So, last night stayed at the ‘Natural Bungalows’ hotel in Kampot. My room is very pink. It’s right by the river, and ought to be lovely. It is in a way, but service at breakfast this morning was exasperatingly slow. We were supposed to leave at 8.00, and breakfast was only available from 7.00. Slow service therefore was a bit stress-inducing. I had scrambled eggs with a baguette (OK-ish, but then I’m a scrambled eggs snob, it’s really only Jonty’s in Sheffield that ticks that box for me). I also ordered coffee, which came ages later and I swear to you had the consistency of treacle. It’s quite an education seeing how coffee is served here, it’s practically undrinkable. Oh well.
Rush to get to bus, all pile in and away we go. Leaving town of Kampot, we did a couple of circuits of the roundabout so we could get some shots of the fruit which is the symbol of the town. It is the durian fruit. It is reputably the foulest tasting (and smelling) fruit – or indeed thing in the world. It is edible, but that does not make it palatable, though it is considered an acquired taste. I’ve noticed signs up in previous hotels, showing an image of this fruit with a red line through it. No durian allowed in rooms as the stench overwhelms them. Have to admit, sampling of this delicacy is on my ‘to be outsourced’ list in relation to things to do in Cambodia. As with tucking into tarantulas, I feel no desire to try this for myself, but am curious as to observing the reactions of others. Fortunately, we have a game crew, plenty of takers later on. Go them.
A short bus ride took us to the ‘famous’ salt producing area of the town. It turns out, this was off-season, so most of the little manufacturing units were locked up, and the place looked sort of post-apocalyptic desolate, only rather beautiful in a minimalist way, in the bright sunshine. It is not my intention to write up an essay now about salt production. Suffice to say that at the moment, ditches have fresh water in them from the wet season. This needs to drain away, the drying areas cleaned, and then ocean water brought back on by opening some sluice gates somewhere (nope, no idea where, didn’t know there would be an exam later) and then this water is allowed to evaporate so allowing the salt to crystallise, and, presumably, it is then collected and bagged up. I liked the surreal landscape, but it was brutal. There were some picturesque little wooden bridges over some of the water filled ditches. They were crying out for a Robin Hood/ Friar Tuck re-enactment, but too hot in the heat for anyone to take up the challenge.
Short but sweet stop, back into bus. I’m a bit bussed out to be quite honest. It is all amazing, but after yesterday’s epic journey, I could do with some exercise. As we went on to our next destination – pepper making, we learned that Cambodia is very proud of its salt, and it is exported to Thailand and elsewhere. However, our guide also noticed Thai salt being sold in a local market so he added ‘I have no idea why it goes back and forth in this way’. Food miles eh? Bonkers.
The bus bumped along dusty and mud-rutted red dirt roads, until we arrived here:
Not a pepper growing place then? I took my precautionary sign photo to get a sense of location. The eagle eyed amongst you will note that it doesn’t say where you are, only that it is a protected site. It is also all in Khmer. Oh well. We don’t need the sign, trust me. It is the hermit cave. Fortunately, there was a really steep climb of steps to get to the top, as I’ve sweated so much, I was worried my pores wouldn’t be able to squeeze any more liquid out of them. I need not of worried, I was soon drenched all over again. I’m honestly beginning to wonder what is the point of showering and washing. However clean I may feel on exiting a shower the sweat pours almost instantaneously. It is such a waste of effort all this showering and clothes washing malarkey. My clothing choices are getting more eccentric by the day, due to a diminishing repertoire of clothes to select from. I know many of my friends and acquaintances are astounded by what I will risk wearing in a public place, but even I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of venturing out in the combinations that I am reduced too. Oh well, I wont see these people ever again probably, and at least I’ll stick out in a crowd so the bus is less likely to accidentally drive off without me after an impromptu loo break or whatever…
I hung back a bit, so I could take these atmospheric shots. Meanwhile, our guide ran ahead (show off!) Soon I heard some excited chatter up ahead, it was a troupe of wild monkeys! Our guide said he’d not seen them here before so we must have just got the timing right. They weren’t scared of us, more annoyed I’d say. One clambered down really close to me, astride the multi headed figure on the balustrade. Some had young. It was pretty exciting to watch. One small monkey was clutching a piece of fruit that seemed almost as big as it! It was all very atmospheric, particularly as we had the place to ourselves at this point.
Once the troupe had moved on, we continued our ascent and ended up in the mouth of the most enormous cave. Natural rock formations seemed to create the shape of an elephant and that of an eagle. Presumably of more significance, was a section of stalagmites that seemed to adopt the shape of the sacred lingam – we are back to phalluses spurting holy water again. Around this was built a Hindu shrine of sorts, and because it dates back to 7th century (we were told) the rock and the shrine are sort of moulded together. It is very impressive and beautiful. A modest shrine was within – presumably the monkeys come and help themselves to fruit left from time to time. Hinduism was the main religion until Buddhism was brought over around 12th century I think. So the hermitage would have been relatively silent since then.
Yeah, yeah, the photos are crap, but use your imagination people. It honestly does look like an elephant when you are up close.
Some of our group ventured to the back of the cave, disturbing some roosting bats a they did so. I think maybe they were a bit too intrepid, especially given that they were wearing flip-flops. It is the first time I’ve seen our very-laid back guide look moderately alarmed, sufficiently so that he suggested they might want to come back. It was a pretty tight squeeze past those rocks for their ascent, if they had got stuck then they’d have to stay there for all eternity, because none of the rest of us would be petite enough to go after for retrieval purposes. Disaster was averted, they returned unscathed! We did some monkeying around photo posing, that was cool!
We left the cave as another group arrived. As we descended we paused to admire the amazing view from up on high across the countryside. It really is very beautiful around here.
Right at the bottom, next to the security/ admissions guy at the entrance, you could see where the water course exited the cave system. This area was cool and lush, and had been comprehensively appropriated by the staff at the hermit cave. I don’t entirely blame them for this, it is very hot. I negotiated with them to pick my way past their hammocks to gaze upwards into the cave system. It is amazing, it really is!
Into the bus, which was manoeuvred to give a ring side view of the loos. In directing the bus, our American friend again fell in a muddy patch. This is becoming a theme – he actually achieved the hat trick today so that was noteworthy. People exiting the loos had to pick their way through uneven terrain, but still made it back safely. We are like mountain goats we lot!
So, back in the bus and off again. This time, we really were going to the pepper place. Our route took us through a local village which was interesting to peer out at. We passed hairdressers and barbers shops set up under seemingly ramshackle but actually carefully equipped establishments. Under a rough wooden structure would be a barber’s chair and mirror say, the barber himself dozing in a hammock until someone was in need of his services. Absolutely still. A bit like those weird gold statue people who are ubiquitous at London land marks. You pay money to them, and they start to move, usually freaking out some and amusing others, whilst immensely annoying the overwhelming majority. I suspect Cambodian barbers and hairdressers are much more popular.
There were lots of billboards and hoarding signs all over the place. Now I’m getting my eye in, I realise that the pictures which for the first few days I took to be faded are not. It’s just that skin colour is most desirable when white. Thus all the people featured have Cambodian physical characteristics, but bleached white skin. They are all also young. It is a tragic illustration of how ideas of beauty are based on unattainable and ultimately pointless criteria. So subjective, so powerful and yet so sad. How much time do we waste on a fruitless quest for physical perfection or even ‘normality’, whatever that means. We have a running gag with one of our group (the Australian who is actually from New Zealand) she is on a quest to marry the currently unmarried Cambodian King. When she does, she intends to abolish chess (my idea this, well, it’s all about knocking over the king isn’t it?) and also depilation, well I’m all for that, what a relief eh? What a relief? Anyway, I’ll try to get around to photographing some billboards sometime.
Anyway, our destination was Sothy’s Farm to be precise.
What can I tell you about pepper? Well, I did learn stuff, and the location was just stunning, but you know what, call me shallow, you won’t be the first, but I just find it really hard to get that excited about pepper. Kampot pepper is spectacularly special, it is recognised as having a unique geographical status. ‘Like champagne!’ The local guide here constantly reiterated. But it’s not really is it? I mean it might be very fine indeed, but I’d be pretty disappointed if I turned up at a wedding do or some other celebration and got given a couple of high-grade peppercorns in lieu of a glass of bubbly.
The local guide spoke excellent English, but was somewhat formulaic in his delivery despite adding in the odd over-rehearsed joke. He spoke in great detail about pepper production and at breakneck speed. If you really want to know about this, look at their website. Salient points I got, there are three types, red, white and black.
Pepper is basically a jungle vine, that wraps itself around trees. Because of this, it requires a micro climate hence the structures built around the vines to mimic a tree canopy I suppose. It takes about 4 years to get a pepper plant to its first harvest, and then you get a few years production before you start again. The growing pepper looks like miniature bunches of grapes (well sort of, it is a bit of a stretch). Red pepper still has the skin and so has a less strong flavour (good for red meat); white pepper is the strongest as has had the skin removed. It is also not strictly speaking white, more grey. If you see very white ‘white pepper’ therefore, it has been bleached, avoid. Black pepper is, well black pepper. It’s all the same plant, it just depends when it is picked (at what stage of ripeness). The vine roots are quite fragile and would rot and die if water-logged, hence large trenches are dug around each planting area to help water drain away. These plants are organically managed. Pest control is through planting lemon grass and neem trees, and occasionally spraying with an infusion of these plus quinine. When harvested, the peppercorns are put in water (after drying?) any that float are rejected as they contain air and are therefore imperfect. These ‘seconds’ are sold more cheaply in the market but not under the approved Kampot pepper branding. Fertiliser is a mix of bat and cow poo, added on a rotating four-year basis on each side of the tree. I know trees are cylindrical, but imagine one planted in a square area and you get the idea. Or not, I don’t really care, I got quite bored with the explanations to be honest. Standing around in the heat it is impossible to concentrate on anything at all. That concludes the pepper lesson for today. Enjoy the photos.
Whilst I got more than my fill of pepper related information. I did really appreciate the stunning planting around the place. There were papaya trees, orchids hanging around the sales area, and numerous nameless flowers, each a thing of beauty. There was also a large ‘satellite dish’ type construction. Which harness the suns rays to boil water… for no real apparent purpose. I thought it might link up to solar power somehow, but it didn’t seem to. I’ll upload a photo and if I can be bothered might research it more later. It can be a mystery for now.
A surprisingly large contingent of our group queued up to buy pepper despite the eye-watering prices $16 for 250g. I don’t doubt it is ‘worth it’ for those who move amongst us with a palate sophisticated enough to tell the difference, but I don’t think my plebian taste buds can merit the expense.
I was quite relieved to depart. Used the ‘facilities’ next to the geese on the pond, and therefore was not with the group when our guide had a go on the children’s roundabout. Another in our group gave him an almighty spin, and apparently the whole thing upended on top of him. Not very health and safety conscious, but very hilarious. I was sorry to have missed it, and disappointed that they were not game to do a reconstruction just for my amusement. People can be so unaccommodating at times…
Back in the bus AGAIN. Next stop lunch. This was ‘included’ but only up to $7 and was a meal in a seafood restaurant at Kep, my idea of hell. To be fair, for them as eat seafood it was a very nice restaurant. Crab was so fresh it was living outside. It was all very clean and lovely service. I just hate seafood though. Quite aside from my perpetual fear of going into anaphylactic shock, (allergic reaction as a child means I’ve never eaten fish, and don’t regard it as a legitimate food source even before becoming vegetarian), I feel sorry for them. Plus, how is it sustainable to keep ripping fish and marine life out of the ever more polluted seas without doing anything to help manage or preserve stocks. The coastal location was nice. I had vegetarian spring rolls ($4) and a mixture of fried veg ($3). The spring rolls were absolutely delicious, possibly nicest meal I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. The mixture of fried vegetables was absolutely not. What they had done to it to make it quite so unpalatable I have no idea! Meal was entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the shopping channel reconstruction with ABC logoed beer glasses (I think our American may have had a point in saying he wouldn’t entertain the idea of buying a beer which had given so little thought to the naming of their product.) The people who ordered Angkor and Anchor beers respectively, inevitably had their orders confused. It is strange that the two most popular beer brands here have such confusingly close-sounding names!
I departed before the others. Soon we were all piled back into the bus… and deposited about hundred yards further down the road to explore the fish market. That was actually really good. You could see the fresh crab in baskets hung off the pier-side. Traders plied a mix of very touristy trinkets, and local fare such as fish paste and fresh fish of all sorts. The stall holders I spoke to all seemed happy enough to have their photos taken, though one boy did so conditionally on my showing him the photo – of which I’m pleased to say he thoroughly approved. It’s much better if you share or show photos to the subjects within, it feels less of an exploitation and more of an interaction. Amongst the sights and sounds was a suggestion box – not a letter box for notes to Santa as we first thought, and people selling Durian fruit – though it is out of season we learned earlier, so don’t know where it comes from.
As we were about to depart, our guide disappeared, then reappeared, clutching a durian fruit. Immediately it started to stink the place out. For me, it was like nausea in a plastic bag, it smelt sort of gas like. He was about to pass it around there and then, but we chorused as one ‘outside’ so he waited until we’d gone a bit further round the coast to a beachy bit to pass it round. I demured, favouring instead my role as official photographer for this escapade. A few declared it pretty vile, tasting like it smelt. But one harder intrepid traveler positively liked it and tucked in with aplomb. I felt no compulsion to join in, but commend those who did. I’m mighty pleased to have my stomach more or less back to normal digestive function, I don’t intend to abuse its generosity by hurling fruit that stinks like that down it thank you very much!
We were by a lovely bit of beach, but unprepared. It was full sun, and no bathing kit between us. Even so, it looked so very inviting, three of went in anyway, like three beautiful buoyant muses the water was gorgeous. Oh my it was nice. To be honest, because it was a public beach it was probably as well to keep covered up in any case. We had a lovely time, floating around trying to be starfish and not drown in each other when we went for a synchronised swimming holding hands style manoeuvre (do not recommend). We only came out because the rest of the group were getting restless, not fancying taking to the water fully garbed and hot and bothered in the blazing sun. Nevermind more beach later!
So clambered back into van all dripping nicely and muttering apologies to our driver who was accommodating, but may not have been best pleased. Back to hotel via a photo stop to get the Kep Crab, and very fine it is too:
Finally, back to base, the Natural Bungalow Resort. We didn’t get back til gone three. There was an optional sunset cruise at 4.30, I was tempted, but also covered in sea water and in need of some toiletries. In the end I demurred, in favour of hair washing, clothes washing and a quick sojourn out to get toothpaste and shampoo and conditioner. Always an adventure shopping for things when you can’t read any of the labels.
My hand washing is now hung around my little pink boudoir. I was going to hang it outside on my balcony area, but investigation of the space revealed copious amounts of bat poo. Now, call me unreasonably fastidious and inflexible as a traveller, but eau de bat was not the scent I was going for when rinsing my smalls in the complimentary shampoo. That time my come, but is not yet.
This concludes the update for today. Thank you for coming along for the ride! 🙂