About 150 km southwest of the busy city of Phnom Penh sits the coastal town of Kampot. Renowned for its pepper farms, Kampot’s weather and mineral-rich soil create the perfect growing conditions for peppercorns.
Jenn was excited to visit the pepper farms, and after some investigation online, I had found a wonderful little guesthouse called Ganesha Eco Resort, where we could stay outside of town. The eco resort consisted of a small handful of bamboo-and-grass huts, some perched on the side of a small river, and a few lifted up on stilts next to the rice paddies. Ganesha’s focus is primarily on sustainability; they grow much of the food that is on their menu, sourcing the remainder from local farmers and shops, they have started a grey water reclamation project to provide water for their gardens in the dry season, and they are in the middle of digging a huge, natural swimming pool that the guests can enjoy along with the local birds and fish. While undeniably rustic, after the noise and crowds of Phnom Penh, we were looking forward to some time away from the city.
Our “tribal hut,” as they called it, was certainly as rustic as expected. Made with open bamboo siding, topped with a thick grass roof and set on top of 15 foot stilts with an open bathroom/shower underneath, we were definitely away from city life. As it was low season, the other stilted huts were unoccupied, meaning our only neighbors were the birds, the cows and the water buffalo that lived on the acres of rice paddies that surrounded our room. In addition, the on-site restaurant turned out to be delicious, with incredibly fresh food being served every night, along with locally sourced ice cream. During our evening meals, we were also joined by several huge Tokay geckos – Short Tail, so named because of the loss of his tail during a fight, dined with us every night, and we appreciated him eating the bugs that were trying to eat us.
We rented a motorbike and started checking out our surroundings the next day. Kampot feels like the rural Cambodia we had pictured before our trip; expansive rice paddies brimming with water, divided by short retaining walls that created tessellated mirrors, covering the landscape and reflecting blue skies and mounds of white clouds. Large water buffalo and cows waded through the pools, grazing on the water plants and tufts of grass that grew out of the dividing walls. Everywhere we went, there were happy, smiling faces, friendly waves, and shouted greetings.
It is thought that pepper has been grown in the Kampot region for nearly 1,000 years, with written accounts dating back to the 1200s, when the pepper growing was already an established trade. We took a long drive down a bumpy dirt road, out to one of the smaller pepper farms in the area called Sothy’s. The friendly man that greeted us set out a few treats for us to try – homemade mango jams flavored with pepper and freshly baked bread – then took us through the process of growing the pepper, giving us samples of the various peppercorn types as he talked. Most peppercorns grow green on the stalk, with a select few turning red as they mature. The stalks are plucked by hand, with the red and green peppercorns then being separated. The green peppercorns are put in the sun to dry, turning black in the process, while the red peppercorns are further divided. Some of the red peppercorns will be dried as-is, retaining their red color, while others will be boiled and have their skin removed, leaving behind only the white seed. This process provides the three colors of pepper, and the flavor difference was quite remarkable. While the black pepper was expectedly spicy, the red peppercorns were much richer and more flavorful, and the white pepper was the spiciest.
As we toured the grounds, the guide showed us the various stages of plants in growth – from years 1-3, the plants mature, though they are not harvested until year 4. Like wine grapes, pepper vines can last decades and, as they age, their flavor grows more intense while their production drops off. As a result, they do not typically keep the vines more than 20 years, since the yields are too low. Also, Sothy’s Farm is all organic, containing no pesticides or artificial fertilizers – they collect cow dung from local villagers, and supplement it with bat guano from nearby caves. Additionally, the farm uses local plants (neem and lemongrass) to create a natural pesticide.
Not too far from the pepper farms, we discovered a lake called Brateak Krola Lake, often referred to locally as “Secret Lake.” The beautiful, secluded lake is, unfortunately, the product of forced labor, created by the Khmer Rouge as a reservoir for the surrounding farm lands. Pol Pot’s regime demanded unattainable quantities of rice to be grown and harvested year-round, despite the lack of sufficient water to support the lands – necessitating the creation of large water sources. A nearby Buddhist shrine on a hill provided a 242-step staircase that supplied a panoramic view of the lake and the lush farmlands around the lake.
When we finally had to leave, and dropped off our motorbike at the rental place, we decided to just walk the few miles back to our hut. As we were trudging down the road, a young girl on a motorbike drove past us very slowly, then came to a halt a few yards away. When we drew alongside her, she smiled and gestured to the back of her bike – offering us a ride. We smiled and indicated it wasn’t far, but she was insistent; so the two of us, each with a backpack, perched on the back of her bike and she headed off. She was so kind, even starting down the access road where we knew a foot of mud awaited, despite our protests. Eventually, she reluctantly allowed us to turn her away from the mud, though she sat and waited for us to safely navigate the deep sludge before getting on her way. She spoke not a word of English but we so enjoyed the generous ride!