Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Salt and Pepper City—Kampot, Cambodia

                                                                       by Jim Goodman

park in central Kampot
       After entering Cambodia from Hà Tiên, the port city at the southwest corner of Vietnam, the journey to Kampot, the nearest city, takes about two hours.  Partly that’s because the road is not in as good condition as those on the Vietnam side of the border.  Lots of potholes slow down progress.  But that gives a traveler more time to appreciate the scenery, perhaps the most attractive countryside in the country.  Lush rice fields and fruit orchards flank the road, while limestone outcrops pop up from the plain, adding various shapes to the landscape.
Chăm girls visiting Kampot
       Villages are usually set back from the highway a bit, with an ornate gate over the entrance road.  If it’s Khmer, it will likely be embellished at the top with miniature replicas of Angkor Wat towers.  Khmer villagers live in stilted houses, often with decorative elements on the corners of the roofs and in the center of the top.  This feature starts to disappear close to Kampot, but shows up again north of Kampot en route to Takeo and Phnom Penh. 
       Many of the villages are Chăm, an Austronesian people who migrated to Cambodia from south central Vietnam in the 15th century after the fall of Vijaya, a once powerful Chăm kingdom, to the Vietnamese in 1472.  In Vijaya, Chăm communities were both Hindu and Muslim.  The Muslim Chăm fled mainly to Cambodia and further on to Thailand and Indonesia.  Chăm villages in southeast Cambodia are recognizable by the images of mosques on their entrance gates.  A few Chăm villages lie close to Kampot and Chăm women in their distinctive black headscarves make regular trips to the city’s markets. 
Teuk Chhou RIver and the old iron bridge
       The city lies mostly on the east bank of the Teuk Chhou River, about five kilometers from the Gulf of Thailand.  Elephant Mountain, with its former French hill resort Bokor, rises to the west.  A relaxed, uncongested city of about 50,000 inhabitants, with its colonial architecture, panoramic riverside scenery and great sunsets, it is becoming a more popular travel destination, including for Phnom Penh residents, since it’s only a couple of hours from the capital.
       No monuments or ruins from the Angkor Era exist anywhere in the province.  The area was part of the Angkor Empire, but although roads connected Angkor’s capital with territories to the north, west and northeast, none of them led to the coast.  The empire was land-based and scarcely involved in maritime trade, obviating the necessity for a good port.
Khmer Buddhist monks in Kampot
       Only after the fall of Angkor and the eventual removal of the Cambodian capital to Phnom Penh did Kampot begin to play, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the role of an important seaport.  Still, the post-Angkor Cambodian state did not get too involved in maritime commerce.  In the late 17th century the country allowed the influx of Chinese refugees from Guangdong in southeast China, fleeing their homeland after the collapse of a rebellion against the Manchu Dynasty rulers.
monument to the salt workers
       Many settled in Kampot, where their descendants live today, but towards the end of the century their leader Mạc Cưu persuaded the Cambodian Court to allow him to build a new port at Hà Tiên.  This proved to be a more important commercial center for Phnom Penh than Kampot.  No roads connected Kampot with Phnom Penh, so during the rainy season goods could not be transported to the capital.  Hà TIên had good, all-year connections north to Châu Đốc, from which goods could travel easily up a major branch of the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. 
       With the establishment of Hà Tiên, even Kampot traders found it easier to ship their goods to Phnom Penh via Hà Tiên.  Mạc Cưu set up a quasi-independent state at Hà Tiên and eventually allied with the Vietnamese and the port became part of Vietnam.  Kampot only revived after the French colonized Cambodia and built roads to Phnom Penh.  In the 1950s, after the country’s independence, the government built up a new seaport at what would be called Sihanoukville and Kampot’s maritime trade declined again.
colonial-era building in Kampot
       While it did not have a very long career as an international trading port, Kampot was still of economic significance because of its local products.  It is the only source of salt in Cambodia.  Its peppers have a worldwide reputation.  And its fruits, particularly durian, are rated the tastiest in the country.
       The salt flats lie south of the city near the sea.  About two hundred families are involved in the production.  In December, at the early part of the dry season, they channel the sea water to flood the adjacent plain, then build a dike to prevent further flow and channel the sea water to the next field.  After the area has been blocked from further flooding, they allow the water to evaporate, leaving the salt crystals in its wake. Collection begins by March.  (Heavy unseasonal winter rains, however, as occurred this year 2018, prevent evaporation and wipe out production.)
river view from the west bank
       All the work is manual, mostly done by women, who carry loads of salt to the factory.  There it is cleaned and dried for 30-45 days and then packed for shipment.  About 5000 hectares of land is devoted to salt collection, typically producing 100,000 tons of salt annually, rich in iodine, with at least 20 tons exported to France.  Most of the rest is distributed within Cambodia, with portions exported to neighboring countries.  In recognition of the value of its salt industry, a monument honoring the salt workers stands in a roundabout in downtown Kampot.
the Durian Roundabout
       No such monument honors pepper, Kampot’s other famous product.  Bit it’s been around longer than the salt fields.  The Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan, visiting the Angkor Empire near the end of the 13th century, recorded pepper production in his account of his exploration.  Pepper plants take three years to mature and are sensitive to sunlight.  So farmers protect them with overhead rows of dried palm leaf branches.  Once they start producing, the plants can last twenty years.
       Kampot pepper vines grow in soil with high quartz content.  Pepper connoisseurs claim it has a taste that lingers on the tongue, rather than, as with most pepper varieties, overwhelming the taste buds.  There are different types.  The black pepper comes from sun-drying green peppercorns.  The red peppercorn is boiled to remove the skin and results in white pepper.  The red pepper comes from peppercorn left on the vine four months longer and has a touch of sweetness.  The stalks are also edible, often served with fried squid.
colonial-era shop houses
       The World Trade Organization has granted Kampot pepper Geographical Indicator status, identifying it as a high-quality product specific to a certain location on earth; in this case Kampot and nearby Kep.  (Other GI status products include Champagne wine and Darjeeling tea.)  It also certifies that no pesticides or inorganic fertilizers are used in the production process. 
       Kampot and Kep are not the only places where this kind of pepper is cultivated, however, and much of what is sold in the Kampot market comes from Hà Tiên and Phú Quc in Vietnam or northeastern Cambodia, where the restrictions on pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not necessarily in force.  Depending on the type, genuine, GI-labeled Kampot pepper nowadays sells for $13-$17 a kilo.  Small packets of 100 grams are popular souvenir purchases.
red sky, red river:  twilight over the Teuk Chhou
       Another major input to Kampot’s economy is its fruit.  Fields and orchards in the province grow durians, mangos, coconuts and watermelons.  Cambodians reckon Kampot durians as the best in the country.  Beneath their hard, spiky covering skin they are soft, delicious and extra sweet.  Durians are notorious for their strong odor though, and people are either quite fond of them or, because of the smell, which is not repugnant but certainly noticeable, avoid them entirely.
       For durian lovers, Kampot is the place to get them.  But its high reputation has meant the inevitable infiltration of other durians, which are indistinguishable from the outside, grown elsewhere and not as tasty, but passed off as local products.  The government is now trying to get a GI status so as to protect and promote Kampot durians over the competitors.  The city is certainly proud of them.  Perhaps the best-known and most photographed building in Kampot is the huge sculpture of the fruit at the Durian Roundabout.
Kampot Music School for Orphans and DIsabled Children
       Kampot’s maturity as a city came during the French colonial period, when it was Cambodia’s main seaport.  French colonists came to live here, build homes and shop houses, paved streets and an iron bridge across the river.  They also established a hill resort at Bokor in the early 20th century, with a church, hotels, restaurants and a casino.  Cambodia’s king also had a house here. 
       After the Second World War, beset by the insurgency in Vietnam, the French stopped taking holidays in Bokor and the place was abandoned.  Decades later Bokor was the site of a ferocious battle between the Vietnamese, basically holed up in the church and hotel and the Khmer Rouge, based in the casino.  The scars of that battle are still visible to contemporary tourists, to whom Bokor was like a preserved ghost town. 
waiting hall at the inter-city taxi stand
       After Cambodia’s independence in 1953 the French residents of Kampot also pulled out, but local Cambodians moved into the vacated houses.  The city did not suffer much damage when the Khmer Rouge captured it in 1974.  As soon as the Khmer Rouge breached the French-built iron bridge across the river, government forces abandoned the city without further resistance. 
       Decades later, these colonial houses have become one of the city’s prime attractions.  Many have been turned into hotels, restaurants and guesthouses.  Several city streets are dominated by rows of two-story shop houses built in the colonial style.  The more modern, post-colonial buildings, as well as the main covered market, are in the northern part of the city.
the city's covered market
       Most city buildings are leftover colonial era structures or ordinary modern ones.  The city has few outright religious buildings, just a small Chinese temple on the river and a modest Khmer Buddhist temple in the suburbs.  But architectural motifs associated with Khmer temples, such as sloping, angled roofs, upturned corners, decorative plaques beneath the roof apex and spires on the top, are part of secular buildings and add to the variety of street scenery. 
       Pavilions in the parks resemble small Buddhist shrines.   The roof of the waiting stand in the western suburbs for inter-city transportation looks like it was lifted from a Buddhist assembly hall.  And a building that from a block away looks like it’s an urban temple compound turns out to be the Kampot Music School for Orphans and Disabled Children.
the walkway along the Teuk Chhou River
       The city stays active all day, people go shopping and boats ply the river, but it doesn’t have a true rush hour.  So it’s a very pleasant walk anywhere, especially along the river’s east bank.  A row of tall shade trees flanks one side of the walkway, which also has street lamps and garden plots, though as yet no cafes or bars except next to the new road bridge at the north end.
       Such establishments lie on the other side of the road, especially in the square near the iron bridge.  After the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, the government repaired the damaged bridge, but didn’t renovate it sturdy enough to bear heavy traffic.  Now it is restricted to motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians. 
Kampot kids playing on a trampoline
       By crossing the bridge and turning right on the other bank one gets a different view of the city and the river traffic and can continue through the riverside neighborhood, mostly Chinese, to the new bridge and return to the walkway along the east bank.  This is absolutely the best place to enjoy the spectacular sunsets that often grace Kampot evenings in the dry season, splashing colors across both the sky and the river. 
       The main pleasure for travelers to Kampot is the city’s relaxed and congenial atmosphere.  Local food is quite good, especially the chicken or fish amok, baked in leaves and flavored with coconut milk.  Because of the large expatriate community, various kinds of Western food are available.  Beer is cheap and most guesthouses have garden bars with extended happy hours.  The more energetic folks might opt for day trips to the beach at Kep, the salt fields, pepper farms or a boat ride up the river.  But for others, pleasant walks, good food and drink and taking it easy while making new friends makes an equally enjoyable way to spend the time.
Kampot's business district
       How long will this situation continue?  Will ‘tourism development’ soon alter the Kampot experience?  Bokor lost its attraction a few years ago with the construction of a million-dollar casino complex.  And this year Chinese investors are pouring into Kampot with their own specific schemes in mind.  The transformation of Kampot into a Chinese-style tourist hotspot may be about to begin.  One can only hope it doesn’t happen quickly.   At any rate, now and in the future, nothing will interfere with those wonderful sunsets.
sunset in Kampot

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