Things get retro even before we reach Knai Bang Chatt. My extended Smith family has spent two hours watching unseasonal drizzle through the windscreen wipers on the drive down from Phnom Penh, fighting off nausea and pesky siblings. So far, so reminiscent of the great British holidays of my childhood. But when we find explode-in-your-mouth Space Dust for sale at the petrol station en route I'm really back there. The sticky powder does nothing for the car's upholstery, but makes the snoozing dogs and ambling buffaloes on the road funny again. By the time we spy the sea between the coconut palms and casuarina trees we are almost perky.
Knai Bang Chatt is hidden behind a secret-garden wall, down a small, bumpy track off Kep’s main drag. As we shake off the Space Dust and say goodbye to our long-suffering driver, I suspect my suggestion that we might need his services during the weekend is even less than half-hearted. Yes, the Le Corbusier-style mid-20th-century villas are lovely – genuinely retro and rather chic too – but the reason I won’t be going far is that I want to wallow in the illusion that this weekend’s reunion with our visiting friends is happening in the beach house I would have inherited if only my parents hadn’t been busy having the great British holiday experience.
While the junior Smiths are perturbed by the passionfruit juice at reception, I’m excited to find that I’m rewarded for sharing with two children by getting what appears to be the star room (Mr Smith is, unfortunately, back in the city doing business). Wall-length windows overlook the infinity pool and the sea, and there’s also a private outdoor seating area. The futon-style bed has been supplemented with an extra mattress right by the window and, for the first time in their lives, the junior Smiths fight about who gets to sleep alone there.
Our explorations throughout the weekend are pretty much limited to the charmed spaces within the walls of the property. Breakfast at the driftwood table facing the ocean, flat and glassy after the storm, is long and discursive. Much time is spent on the curtained day-bedsunder the frangipani trees considering our next move. We eventually make it to the end of the wooden jetty where we hear boys in a passing fishing boat singing in time to the rhythm of the oars. Their catch provides our lunch at the neighbouring Sailing Club, a converted traditional fisherman’s house built on stilts over the sea.
To appreciate Knai Bang Chatt properly, you really do need to venture out to see what has become of the rest of the bourgeois 1960s resort town of Kep. Following the shady corniche road around the town’s headlands and beaches, we trace the partially dismembered remains of colonial and modernist villas. Forlorn washing lines strung between surviving sections of wall mark out those that are being squatted by families; the skeletons of others have been reclaimed by the tropical vegetation. These ruined holiday homes are an arresting reminder of Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s (while I was enjoying the damp British seaside). Parked SUVs and pristine walls enclosing tracts of sea-view land, however, proclaim that the bourgeoisie are back and this is once again prime real estate.
After taking in kitsch cement statues (a giant rampant crab and unfeasibly buxom bathing belle that mark the two ends of the seafront), we stop at the Crab Market. This is where the Phnom Penh daytrippers select seafood straight from the fishing boats. It’s a lively scene and if you’ve ever wondered why fishwives get such a bad rap this is the place to come and see some in action. We stroll around trying to look as if we too know how to size up the produce – flattened dried squid, shockingly pink preserved prawns, bottles of fish sauce, buckets of viscous palm sugar, heaped fragrant green mangoes and several varieties of Kampot pepper.
Tonight we’ve chosen to have dinner inside Knai Bang Chatt, where there is a tempting daily-changing set menu. Flexibility being next to godliness in Cambodia, I’m not surprised to find that negotiation with the kitchen staff is possible and we arrange a vegetarian dish built around tangy green peppercorns as well as some child-friendly options.
We eat on a terrace jutting out into the sea. At this time of year it’s too hot to sit here by day, but at night this spot catches whatever air is stirring. Surrounded by tea-lights, it feels as if we are floating and it takes some time for our eyes to adjust to the different darknesses of sea and sky and pick out the horizon. Mr Smith is far away up the Mekong this weekend, so I can’t claim to have exploited the romantic possibilities of Knai Bang Chatt, but commitment-phobes should approach the starlit, seaside dining area with caution: you could so easily be undone.
The hotel has a small spa – if the curtains are looped open the therapist is free – and I finish my stay with a massage. Like so much I experience in Cambodia, it is not quite what I expected but turns out to have been just what I needed. Stepping out of the spa I am pleasantly bedazzled by the sunlight and the recent attention to my pressure points, ready for as much Space Dust as the journey home can throw at me.