Belgian entrepreneur Jef Moons envisions a beach destination that incorporates fine dining, culture and sports
If you haven’t visited the beach at Kep since before the COVID-19 pandemic, be prepared for a surprise. There have been a few changes.
Visitors who remember The Sailing Club will find an upgraded resort experience. Those who recall informal dining will discover a whole new culinary scene and more activities than they might ever have imagined just a few years ago.
The catalyst for much of what is happening is Jef Moons, a native of Belgium who came to Cambodia in 2003 and established Knai Bang Chatt. That original development has grown into Kep West.
Focus Cambodia sat down with Moons at his Phnom Penh sales office to talk about Kep, Kampot and the rest of the Cambodian coast, all the way to Sihanoukville and Kompong Som.
How did you come to live in Kep?
In 2003, I took a holiday from my corporate job and came to Cambodia. When we visited Angkor Wat, I looked up and saw a knai bang chatt (the name means “rainbow circling the sun”), and I knew it had to be some kind of sign. We fell in love with the people and this country. When we came to the beach at Kep and saw another knai bang chatt, I knew this was where we were meant to be.
In French colonial times, this beach was called the “St. Tropez of Southeast Asia.” In the 48 hours before we were to return to Europe, we bought three seaside villas — the house of the governor, of the head of customs, of someone in the royal family. Suddenly, thousands of kilometers from Belgium, we owned a beautiful seafront property which at first was going to be a holiday house. We renovated it with a French architect and it became Knai Bang Chatt.
How did the development grow?
As we saw the poverty around us, we started investing in humanity. We put more than $1 million into the community. Knai Bang Chatt grew from a nine-room private house in 2012 to an 18-room resort. Next to Knai Bang Chatt on the beach were some old fishermen’s cottages; we bought that property, too, and upgraded it. This became the one-and-only famous Sailing Club.
We became quite well-known on the international market. We did not sell rooms but experiences, cultural connections and human values. With only 18 rooms, we outperformed the market. Small was beautiful. The market grew and we profited.
How were you challenged by the pandemic?
Everything was placed on hold during COVID, including the 2,700-metre beach development in front of the resort. The Knai Bang Chatt resort was literally gone, as there was no sea any more. So this was, for me, a challenging time. The question I had to ask myself was: Am I dead? Or can I survive?
Because we were the only ones operating on the beachfront for nearly 20 years, I thought I had a good case to continue my journey and to rebuild the Sailing Club, the Discovery Centre, The Strand restaurant, the beachfront. Finally I received the permit from the national government to start constructing a beautiful new beachfront development.
We call it Kep West. Now we have 210 metres of beach. We have five hectares of green land. And we still have only have 18 rooms. We are small, and just a barefoot luxury product. So we have to revamp and rebrand ourselves.
The international market is not yet back. It is beginning to return, but absolutely very slowly. We hope to reestablish it in 2024. And we will adapt to the concept of the international market in combination with a high-end Cambodian market.
Many people remember the Sailing Club. Is it still there?
The Sailing Club has been rebranded as The Old Sailing Club. We’re only open now on the weekends, Friday, Saturday, Sundays, with mostly Cambodians clientele, but we hope expats will return soon. Here we serve “a taste of Asia,” with 10 dishes at $9 and small bites at $4.50, and we have a DJ playing every Saturday.
Where else can we eat at Kep West?
Kep West has been designed as a culinary beach destination. It consists first of all of The Strand restaurant, our signature restaurant at Knai Bang Chatt. Then on this long beach we have a “Green Dune Zone,” where we have The Wave, which is a seafront food-and-beverage area. The Café Grand has small bites with a taste of Asia, plus cocktails and music.
Then we have the very high-end Crab & Co. restaurant. Its like a surf and turf with great seafood platters and great beats. After we opened in April, we upgraded to offer more private dining for VIPs and officials, and we installed air conditioning.
Are there other things to do at Kep West?
We promote an active lifestyle at The Old Sailing Club. We have beach volleyball, we have a pool, we have darts, ping pong, petanque, and it’s a safe place for kids.
Our activities hub is the Discovery Centre. International guests use our facilities for sunset cruises, 10 excursions at sea, 10 more on land. We let the new flux of travellers experience something exceptional. And what is exceptional? It’s about feeling good and connecting to local culture.
We are now the Royal Cambodian Yacht Club Association, as proclaimed by the King. Our 35 founding members promote sailing and water sports to create a better Kep community. Our sailing courses are taught by internationally certified instructors. We are planning an international sailing regatta every November, a two-day mountain-biking festival in December, a 20-kilometer run. Kep West will continue to offer returning events such as jet skiing and kite surfing.
We will even offer seaplane tours over the national parks and the Kampot pepper plantations. You can pay for a 20-minute sightseeing tour or invest in a full day of training before you pilot your own plane.
Are there activities for people who prefer more sedentary adventure?
Arts are very important in our effort to make Kep a high-end cultural beach destination. In Art For Kep, we want to establish something new: public art on public land. Cambodian artists are now creating a first artwork, which is called Coral Kingdom. It is costing $100,000. They’re now doing crowd-funding and they have already raised $25,000.
We’re going to do a music festival. We are now in the process of making a cultural agenda. I would like to link to the movie festival in Phnom Penh.
Can you see a possible future connection between Kep and the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, so close across the water?
It will come. I’m not the person who can tell you the whole story, but in the last meeting about this “coastal connection,” they said they will choose an operator for the boats and the port in March 2024. We have to have professional operators who can be recognized on the international level. The whole coast will be well connected with boats, from Kep to Kampot to Sihanoukville and Kompong Son, then on to Koh Kong.
Can you imagine how much tourism can come to Kep? Phu Quoc has 6 million tourists a year, and 20 percent of them are international. Mid-term, we will need at least 2,000 rooms in Kep alone, not even including Kampot. When the new Phnom Penh-Kandal airport is finished in 2025 or 2026, it will take just 1¼ hours to drive to Kep — and Kep West is the nearest beach resort.
How will the growth of Kep impact other areas, particularly Kampot?
Kep and Kampot is one destination. New developments are popping up between. For me, it’s better to book your room in Kep because it’s clean and neat, and you can make excursions to Kampot, which is larger and has a center. If you need a backpacker’s nightlife, go to Kampot. Coffee shops from Phnom Penh are already opening branches in Kampot; let’s hope they will soon also discover Kep. The pepper farms and all the excursions are the same if you’re in Kep or Kampot.
The master plan of Kep is ready to attract international visitors. All the macro-economics for Kep are there. We have a master plan, the coastal connection, law enforcement, perfect roads; we’re working on waste treatment and we have a new dump site in Kep. So far as macro-economics, it’s all there.
What do you see happening in Sihanoukville and Kompong Son?
We know that something went wrong with Kompong Som. But we also know that there is an excellent highway. Driving to Kompong Som or to Kampot/Kep, it’s the same time. You can go to Kompong Som from Phnom Penh on the same day and come back. There is still a lot of rubbish to be cleaned up, buildings that are not clean, and safety in Sihanoukville is still an issue. But it has a high potential.
On a national level, the first thing the government wants to do is to reinvent Sihanoukville. Huge investors need to be attracted to it. In that effort, the Bay of Light is a good addition to promote Sihanoukville, and to redirect people from the past to new projects.
I believe in Kompong Som. It is definitely atop the priority list of any minister of tourism, any prime minister, to see that this place with a good airport, with beaches and islands and even better water than in Kep, that the area will be renewed. It’s a big area where industry, pleasure, gambling and beach will be created.
Are there other ongoing plans for the coastal region?
The Bassac-Kep river navigation system, projected for completion in 2028, will extend 180 km through four provinces as the first Cambodian waterway to link the Mekong River to the sea. The canal is estimated to cost $1.7 billion, but it will reduce travel times and transportation costs from inland ports.
Meanwhile, there’s a 1,247-hectare plan to develop the satellite city of Angkol Beach, 11 km east of Kep. This heralds significant new investment and innovation opportunities.