Sustainable Squid - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

January 3, 2017

Sustainable Squid

Riding around Kep, Cambodia

Sustainable Squid

January 3, 2017

The seaside Cambodian town of Kep is known for crabs and black pepper. Even though the world famous pepper bears the next coastal town’s name - Kampot pepper - the same stuff is grown throughout the region. The most well known pepper farm, Sothy’s Pepper Farm, is not far from Kep. We read that they gave free tours, sold pepper and cooked meals so we decided it would be a fun adventure to ride our unloaded bikes there - a day trip.

Fried noodles for breakfast before our excursion to the pepper farm.
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To get to Sothy’s we rode back a few miles the way we had entered Kep the day before and then found a short cut over to the main road saving us two or three miles. The short cut was a narrow dirt road that angled between farm fields. We watched as a farmer directed a single blade plow, pulled by two cows, to cut into the parched clay. It looked like a tremendous amount of work for little gain - hard clay giving up a few inches of the top. Maybe when the rains come months from now it will be a tiny bit easier to prepare for rice to be planted there.

A single blade plow in this stuff!
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We turned onto the main road for a short distance and then took a dirt road leading north. It was a rough five miles on that road but we were still enjoying the quiet after Vietnam. There were few vehicles and we could hear lots of birds singing. Cambodia is mostly rural making the sounds of birds more evident just about everywhere.

The road to Sothy's Pepper Farm.
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Cute sign but there are no railroads in Cambodia.
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At Sothy’s dining area we learned that black pepper corns - the most common to us - are the ones picked from the vines before they are mature. They turn black when they are air dried. The white pepper corns have the outer casing removed after they have been boiled briefly; a labor intensive rubbing by hand of the pepper corns in bamboo trays. Red pepper corns are the fully ripe ones and taste hotter. I tasted one pepper corn of each and my mouth was fully alive for a half an hour.

We were assigned a guide, a fellow traveler (Brazilian) who took three weeks of her vacation to volunteer at the pepper farm. She was an excellent guide answering all of our questions. We also tried a green pepper corn (unripe) off one of the vines. It woke my mouth up for an additional hour! It was interesting to find out that pepper is a vine, for one thing, but that the vine is very touchy about the amount of sunlight it gets as well as being picky about the type of soil it grows in. The entire farm was therefore shaded as the vines are jungle plants. They want their roots to be in loose soil so we were not allowed to walk between the rows. Compost is placed in a hole between plants. The pepper is picked only once a year by hand, again, being careful not to compact the soil around the roots in the process.

The shaded pepper vines imitating jungle darkness.
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Pepper vines.
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Unripe, green pepper.
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The picked pepper is dried in a solar hothouse where temperatures reach an oven-like 150 degrees C. The entire process was labor intensive making the price of the pepper from that particular organic farm prohibitive for us. Food was more than we were willing to pay as well but the free tour was great! For us, previously knowing nothing about pepper, it was fascinating. We loved simply being out on a farm in the countryside of Cambodia - beautiful and peaceful.

The Khmer Rouge had destroyed all the pepper farms in Cambodia and they are only now regaining previous production levels. Still, however, Kampot pepper is not exported to the U.S. Only a few countries in Europe can get Kampot pepper, some of the best tasting pepper in the world. We also learned that nearby Vietnam produces a lot of pepper which they falsely call Kampot pepper and which is also full of chemicals, as are all crops in Vietnam.

The solar dryer.
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Our excellent Brazillian guide who told us all about Kampot peppers.
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Picking out all but the truly beautiful black ones. Extremely labor intensive from start to finish growing pepper.
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Black Kampot pepper.
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On the way back to Kep we stopped to have a girl open up a couple of coconuts for us to drink. I always feel as though I’m on a deserted south sea island when drinking right from a large green coconut. I also think of family vacations in Florida when I was a kid when I never thought of the health sustaining liquid inside of coconuts but rather viewed them as bombs. I walked quickly when under coconut palms thinking my scrawny body would be crushed like a cartoon character if one fell.

Then we returned to the short cut, the farmer having finished his plowing, past the big light clay colored pond, briefly stopping to photograph one of the cutest temples I’ve ever seen and onto the main road. We needed fruit so we stopped at the Kep central market.

Strange clay colored pond.
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Cutest temple ever.
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Eucalyptus trees along the road.
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I was more shocked than ever by the condition of the Kep market building. I’ve seen filthy markets all over Asia but never have I seen a market so filthy, so unmaintained and gross. It was unbelievable. We rode our bikes all the way around it in disbelief thinking we were in the poorest country in Africa before we stopped at one of the entrances. Andrea had no desire to go inside. I went in for about three minutes, long enough to find some bananas.

Inside was as horrible as the outside indicated it might be. But lounging on piles of cardboard and sacks were women dressed immaculately, their hair recently done up at a salon, makeup perfect and somehow they were fresh and welcoming; such an incongruous scene. I just know there were 10,000 or more rats in that building. Even I, who always advocates fixing and reusing, thought that building should be torn down immediately. It was one of the grossest buildings I’ve ever seen and to think it was a place where food is stored and sold!

Along the grand, wide boulevard along the ocean we passed many former French mansions now in ruins. Kep is also famous for these art deco villas which are now simply shells amidst undergrowth. They must have been beautiful but now are in such disrepair that most are lost to history. Contrary to popular belief, the Khmer Rouge were not the ones who looted and destroyed them but the local people returning home from where they had been forcibly taken in the whole Khmer Rouge nightmare. I’m sure most of them suffered from severe PTSD.

Without the mansions the boulevard feels lacking of the very reason it exists. The main attractions are gone and have been gone for nearly 40 years. The jungle vegetation has reclaimed all the vast gardens and yards except for one or two. Apparently rich and powerful individuals own most of the crumbling mansions and are also waiting to see what the winds of change will look like when they inevitably blow across Cambodia. I feel as though the boulevard will again live up to boulevard status someday.

One of the mansions had its gardens kept up even though the house is but a shell.
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I kind of like the way Kep is now; absent of most things and super quiet. There isn’t even what one would call a town. Kep, rather, is a small beach (of imported white sand), a few resorts and bungalows tucked here and there miles apart and unseen in the jungle, a national park right in the middle of it all and a strip of small narrow restaurants along and over the water all serving the same seafood but mostly pushing crab. Strangely, I liked the wide-spread vacuity of the place. Kep is uniquely vacant, for now.

The small beach at Kep. There was originally no beach but sand was hauled to this area making quite a nice little beach.
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After our excursion into the countryside we coasted down the hill to the same bar overhanging the bay and ordered the same happy hour beers. Then, we went next door to Kimly’s Seafood Restaurant as we had the night before and I even got the same dish. Maybe Kep had lulled me into a state of contentedness and I figured why mess with perfection? A sparkling mug of draft beer while catching the last rays of sun across the bay and fresh squid (more sustainable than crab which is being decimated in Kep) at Kimly’s were both perfect to repeat. It’s nice to not go and go and go on our bikes from one town to another all the time. But to have the bikes to explore places more fully is what this biking thing is all about for us. Being in spread-out-Kep bikes are wonderful things to have.

lovebruce

The perfect end to a beautiful day-trip day in Kep.
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The view from Kimly's Seafood Restaurant looking back at the row of other bars and restaurants.
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Today's ride: 23 miles (37 km)
Total: 1,345 miles (2,165 km)

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