of one room, the vines like octopus tentacles. Trash, debris, and shards of glass cover whatever portions of the concrete floors remain.
On the top floor, however, a sign of life appears: a seven-foot-tall black-and-white insect crawling along the floor. The graffiti art is one of several decorative pieces covering the insides and outsides of the abandoned villas throughout Kep, one of the many signs—along with leftover cigarettes and empty beer bottles—that people continue to explore the empty structures that are vestiges of Kep's glamorous past.
"What we have here architecturally is really important, because this is really the recent history of this country," says Jef Moons, who renovated and converted three of the abandoned structures into a luxury resort on the coast known as Knai Bang Chatt.
An estimated 30 crumbling and decaying villas can still be found standing in the Cambodian seaside community of Kep. Photo by Kristi Eaton.
For many people, especially in the west, Cambodia seems to be defined by three images: war, genocide, and poverty. But it wasn't always this way. Wedged between Vietnam to the east, Laos and Thailand to the north and west, and the Gulf of Thailand to the south, Cambodia was at one time an up-and-coming country experiencing a "golden age." When the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, visited Phnom Penh during the 1960s, he told Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, that he hoped Singapore would one day look like Cambodia.
Around the same time, Sihanouk—a French-educated leader who effectively ran Cambodia from 1953 to 1970, holding, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most state roles of any modern royal—began creating his resort town in Kep. Sihanouk, the son of King Norodom Suramarit and Queen Sisowath Kossamak, had in 1953 earned Cambodia's independence from French colonial rule. Despite advocating independence, Sihanouk had a deep affinity for France and its culture, turning to Kep-Sur-Mer, which was founded in 1908, to create his own Riviera in Southeast Asia. "It looks like the French Riviera. It has the nice landscape, small hills—not mountains, big trees," says Serge Remy, project manager at Vimana-Cambodia, a non-governmental organization that runs Kep Expo, a multimedia and architecture exhibition dedicated to the seaside community.
Sihanouk recruited Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, who himself studied in France and was influenced by Le Corbusier, to create his masterpieces as a sign of the country's newfound freedom. "If you want to look all over the world at what is independence, you have education. You have the army. But you have architecture," Remy says.
Another abandoned villa. Photo by Kristi Eaton.
Molyvann, born in 1926 in Kampot Province, which borders Kep, designed and created some of Cambodia's most famous landmarks, including Phnom Penh's Independence Monument and Olympic Stadium, a 50,000-seat complex constructed in the 1960s to host the Games of the New Emerging Forces, an alternative to the Olympics. The complex includes swimming pools and diving boards that now attract Cambodians looking for a way to cool off on the weekends. Known as the father of Cambodian architecture, Molyvann's influence can be felt throughout the country, including in Kep, where the villas were designed with a combination of modern elements and Cambodian accents to create a new type of architecture known as New Khmer Architecture. New Khmer Architecture features elements like raised beds, which in traditional Cambodian homes kept the rats and snakes away. The homes are typically raised off the ground, too, to avoid flooding and provide shade, and the ground floor is used as a meeting area or for activities, says Pagna Serey, who is a tour leader with Khmer Architecture Tours, a group of architects and architecture students who give public and private tours of New Khmer Architecture throughout Phnom Penh. Other elements of New Khmer Architecture include open floor plans in homes and the use of reinforced concrete. Moats may also surround houses to capture water during the rainy season.
During the 1950s and 1960s, an estimated 150 villas were constructed in Kep, including a summer home for Sihanouk. The area became an artistic playground for Sihanouk and the wealthy French colonial elite. Sihanouk, a devotee of cinema and other cultural activities, featured the area in his 1969 film, Twilight, which the royal produced, directed, and starred in.
A year later, in 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown and Cambodia descended into war. The Khmer Rouge came to power on April 17th, 1975, killing an estimated 1.7 million people in the process. As part of its drive toward a rural, classless society, the Khmer Rouge abolished money, religion, private property, and traditional Khmer culture. Some of the country's most promising cultural leaders—musicians, artists, and architects—were among those who perished, while others fled to refugee camps in nearby Thailand, ultimately starting new lives in France, the United States, and elsewhere. The advancements that Cambodia had been making, including the development of its distinctive architecture, halted. Studying the architecture and urban development of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, from 1975 to 1979—the Khmer Rouge period—is nearly impossible, says Serey.
Photo by Kristi Eaton.
"It's like there's nothing," he said in an interview at a coffee shop along Phnom Penh's Sihanouk Boulevard, just steps away from Molyvann's Independence Monument. No people were in the city, as they'd all been forced to relocate to the countryside to start agrarian-based lives. "How can you study about the urban development when there are no people here?"
Kep, meanwhile, wasn't immune to the regime. The villas, once the embodiment of Cambodia's new elite class, fell into disrepair and were stripped because they stood for everything the Khmer Rouge was against: hierarchies, wealth, and material possessions.
The Cambodian people officially suffered under the Khmer Rouge for three years, eight months, and 20 days. But although the regime's leaders fled to Thai territory after Vietnamese troops arrived in Cambodia in late 1978, the United Nations continued to recognize the regime as the only legitimate representative government in Cambodia until the 1990s. In 1998, Pol Pot, the regime's leader, died, and it was only around that time that the Khmer Rouge collapsed. "From that point, people came out of their houses and started a new life," says Moons, who established the resort in Kep. "A new economy was born."
Photo by Kristi Eaton.
Sitting in a patio in the back of his home-cum-office, Moons grows excited. Moons' eyes widen, his voice quickens and he leans in closer as he starts recounting how he fell in love with Kep and the people of Cambodia.
In the early 2000s, Moons, who hails from Belgium, had nearly purchased an estate in St.Tropez but decided against it. Then, one year later, he made his first-ever visit to Cambodia and to Kep, at that point an abandoned village with few reminders of its past glory. Everything was charred, anything of monetary value had been raided, and nature had engulfed the villas and the area.
"Why would you not forget the past?" Moons asks. "Why would you not destroy things in Kep if you knew your family had died there, that you lost that property?" It's understandable that the older Cambodians—who survived war and genocide—have little appreciation for the architecture and what it represents, he says. But that's changing with the younger generation, though they must respect what their elders went through to understand where the country is today.
Photo by Kristi Eaton.
Respecting the culture and the historical trauma are important elements of Knai Bang Chatt, Moon's resort; the name means "a rainbow encircling the sun" in the Cambodian language of Khmer. In 2006, Moons and his friend purchased three abandoned villas, all built between 1962 and 1965 and at one time owned by the governor of Kep, a relative to King Norodom and the Head of Customs. The men recruited French architect Francoise Lavielle, who is based in Phnom Penh, to restore them to their original splendor and add an additional villa to the property. The resort, which was renovated again in 2012 to add a fifth villa, is the height of glamor. Local antiques purchased at markets fill the rooms, while aspects of New Khmer Architecture, including raised beds and concrete floors, are evident.
Estimates peg the number of historical villas still standing in the area at 30, according to Remy, including King Sihanouk's. And aside from another high-end chic boutique hotel created from a renovated villa called Villa Romonea, most of the structures become more dilapidated each day. It's a concern for Moons and Remy, who believe Kep needs to develop responsibly while also preserving its past. "We change over time, people change over time...let's be a part of it," Moons says. "And let's enjoy the growth and talk and communicate with people around us with the hope we can keep certain things which we feel are important for the region."
Twenty-seven-year-old Pheakdey Toem, who was born and raised in Kep, says the community has developed over the years. Growing up, he can remember when there were just a few guesthouses offering visitors a place to stay for $5 per night. Now, places like Knai Bang Chatt and Villa Romonea offer modern-day luxury for visitors who are looking for an alternative to Sihanoukville, Cambodia's coastal beach town popular among backpackers, and appeals to families, travelers looking for relaxation, and those with more disposable income who are interested in connecting with nature, architecture, and culture. Kep National Park offers breathtaking views of the coast and seaside community along its five-mile walking path, while the crab market features a host of fresh seafood seasoned with Kampot pepper. Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, is a quick boat ride from Kep and provides additional respite for travelers.
The villas, meanwhile, continue to lure history buffs and architecture enthusiasts, who turn to residents like Toem, a staff member at a guesthouse, to act as their guides. "Architecture is more than just a building," Moons says. "Architecture is respect for the past with creation for the future."
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