Belgian photographer John Vink and his wife built a two-story home in Kep, Cambodia. He spent years splitting his time between Europe and Southeast Asia, shooting photographs of refugees in war-torn countries. Since 2000, he’s traveled a little less—going between Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and the sleepy coastal town of Kep. But in early 2009, he decided to build a permanent place in the hills outside Kep. The 62-year-old and his wife already owned several properties in the capital city. But he says they wanted to escape Phnom Penh’s incessant noise and pollution.
Mr. Vink bought the 2,000-square-meter lot from a local religious order that was moving its pagoda to a new location, and paid about $5 a square meter for the scrubby, jungly property. The nearby hills obscure the view of Kep’s shoreline over the Gulf of Thailand, which is why he says he paid less than the going rate for Kep property, which he estimates is about $100 a square meter. Instead, the home, which sits on a hillside roughly 60 meters above sea level, has a sweeping view of the Kampot plains to the northwest. Mr. Vink hired Phnom Penh-based French architect Julien Sellon to build the 160-square-meter, two-level abode set onto the hillside with stilts. He worked with a French-trained Cambodian contractor, and got the bulk of the construction materials locally, with the exception of a few things, such as imported steel and cement.
Building on a hilltop is unusual in Cambodia because of cultural customs and costs, says Mr. Vink, so he faced some challenges in ensuring that he had an experienced contractor and proper permits. At one point a month after construction began, he thought all the permits were in order, until an inspector from the local environmental protection office showed up and ordered a halt to the project. But $300 in “fees” later—a sizeable sum in Cambodia—the necessary permits were obtained and the project moved forward, Mr. Vink says. Built at a cost of about $170,000, including permits, architecture plans and construction materials, the house is newly completed, but Mr. Vink is still furnishing it and landscaping is a work in progress.