The quality of Kampot Pepper is legendary. Plus, there is a saying in German that literally translates to “Go to where the pepper grows!” (meaning: Jump in a lake!). So when I went for a short beach vacation in Kep, I had to jump in and go on a tour to where the pepper grows.
The French owners of the Rusty Keyhole Kep, where I had rented an 8-dollar hut for the week, organized a tuk-tuk for fellow solo female traveler Emily and me to take us on tour for the day. We agreed on $20 between the two of us for three stops – La Plantation Pepper Farm, Secret Lake, and Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple – with a quick tour of Kep on the tail end of the trip.
Our driver, Mr. Somnang, picks us up at 9 and after a brief chat we set out towards La Plantation, our first stop of the day. Rather than along the main road, we go along the smaller roads lined by fields, vegetable gardens, and small fruit orchards.
Mr. Somnang proudly tells us about the region where he grew up and the people who are his neighbors. After a stint in Phnom Penh, he has recently returned to Kep with the first Indian-style tuk-tuk in town – a shiny red machine sticking out among the many motorcycles pulling tired looking passenger carts – to try his luck as a tour guide.
We reach La Plantation after a little more than an hour. Friendly staff takes us to the restaurant area and asks us to wait with cold drinks. While I am sipping a refreshingly spicy ginger drink, a young man appears and starts to explain in perfect English that he will take us on a tour of the farm.
In the 13th century, Chinese immigrants brought pepper to Kampot. But it was the French colonialists who in the late 19th/early 20th century created large pepper farms producing the finest quality. After the French left Cambodia, and during the civil war, which ravaged the country in the 1970s, the farms were abandoned and only in the past few years has pepper farming been seeing a revival. In 2010, in good French tradition, an appellation – a protected geographical indication – was created for Kampot Pepper detailing the area the pepper may be grown in and the techniques that can be used. Thus the Kampot Pepper produced by La Plantation is certified organic.
Our guide takes us to a large field covered with brown leaves to filter most of the burning sunlight. Thousands of poles stand erect in a neat order, line after line. Pepper plants grow along the poles until they reach the roof a few meters up. The harvest on this plot is almost done. So we have to look for a while before we find some small berries. It’s a sharp taste that passes quickly. We learn that green pepper, red pepper, black pepper, and white pepper all come from the same fruit. The difference is that red peppercorns are harvested when the berry is ripe (hence the color) and then dried while black pepper is made from unripe seeds that are briefly cooked in water and then dried. White pepper is simply red pepper without the shell. Green pepper is also made from unripe berries and at La Plantation, it is not dried but either used fresh or after a short fermentation process.
On another plot, we find long pepper with fruit that looks more like a very small, long, and tightly closed pine cone. But when we try some of the fresh fruit we can feel the tiny berries in our mouth giving off that tingling pepper sensation.
Back at the restaurant, we get to sample all the different pepper products on offer. I feel slightly guilty because I know I won’t buy anything. But I am enjoying the flavors, especially the mix of long pepper with sea salt that was also farmed along the Kampot coast.
Tip: Click on the images to see them in full size
The Secret Lake (Brateak Krola Lake) is not far from La Plantation. In fact, if you look closely you can see it from the terrasse of the traditional stilted restaurant building.
It’s a vast body of water that grows and shrinks with the seasons
To get a better view of the area, we climb the long stairs up to the monastery above where the dirt road back from La Plantation hits a bigger road. The temple looks abandoned but according to our guide restoration efforts are underway.
Along the water, lines of cabanas invite visitors to stay for a while. When I go to dip my feet, I see two dead fish and decide we’ve lingered long enough.
Another rural path takes us to Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple. The road leads along a channel. Men, women, and children are standing in the knee-deep water collecting snails, a local delicacy. It starts raining.
To get to the cave, we have to leave the tuk-tuk behind and cross the channel on a narrow bridge made from two tree trunks. Two teenage boys welcome us on the other side and offer to take us to the cave. We decline as we can clearly see the ticket office from the bridge. We pay our $1 entrance fee and even get a torch for another $1, but we draw the line when we are told we also have to pay the two boys $2 each as they were our guides: “We didn’t hire them. And now we don’t want to hire them.”
It’s a thin line as there are no other tourists around, in the hour we’d spend at and near the cave, only three others arrive. But if somebody wants to be my guide they have to a) state what their added value is to me walking on my own, and b) quote their price before they start guiding. I don’t like to be forced to pay after the fact.
So we ignore the two boys, who nevertheless patiently follow us and continue to offer their services.
Only after we’ve made it almost to the top of the stairs that take us to the entrance of the cave, do they fall back and seem to have given up.
When we reach the top, the view is lovely with the gray clouds and vast panorama, but the cave disappoints. There is a small shrine and a large opening. However, we cannot see any apparent path into the rock that – as we were told at the ticket office – should lead us back down.
Emily is more adventurous (she also has the torch) and discovers the beginning of a route. Wearing only flip-flops, I determine that it’s too steep and slippery and we turn back to the great hall at the top just to find the two boys. “We will take you. We know the route.” I might have said yes and paid at that point, but I was still not wearing proper shoes. So I never find out how the inside of Phnom Chhngok Cave looks.
Sooner than expected we cross back to the tuk-tuk and find our driver in a coffee shop shack. I order an iced coffee, and to my surprise, it’s tasty coffee. I learn that it’s made from Kampot Coffee, grown not far from the pepper farm, and available as beans right here at the coffee shop shack. We meet an English volunteer who’s come for the weekend from Phnom Penh. She says other caves are waiting to be explored nearby, but she’s also wearing hiking shoes.
The route back to the Rusty Keyhole takes us through Kep town. Mr. Somnang explains the history and lore behind the various sculptures along the way – the White Horse that belonged to a prince, the Giant Crab, the White Lady unlucky in love,…
We stop at the Crab Market for an early dinner. I get a squid skewer, and Emily opts for the large prawns. We find a spot South of the long line of restaurants where we eat and watch the sun set.
Tours like this one are available from every accommodation and every tuk-tuk driver in Kep. While there are routine stops like La Plantation and the Cave you can request additional/different stops or sights. Check here for a guide to sights in and around Kep, including more photos of sculptures.
We paid $20 between the two of us for the whole day, and Mr. Somnang was not only very knowledgeable he also spoke an excellent English, which made asking even the more obscure questions easy.
Note that you should bring walking/closed shoes if you want to do the Phnom Chhngok Cave. If you bring your torch, you’ll also save a dollar as you’d otherwise have to rent one (because of the slippery floor it’s not recommended to use your phone torch).
Food and drinks are available at different stops along the tour.