The first opportunity to travel outside the capital came at the National Holiday of Pchum Ben. While I am no expert on the meaning or importance of this holiday I can with confidence say that this is one of the most important holidays in Cambodia. A religious period of two weeks culminating in Pchum Ben. To celebrate and observe this time many people go to their local Pagoda and offer food and money. Around town we could hear the monks broadcasting prayers much more frequently and could see people wearing traditional clothing for visiting the Pagoda. For us expats, the holiday meant a time to set aside school work and head out of town.
Two of my friends and I set out to the sea to a little town called Kep. We left very early in the morning on the first day of the holiday to try and get ahead of the traffic. Between road condition and volume our 160km drive could have taken much longer than the anticipated 4 hours. I know for many Canadians I say 160km and you think…what? That’s hardly a 2-hour ride. At home this may be true, but here when a million people try to leave the city at the same time and the roads are at best two lanes wide, congestion occurs. Add to the mix, pot holes washed out from rain and big trucks and, well, it takes longer. The three of us had a good visit during the ride and enjoyed our first glimpse of the countryside.
We arrived before lunch and while our room was not ready, we didn’t care. We changed into swim suits and hit the pool. Naps, cocktails and a dip in the pool under a sunny afternoon in our quiet little hotel was just what we ordered. I do have to admit that the next day I realised I had skipped an important step in my afternoon…. sun screen. Yes, shake your head. I’ve lived in this very white sun burn prone body for 46 years and while I was beginning to feel like I had acclimatised to the heat and humidity I can not change the fact that the sun loves to remind me to keep covered.
At any rate I was able to score a great tour for the next day, something I had been looking forward to since beginning to learn about this country. When the Cambodia was a French protectorate (mid 1800 to mid 1900) there were a few things that the Europeans helped to develop in this region. Firstly, this town with its idyllic location on the Gulf of Thailand was quick to be transformed into a Cambodian Riviera. Secondly, the French and their taste for fine foods developed the production and sale of pepper, thus the desire to visit a pepper plantation.
Off we went on our day trip to one of the local pepper farms, La Plantation. This place is foreign owned but they take great pride in their social programs. The place was clean, organised, laid back and very well run. On our arrival we were shown to the main building and then immediately set off on the water buffalo ride. I would compare my glee at this experience it to a foreigner from a warn country taking a winter sleigh ride in Canada. My friends laughed when they heard me giggle like a small child at seeing these animals…I may just get teased for a while about it actually. We hopped up into the hut on wheels and were off towards the secret lake. The driver has his own manner of speaking with the animals, quiet grunts and sounds spoken quietly and gentle taps with his stick let them know what he wanted. They, like sleigh horses, know the routine.
As we approached the lake they seemed to want to get there and moved a bit differently. The depth of the water deepened and they were able to eat at the shoots and weeds growing in the lake, just like trail horses nibbling on tall grass beside the trail. When the water reached a certain depth they almost lunged into the lake and proceeded to stop and float. They clearly just loved the water! The driver hopped down into the water and gave the animals a bit of a water rub-down and let the animals dunk their heads, blow bubbles and just lounge in the cool waters. Our driver, clearly a little hot as well dove in and went for a swim as well! And before you ask…No, none of us foreigners thought it would be a nice swim. We stayed put in out floating but flooded hut on wheels and watched the animals enjoy the water. The work beasts were eventually guided to take us home but they made sure to eat as much as they could on the way…just like a trail horse finding good long grass along the trails edge.
When we arrived back at the farm house we were treated to lunch. We began with banana milkshakes and dried plantains with salt and black pepper. There was no added sugar to the plantains and the black peppercorns were not hard and crunchy, rather they were soft and salty, the heat of the pepper coming to your mouth after the sweet and salty finished. Truly a great snack, I may have bought a back of this snack later. We had an amazing green mango salad and beef lok lak as our main dish. Both the salad and main were perfect examples of Khmer cuisine and we cleared our plates with no complaint.
A short rest and water before we were off on our farm tour. Our local guide walked us past dragon fruit plants, to the pepper poles. Two varieties of pepper are grown here, regular and long pepper. They are both a vine plant which they clone via cuttings to plant along four-meter-high poles. He showed us how they take care of watering and pest control with their own organic home brew of local plants. Lots of explanation about how they help support local families with both good employment and good education. They even help pay for the top performing students to attend private school in Kampot and then university. Banana and turmeric plants were next and our tour ended back at the farm house.
The three of us, along with a lovely family with two girls sat for our pepper tasting. We were given a sheet to accompany our tasting. Description of aroma and flavours, food and spice pairing and room for us to rank our enjoyment of each taste. Twenty spices later we were all well primed to shop a bit. With a warm heart and soul and full belly the pocketbook opened with a certain generosity. I know that I will make a point to learn more about the school and will continue to buy their products.
We ended out wonderful day here with a dessert of ice cream. Our choices were lime sorbet with red pepper, vanilla with red pepper and chocolate with black pepper. They were all yummy and refreshing, I think my favorite was the vanilla with red pepper. Our drive back to the hotel was much the same as the trip outward but this time we knew our driver a bit better and he was happy to explain about Khmer culture and life. As far as tour go, this was really a great day. It had a bit of everything, food, culture, adventure and quiet time to visit. Our evening was filled with laughs and cards as a tropical storm began to rage. More to tell in the next post!