Kampot is cool; seriously cool. We would highly recommend it to anybody visiting Cambodia. We arrived here yesterday via a fairly uneventful 2 hour minivan ride. On the trip we met a really nice woman from Chicago, who is part of the Peace Corp and has been working in Koh Kong for the last year and a half at a public health clinic. Her initial expectation was that she would be educating people about HIV, contraception etc. However, when she got here, realised that she’d have to start at a far more basic level. She said one of the key things she talks to people about is the need to drink more water, and trying to overcome the commonly held view here that drinking water makes you fat and/or gives you a cold. It sounded like she also spends a fair amount of time convincing people that her freckles are not a sign of some deadly contagious disease.
We said goodbye to her on arrival in Kampot. We were keen to get checked-in and get to exploring. Kampot is a really easy town to get around – you can navigate based on the river that borders the main part of town, the 3 bridges that run across the river and also the iconic roundabouts throughout town. Directions often go something like, “take the first left at the durian, go straight for a bit, go right at the salt mining couple and carry on until you get to the big white horse”. We had an awesome brunch (the food scene here is so so good, and you can actually get decent coffee) and then wandered the streets for a bit snapping pictures of the street art and French colonial buildings and picking up some really cool vintage souvenirs. In a nutshell, Kampot is everything we thought Battambang would be, but wasn’t. We tucked into some of the meatiest ribs we’ve ever had (voted the best in Cambodia 2 times running) for dinner in the evening, and wrapped things up with a foot massage. First day in Kampot = tick!
Today we set out on a scooter to get a glimpse of what Kampot is really famous for – pepper and (to a lesser degree) salt. The salt flats aren’t really in peak production at the moment, so we whizzed by those on the way to Sothy’s Pepper Plantation. Sothy’s is a member of the Kampot Pepper Producers Association. Kampot pepper in all its forms (green, black, white and red) is regarded amongst the best in the world. Apparently, its superior flavour is due to the high concentration of quartz in the soil, the consistency of the Kampot climate (no great variation between day and night) and the fact that only organic fertiliser (cow poo and bat guano) is used. Kampot Pepper has recently received Geographical Indication status meaning that only pepper grown in Kampot to very specific standards can be called “Kampot Pepper” (in the same way as only certain wines can call themselves “Champagne”). Many of the world’s top restaurants will only use Kampot Pepper – it’s quite the big deal.
Sothy’s offer free tours of the plantation, which was actually a whole lot more interesting than expected. Turns out that pepper plants are actually incredibly vulnerable and require huge amounts of love and tending to. The pepper plants aren’t fertilised by insects, but by the right combination of sun, water and nutrients, so it is critical to get these basic ingredients right. There is only 1 harvest a year, so you’re in trouble if you cock it up. The harvest itself is done in March, April, May and is an entirely manual process. The different grades of peppers must adhere to the strict standards of the Geographical Indication status and every individual peppercorn is sorted and quality checked by hand (and tweezers) – that’s what this lady (below) is doing. Peppercorns that don’t make the grade are either sold as an inferior product for a discount, or sold as ground pepper.
There was no hard sell at the end of the tour, but we picked up a few bags of different peppers to bring home. They’re almost too fancy to just bung in the pepper grinder, so we’ll have to do a bit of swat and figure out how to use them.
It was a long trip on the bike to get to our next destination, and Kampot’s premiere tourist spot – Bokor National Park. Bokor was established by the French in the 1920s as a hillside retreat for expats to escape from the ferocious Kampot heat (it really is hot as hell here). A church was built, along with a palace, post office and other amenities. The French abandoned the area at the height of the First Indochina War and it was later claimed by King Sihanoukville who pimped out the palace and turned it into a casino and built himself a wee summer house on the hillside. The whole area was abandoned again in the 1990s, but not before being the site of epic gunfights between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese (one group holed up in the church, and the other in the casino) during the height of the Khmer Rouge’s power. Nowadays, almost all of the historic buildings have been abandoned, but are open to the public to explore. They’re far more interesting than the god awful new casino and resort that have been recently constructed on the hilltop.
Wandering through the abandoned buildings, spotting the bullet holes in the walls and reading the slightly creepy graffiti on the walls made for a fairly spooky experience. Not surprising then that several horror films have been made here.
On the way up the hill we also paid a visit to Ya Mao, the guardian of the coast and a sort of St Christopher (patron saint of travel) who overlooks the travels of people who make offerings to her. Legend has is that Ya Mao died at sea while travelling to see her husband. As a result, the Khmer assume (and I quote from the Kampot Survival Guide) “that Ya Mao was wanting sausage” and so, to this day, primarily offer her phallus shaped objects including bunches and bunches of bananas. This was certainly true of the offerings on display today. Poor Ya Mao had an entire plantation of bananas to get through. The only downside to our trip was the scorching burn I managed to give myself from the scooter exhaust (schoolgirl error!). Funny how the smell of BBQ loses all its apppeal when it’s your own skin that’s cooking.
Tomorrow we’re off to Kep, the last stop on our Cambodian trip. We’re hoping it can pick up where Kampot leaves off and dish up a few more highlights before we head back to Vietnam.