The proprietor of the thatched-roof and bamboo-walled island restaurant will acknowledge the order in sign language and broken English. She'll shuffle across the seaside grass to the dock where the crab cages sit, steeping in the Gulf of Thailand's tepid waters.
She'll return with a bucket of crustaceans and fry them in an iron wok over a charcoal fire in her open-air kitchen, searing them in a sauce made largely from sweet, fiery Kampot peppercorns. She'll bring you a heap of steaming seafood, pepper sauce, paper napkins and beer to the shaded picnic tables. You'll eat the crab - softshells and all - sucking the sauce from your fingers, drinking the beer to blunt the fiery pepper and thank the stars that few people have discovered the culinary and aesthetic pleasures of this southern coastal region.
While Cambodia's Angkor Wat temples are its biggest tourist draw, beach-bound tourists - particularly those looking for more than the backpacker-on-a-shoestring itinerary - are waking up to the unexplored beauty that this muggy country has to offer. The low-key beach town of Kep and the riverside village of Kampot, a three-hour drive south of the capital Phnom Penh, offer rough edges but simple charms, along with nearby islands like Koh Tonsay, where the crab in peppercorn is served.
The Kep-area beaches also offer alternatives to better-known regional beach resorts like Thailand's Phuket and even Cambodia's own Sihanoukville - a favorite of jet-setters (Jackie Kennedy visited in the '60s) before the country was beset by the horrors of wars, coups and the Khmer Rouge.
These days, Sihanoukville's luxury resorts have plenty of attitude, having been rediscovered by growing numbers of nouveau-riche Cambodians and others. Sleepy Kep, in contrast, seems to attract a clientele that spurns Sihanoukville's swagger.
The town of Kep consists of a collection of modest residences and hotels tucked into the foliage off crumbling pavement and dusty roads, along with rows of motley shacks and several grand villas, many of which still show the ravages inflicted by the Khmer Rouge.
Kep Beach is mostly a stretch of rocky sand directly under the main road, though that doesn't stop the locals from swimming along the stony promenade. Notable local landmarks include an unusual nude statue of a fisherman's wife and a monstrous statue of a crab.
The 16-room Beach House hotel and its tiny swimming pool hides just above the beach in the tropical hillside foliage, offering sweeping views of the gulf.
Bending around the promontory to the west and north is Kep's main drag, the Crab Market: a line of bamboo and thatch shacks where you can find crab, fish, prawns and squid, not to mention laundry service, tourist trinkets, boat rides, motos (mopeds), cold beer, cheap drugs, Internet connections, massage services and just about anything else you can imagine. The circus mix of locals, backpackers and proper tourists is a prime spot for people-watching.
Farther up the coast are Kep's nicer accommodations. Inland and up in the hills, there's the Veranda, with a wooden restaurant and bar on a slope with a vista of stunning sunsets over the water.
Waterside, Knai Bang Chatt has the swankiest lodgings in town with an emerald infinity swimming pool and stylish, modernist building. The hotel's Sailing Club next door has a dining room perched on piers over the water and a small sandy beach where you can sip vodka tonics while the waves lap your toes.
Kep Malibu Estates, despite the unusual name, is also perched inland, its swimming pool and grassy yard up a dusty road past rundown shacks and the disconcerting sight of impoverished farm families tending ragged plantings and staring blankly at passing tourists.
For many, the islands just off of Kep are the real draw. Phu Quoc is the largest, but it belongs to Vietnam and it's some distance away. For that reason, Koh Tonsay - translated as "Rabbit Island" - is arguably the most popular.
The island reportedly was used at one point as a prison colony by the country's long-ruling monarch, Norodom Sihanouk. Today, however, its dense interior foliage keeps most visitors limited to the crystalline waters that slosh the whitish sands on its north side, where simple wood platforms are dotted with hammocks and thatched roofs. For overnight stays, many families rent bungalows that are nothing more than enclosed shacks with wooden sleeping platforms and mosquito nets.For most visitors, lounging on the beach platforms, alternating between swimming in the bathwater sea and drowsy contemplation of swaying palms is the most activity one can muster.