The day we turned brown

Tuesday morning at 7:20am sharp (10 minutes earlier than expected), the phone in our room rang: our minibus was here, but of course, we needed a few more minutes. By 7:30am, we had run downstairs, dropped off our big bags with the hotel reception, and were on our way to Kampot for a quick one and a half day visit. The ride was the usual horn-happy experience, swerving around motos and other moving obstructions. We arrived at around 10:30am to a sleepy, relaxed, and remarkably tidy town – it was so refreshing!

Having only our small backpacks, we immediately set out to find the trip-advisor recommended tour company to see what we could make of the day. Jack from Sok Lim Tours was on top of his game, and although we had missed the 8am departures for the group tours, happily arranged a private TukTuk tour for us, which we agreed would pick us up in half an hour from our guesthouse ($30).

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Mr Nos, our TukTuk driver for the day, was nice and friendly, and easy to communicate with, despite having almost no common language. We began by heading out of town on a bumpy dirt road (while the main highways in Cambodia have all been widened and paved in the last 5 years or so, the smaller roads are still being worked on, as was this road connecting Kampot and Kep), which became a dust storm every time a car or truck passed by us.

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The first stop on the tour was a salt field, where sea water is dried in small square pools, in order to extract salt crystals. It reminded Felix of the Dead Sea, but not quite as unique. From there, we turned off the main road, and drove through a series of small country roads, until we reached the foot of a small hill, where a little girl (she looked 8, but claimed she was 12) hopped aboard our tuktuk and started chatting with us. As it turned out, she was shmoozing us up in order to secure her gig as our tour guide. After paying the entrance fee to the Phnom Chhnork Temple (to an adult in a small booth, $1 each), some local boys, a few years older, began asking competitively to be our guide, trying to show up the little girl. Due to her cute demeanor, and to show the bullyish boys, we picked Chay, bargaining her down to $1 for her services (down from $10, she clearly misjudged us at first).

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Following Chay up a 203-step staircase, we entered the mouth of a cave, finding inside a 17th century temple. Chay pointed out various stalactites and stalagmite formations resembling different animals – elephants, dog, eagle, turtle, etc. The temple itself was unimpressive, and just as we thought that this quaint tour was over, Chay pointed us to a dark hole in the bottom of a cave wall, and suggested we get out our “torch”. Felix went first, using his iPhone as a flashlight, trying to follow (in great disbelief that this was not a trap), only to be rebuked by the cheeky Chay, who asked if he wanted to try an alternative easier route. Determined not to let an 8 year old call her her husband a wus, the fearless Jordan stepped in, volunteering to go first, and braved the tricky descent into the dark cave. Once in the dark depths of the cave, we followed Chay through small openings and little jumps in the dark. Now convinced we were not being led into a trap, Chay pointed out bats flying through the cave, but at the mention of snakes, the no-longer fearless Jordan was ready to quickly scramble towards the light, and we soon emerged by the entrance booth at the foot of the mountain. Although at first, it seemed that a tour guide was superfluous, we had new respect for Chay, who with great care gave us a truly exciting and unexpected experience. We tipped her an extra $0.25 and hopped back on our tuktuk.

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Next, we visited a pepper plantation. Kampot is world-famous for its pepper, and there was a time that a classy restaurant in Paris would never be caught without the prestigious Kampot pepper. It was interesting to see the pepper vines, and taste the red, white and black varieties. Then, we got back on the tuktuk for a dusty ride to Kep, the seaside resort. Not much of a town, but more of a long strip of houses, markets and hotels, Kep was actually rather enticing. Known for its yummy crab, we had a simple lunch at the local market, consisting of a disappointing waffle and a fried banana. Back on the tuktuk, we headed in the direction of Kampot. By this time of day, traffic on the main road had picked up, and truck after car after truck left us literally brown, caked with dirt and grime. Mr Nos had to pull over a few times to let the dust settle before driving on, and we now understood the point of wearing a hospital mask (which you see people doing all over Southeast Asia).

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Just before reaching Kampot, we pulled over by the side of the road, and found ourselves in a Cham fishing village. The Cham are a separate ethnic minority, not Khmer or Thai or Vietnamese. They are descendants of a an ancient kingdom which lost its wars long ago, and they are second-class citizens in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam until today. They practice a version of Islam similar to that of Malaysia, and a visit to their mosque was very interesting. They support themselves by fishing, and they trade with their Khmer neighbors for other necessities. The village was built along a network of canals, which allow them easy access to their livelihood.

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Back in Kampot, we got some pizza and a Khmer pumpkin-egg dish for dinner ($10), and settled in for the night. After all, we needed some extra time to scrub all of the dirt and grime off of our bodies, and return to our ubiquitous foreigner-white color. Having booked a 2:30pm bus back, we woke up late on Wednesday morning, and enjoyed some self-roasted coffee from an Aussie-run cafe, which was accompanied by delicious eggs florentine ($7.5). After a relaxing extended brunch, we went around the corner for another local favorite – pumpkin pancakes ($4 with drinks).

For our devoted readers who have commented on our tendency to report our culinary exploits, we would like to remind you that we are aspiring food snobs, and we enjoy including you in our progress. We hope you have the chance to enjoy some of these flavors yourselves some day. Stay tuned for our upcoming cooking class reports – some of you may be lucky enough to wind up being our guinea pigs. 🙂

Click here to see the photo journal.

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