Tucked away off an unassuming dirt-and-gravel road in the Cambodian seaside community of Kep sits an opulent resort with a colorful past.
Knai Bang Chatt, which means "a rainbow encircling the sun" in the Cambodian language of Khmer, features 18 rooms located in Kep. The province was a one-time oasis for the well-heeled French and Cambodians who built ostentatious villas in the 1950s and 1960s showcasing the best of modernism infused with elements of Khmer culture.
War and the genocidal Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, left the area and the villas deserted and abandoned.
But in recent years, Kep has been making a comeback as the go-to destination for travelers looking for a refreshing weekend getaway from Cambodia's chaotic capital of Phnom Penh. Kep is known for its delicious seafood, breathtaking views of nature and unique architectural history.
Three of the historical villas were renovated and became Knai Bang Chatt.
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Knai Bang Chatt CEO Jef Moons, who hails from Belgium, said he arrived in Kep as a visitor in 2003 when there was no water, no electricity and few Western tourists.
Instantly falling in love with the community and the people, Moons and a friend created Knai Bang Chatt, which melds the old-school glamour of 1950s and 1960s Kep with modern-day luxury.
Rooms are spacious and feature private balconies perfect to watch the sun dip below the horizon each night or peek out each morning.
There are no pictures or paintings on the walls, and TVs are only available upon request, a nod to the "less is more" attitude throughout the resort.
My room featured a range of amenities and inspired details, including handmade lemongrass soap and antique vases purchased from markets. Two handmade kramas, a traditional Cambodian piece used as a sarong, towel or for decoration, laid on the bed as a welcoming gift.
"This is understated luxury," Moons said.
A bathroom at Knai Bang Chatt. Photo Credit: Kristi Eaton
Connecting visitors with Cambodian culture is an important part of the experience of staying at Knai Bang Chatt, according to Moons, so the resort uses many elements from traditional Cambodian homes to decorate its rooms: The floors are concrete and the beds are raised, which, in traditional homes, protects from vermin like rats and snakes.
"Everything that was beautiful that we could keep, we kept," Moons said of the process of renovating the villas. Two additional villas have since been added to the property.
Though the nearby beach, with its rocky shoreline, is strictly for picturesque views, the pool and cabanas offer a calm and peaceful place to relax.
Books and magazines in assorted languages fill shelves in a nearby library, which made it even easier for me to spend the afternoon lounging by the pool sipping a Diet Coke.
An on-site restaurant called the Strand features Kep's most famous dish, crab, while the Sailing Club enables visitors to indulge in a variety of local seafood and Western dishes along with cocktails, wines and beers.
A buffet of fresh juices, fruit, pastries and cooked dishes for order greeted me in the morning, giving me just the burst of energy I needed to leave the resort and return to the frenetic culture of Phnom Penh.
Rooms start at $238 in the low season and $275 in the high season, while a room with a view of the sea runs $263 in the low season and $307 in the high season.