24th to 27th September 2018
With plenty of time to explore a bit of Cambodia’s countryside, we head for Kampot: a small, sleepy town – not quite near the coast – renowned for its pepper plantations and salt fields. And, of course, the Durian Roundabout named after the ‘Marmite-fruit’ Kampot is equally famous for. Durian, you either love it or hate it.
As the durian season runs from mid-May to July, we have arrived a little late to ‘enjoy’ the fruit in all its olfactory and pungent glory… Not that this worries me; a fruit lover at heart, I have never developed any fondness for this tropical delicacy. They rave about it in China and consider it a absolute delight in Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, but hotels and Airbnb places in SE Asia forbid guests to bring the fruit into the accommodation. Once the smell permeates the room, it lingers rather longer than one would wish. Personally, I don’t know what is worse about the fruit: its taste, texture or smell…? I only sampled it once, two summers ago in Malaysia, and was totally unimpressed: it was like chewing tasteless custard. An experience I have felt unnecessary to repeat, as just like Marmite, durian divides folks into lovers and haters and I definitely belong to the latter group.
We book our Giant Ibis coach from Phnom Penh to Kampot through our hotel; dead simple. After travelling though Vietnam on the Futa buses, we feel like pros at budget travel. A four-hour trip at a drop of $10 in the lap of luxury: wifi, seatbelts, AC, legroom, charging points… almost the same as travelling on the UK’s National Express coaches. Only: no toilets!! ‘At Giant Ibis Transport, we’re not fans of onboard toilets. They take up a lot of space and smell bad,’ their website explains, although they relent for the night buses… Luckily for those with limited bladder capacity, or great thirst, the bus makes a couple of stops on the way…
Kampot is a tranquil town, nestled between the Elephant Mountains and the Praek Tuek Chhu river. Traffic is almost non-existent and once the ‘morning rush’ has passed, the streets empty as locals retreat to the comfort of cooler inside rooms. Quaint buildings, a reminder of Kampot’s and Cambodia’s French colonial past, line the deserted streets. Women, head to toe protected from the blaring sun, pedal past, heaving baskets either side of the back seat of their bicycles.
The advantage of sparse traffic, and the miles of flat surface skirting the river, is that it makes the town and surrounding areas easily navigable by bicycle. Unfortunately, the cycling and kayaking trip we had booked with ‘WE’ was cancelled at the last minute by the tour company. A pity we missed out on joining a bicycle ride with local guides, but bicycle rental is widely available.
With Google Maps in hand, we set off on our own adventure. The tricky bit is finding a road-worthy bicycle… Flat tyres and unreliable brakes dictate that we do not venture too far out of town, just in case, and it doesn’t take too long for potholed tarmac roads to turn into dusty, orange tracks.
We follow the river, inland first, passing guesthouses where tourists can indulge in kayaking, paddle-boarding or swimming or just lazing about in the heat of the day. We plough on, trying to discover a bit of Cambodian real life and are rewarded with a glimpse of how those huge baskets on the back of bicycles are made. However, without a local guide to explain the details, we can only take photographs and guess the rest. English is not widely spoken in the Cambodian countryside.
Cycling along the river towards the Gulf of Thailand leads to the famous salt fields, which are mainly situated along the road between Kampot and Kep. When we are there, the place is totally abandoned. Some of the salt reservoirs are full of fresh water; it has been a particularly wet rainy season. During the dry season, from mid December to April, the fields are flooded with seawater. They are then sealed off to allow the water to evaporate, leaving behind the treasured salt crystals.
The Cambodia Natural Salt Production Exhibition Centre, or the Salt Museum, is only 5 minutes outside Kampot, on the road towards Kep. Entry to the one-room museum is free and, as well as giving an overview of how the salt is harvested, you can buy some locally produced salt in 2 kg bags.. Rather too much salt to add to our travel essentials, so we’re giving this souvenir a miss.
Pepper, on the other hand, is a different matter… Both cooking aficionados, Liz and I definitely find room in our bags for some samples of Kampot’s finest BoTree Farm pepper. Although ‘La Plantation’ seems to be the pepper farm on most tourists’ itineraries, we opt for BoTree Farm, enticed by the mouthwatering and delightfully piquant samples in BoTree’s shop in town as well as the packaging which looks so ‘Waitrose’ and exclusive … with price tags to match.
BoTree Farm is wholly owned by a Scottish-Cambodian family, according to their website. And indeed, during our visit, our guide elaborates further on how the Scotsman bought the farm and, together with his Cambodian wife and her family, gave it a new lease of life and a lucrative market back home in the UK. Another form of colonialism? Maybe, but Cambodia relies heavily on foreign investment to shed its poverty and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. At least the pepper farm provides employment for locals, which is more than can be said of the China-run projects. Chinese investors are eagerly eyeing up this ‘needy’ country but definitely with more mercenary motives on their mind… (more about this in the next post on Bokor Mountain)
But what really makes our trip to the Pepper Farm exciting is travelling inland, deeper into the countryside, and watching people going about their daily life. After all Kampot is a town, and a tourist magnet for that with a liberal peppering of expats. Even our guesthouse, The Magic Sponge, is run by an expat American and his Cambodian wife… More Western than Cambodian food on the menu, but at least it guarantees good coffee for breakfast…
As we make our journey to and from the pepper farm, we pass the Secret Lake. Not secret because no one knows about it, but because of the secrets buried beneath, the peaceful surface belying the atrocities perpetrated during its construction. The lake is not a natural lake, but formed by a dam built with the hard labour and lives of prisoners and locals who were made to dig the reservoir with hand tools by the Khmer Rouge. No one knows how many people died and are buried underneath the vast expanse of water. Another macabre heirloom from the Pol Pot regime.
We get back to Kampot in the early evening to enjoy a short cruise on the river and watch sundown. It may not be the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed, but still a pleasant way to spend a few hours.