People often talk about the sheer diversity of Asia, and I got to experience a little of that myself on my first trip. From the frenetic, vibrant energy of Saigon in Vietnam to the staggering and iconic temples of Angkor, and the rural communities along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers with their traditional stilted houses. I'd learnt about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime and admired the opulence of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, a city which has reawakened from its past. I'd travelled by tuk-tuk, cyclo and even a two-wheeled oxcart, and seen dozens of motorbikes, some carrying whole families. Finally, I was to head to the coast for a serene retreat...
Cambodia's best kept secret
When I had first crossed the border from Vietnam, I’d flown into Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. My cruise aboard the Jahan took me from Kampong Cham in the east of the country to Phnom Penh in the country’s south-central region. Finally, I was to head further south to Cambodia’s coast, for a two-night stay at the Knai Bang Chatt Resort in Kep.
Kep has always held an allure for the elite, as a fashionable French seaside retreat in the early 20th century, and later as a playground for the wealthy in the 1960s, before it was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge regime. Faded, haunting villas which hark back to Kep’s glamorous heyday are empty shells. However, at Knai Bang Chatt, some ‘60s villas have been lovingly been transformed back to their former glory.
Set right on the edge of the sea, surrounded by jungle-clad mountains and misty islands, Knai Bang Chatt could not be in a more spectacular and picturesque setting. The restored glamour of the villas, the casual, laid-back vibes of the resort, and the opportunity to enjoy some watersports or refreshing cocktails at the adjacent Sailing Club are what adds a touch of ‘barefoot boutique’. Inspired by the Japanese concept of ‘Wabi Sabi’ – or finding the beauty in imperfection – accommodation is minimalist, rustic, and features earthy tones and natural materials, from teak for the frames of the traditional Khmer beds to organic paint on the walls. Each room has its own character, but all offer spaciousness and bright, airiness.
Arriving at Knai Bang Chatt in early afternoon, we had the rest of the day to relax, refresh, and explore on our own before dinner. I enjoyed some absolutely delicious crab cakes at the Sailing Club before I took the opportunity to avail myself of the spa, and booked a traditional Khmer massage (well, when in Cambodia…). After an hour of kneading and a bit of stretching (not too rigorous, fortunately), I felt incredibly refreshed and rejuvenated. Dinner during our first night at Kep, we walked the short distance from the resort to the local crab market, and enjoyed a local meal. As crab is a famous specialty of Kep, I tucked into fried crab with fresh coconut milk, garlic, lemongrass and salt – mouth-watering, if not quite a bit of hard work to get into the meat.
Until quite recently, Kep was part of the much larger Kampot Province, which surrounds Cambodia’s smallest province on all sides. Kampot is renowned for its pepper – revered by many chefs as the best in the world – and the next morning we headed out on an excursion to visit a pepper farm. Afterwards, we visited a small Muslim fishing village, and then toured Kampot Market, a hub of energy, with sellers selling fabrics, jewellery, food, and everything in between. Finally, our tour concluded with a visit to some local salt flats (quite appropriate considering our first port of call on the day’s tour), but as it was the start of the monsoon season, work on the flats had finished. With some more time at leisure following our return to the resort (just in time before the heavens opened), I treated myself to another spa treatment, this time a ‘fruity vitamin facial’ – and I must admit, my face was truly glowing afterwards!
My wonderful, memorable first trip to Asia was sadly drawing to a close, with a sublime final dinner at The Strand (the Knai Bang Chatt’s main restaurant), and a morning spent relaxing in the pool before heading back on the long journey home from Phnom Penh via Saigon back to Heathrow overnight.
I completely fell in love with Asia during this trip, and I can’t wait to go back and explore further. The food, the people, the diversity, the scenery, the hustle and bustle, the history, the culture – they’re all the perfect ingredients for me. I visited during the early monsoon season, but was relatively lucky with the weather; yes, it was humid and hot, but that’s to be expected in a tropical climate, and we only had rain perhaps about a handful of times. The rain we did have didn’t really affect our plans too greatly, except perhaps for a shorter ride on the two-wheeled oxcart.
Food was definitely a highlight for me, as I am quite a foody and certainly a fan of spice. The chillies out in Vietnam and Cambodia are fiery and fresh, just how I like them, so I found I didn’t need to add as many chillies as I do at home to reach the right amount of spiciness for me. Fruits such as papaya and mango played an important role in many dishes, particularly salads, and I even tried banana flower for the first time. I must admit I regret shying away from trying a fried grasshopper when offered by a local woman in Kampong Chhnang – next time, I won’t pass up the opportunity! Generally, the food was all delicious, but the first dinner together at Lemongrass in Saigon, the meal at Kroya hosted by Shinta Mani, the crab cakes and the final dinner at Knai Bang Chatt were probably my favourites. I’m not surprised that Lemongrass is rated as one of the top 100 restaurants in the whole of Asia, because the flavours were absolutely delectable – lemongrass seafood soup, sautéed glassnoodle with seabass in curry sauce, grilled beef with mango salad, fried spring rolls with calamari, and sautéed spinach with beef, they were all divine. The meal at Kroya exhibited Khmer ingredients and dishes in a perfect fusion with fine-dining style presentation, starting with a refreshing aperitivo ‘mango martini’ (Sombai liquor, mango, pineapple and finer), an amuse-bouche featuring typically Cambodian sun-dried fish offset with the cool, fruity flavours of watermelon and mango, a delicious pepper steak seasoned with fiery Kampot pepper, and a mouth-watering desert of char-houy toek. I would return to the Sailing Club at Knai Bang Chatt just for the crab cakes alone, which had a decent kick to them and were accompanied by fresh, zesty Asian slaw. Our final dinner, hosted at the Strand (‘Kep’s signature restaurant’), was a Khmer family-style meal, with plenty of courses, and very filling and satisfying, particularly the beef salad, smoked fish with mango salad, and pork ribs.
It's almost impossible to pick out a favourite moment on this trip, because I was so lucky to experience so much. The sunrise at Angkor Wat was undeniably unforgettable, but I think many of my favourite memories are formed by a myriad of vignettes of people-watching, mental Kodak-moments ingrained in my memory of zooming motorbikes with whole families riding on them, elderly people snoozing or preparing vegetables, women selling fruits or pigs heads at busy markets, an old man snoozing in a hammock, school children running up to greet us enthusiastically with flowers and show off the English they knew, fishermen sailing in small, wooden boats.
With such a variety of experiences - from a city tour of Saigon and the historic Cu Chi Tunnels, to the wondrous ancient temples of Angkor, a memorable river cruise where I enjoyed lots of unique insights into daily life in rural Cambodia, as well as Phnom Penh, and a coastal retreat - my trip with Insider Journeys was the perfect first taste of Asia for me. But with such diversity, such in-depth explorations of the highlights of Saigon and Cambodia, this is a trip to suit those yearning to see a different side of life, and interested in history, culture and food. Accompanied by Ian, our Western Tour Leader, and various local guides throughout, we were better able to understand the history and cultural differences of the places we visited.
If you're interested in discovering Asia with Insider Journeys, contact us today!
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Knai Bang Chatt, infinity pool with ocean views
Knai Bang Chatt
READ MORE ABOUT AMY'S TRIP TO SAIGON AND CAMBODIA WITH INSIDER JOURNEYS...
Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part One, Motorbikes and Pho
Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Two, Iconic Angkor
Saigon and Cambodia with Insider Journeys: Part Three, the mighty Mekong in style
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