Sangkat Prey Thom, Cambodia

Photo: Knai Bang Chatt

The beach versus culture and history. It’s a consistent battle when you begin planning vacations. Most beach resorts are new. Their developers often clear the land, erect new buildings, and isolate themselves from the surrounding communities. On the other hand, you’re usually confined to cities during trips focused on culture and history. A resort in Cambodia has managed to meld the seemingly opposing ideas.

Kep was an elite beach town known as Kep-sur-Mer under French rule in the 1950s-1960s. Modernist villas, in a style dubbed New Khmer Architecture, lined the south coast of Cambodia. Everything changed in the 1970s, though. That’s when the Khmer Rouge arrived. The villas’ valuables were stripped to exchange for cash and rice under the brutal regime. Then they were abandoned. It took more than 30 years for them to start being revived. But Kep is now one of the fastest-growing tourism spots in the Southeast Asian country.

Knai Bang Chatt was one of these private homes. In 2006, its three colonial villas were restored to their original grandeur and turned into an eco-friendly resort. Six years later, the resort was renovated and expanded. It’s now home to four minimal villas, 18 airy rooms, two locally focused restaurants, and stunning views of the Gulf of Thailand. It’s been committed to the local community the entire time.

Photo: Knai Bang Chatt

Pebbled pathways and swaying palm trees fill the waterfront property. A long dock and water views are never far from sight. Natural earth tones, local Khmer artifacts, and historical artwork decorate the villas. Polished teak beds and ceramic lamps and vases have been added to each of the rooms. Plus glass water bottles, natural insect repellent, and evening treats are among their amenities.

Beyond the villas, you’ll find an infinity pool lined with a sundeck. The sun loungers were made out of found driftwood. There’s a spa for seaside massages and Kep salt scrubs. Meditation and yoga classes are offered, too. Both restaurants feature freshly caught seafood and local vegetables. The Strand is a fine-dining spot whose menu changes daily, while the casual Sailing Club sits in a former fisherman’s cottage that stands on stilts over the water. Hobie cats, kayaks, and mountain bikes hang out around the nearby Discovery Center.

It’s Knai Bang Chatt’s excursions that truly connect visitors to the local culture and history, though. The Kep Discovery Tour stops at abandoned villas, the former residence of King Norodom Sihanouk, and hillside temples. A tuk-tuk will transport you to traditional Khmer villages, rice paddies, and a local school on the Countryside Tour. A Local Fishing Experience teaches you how to fish with traditional nets. Your catch of the day will later be prepared at the Sailing Club. Or a Day on an Island deposits you on Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) for a day of snorkeling, seafood, and lots of sunshine. It will be impossible to leave this beach resort without making a memorable connection with the people in Kep.

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