On the streets of Phnom Penh, one is constantly reminded that thugs and swindlers prosper in the adversity of lawlessness and corruption. The capital is a carnival of luxury Prados and Humvees, driven by armed chauffeurs in pin-striped suits and dark glasses. Their wealth in stark contrast with the utter desolation of the limbless beggars and desperate street children. Beggars and children whose fate is being saviored by self-appointed NGO's in snug four-by-fours.
In his book Off the rails in Phnom Penh - Into the heart of guns, girls and ganja the author, Amit Gilboa, paints a grim picture of the dark heart of this kleptocracy, calling it a primal orgy of whores, drugs and violence. He offers us a glimpse into this demonic world of sold siblings and drug fueled scavengers satisfying their lust on the young, the weak, and the vulnerable. It's a world where no one is held accountable or responsible.
But there's more to Cambodia than Prado's and prostitutes. Click to the right to read more...
Which means that every tout, tuk-tuk driver and tour operator has to squeeze every single tourist dollar out of every single tourist that crosses their turf! Their dual-currency system, (they use both the US dollar and the Cambodian riel), as well as the fact that one dollar equals roughly 3,800 riel, make price conversions rather difficult. Visiting Cambodia is synonymous to getting ripped off by unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers and devious tour operators.
You might wonder why I spent five days travelling through shark-infested waters, when I could have simply bought it off the web. The answer is simple. Firstly, you don’t find it on the web and secondly, as in the case of buying teak, you simply have to go there to make sure you get the right product.
Organically grown on the foothills of the Dâmrei Mountains of Kampot province in southern Cambodia, it is certified by the Cambodian government and the European Union.
It carries a Geographical Indication (GI) status as an acknowledgement of the pepper cultivar unique to Kampot southern Cambodia, similar to Parmesan cheese or French champagne.
It is sold in four different varieties - black, white and red peppercorns are exported, while green berries are sold for local consumption. The berries are picked when green, before they ripen and turn to yellow or red, and dried in the sun until black and wrinkled with the trade mark pepper aromas.
Buying pepper is no less perilous. Scammers count on the ignorance of the tourists and often pass an inferior product off as Kampot pepper. A market trader was taken aback when I tasted a peppercorn and told her it was from neighbouring Vietnam. (I lived in Vietnam – I know the spiciness of Vietnamese peppercorns). I have learned the best is to buy direct from the farm.
My next stop was at a prominent farm a little further down the road. The prices were slightly higher, but unlike the previous stall, the traders were willing to negotiate a discount. After haggling back and forth for about twenty minutes (the Khmers are highly skilled negotiators), we settled a price on 20kg. But when I produced my scale, their smiles vanished and terror crept into their eyes. And the price went up again!
Black Kampot peppercorns are medium to large with a paper-white centre and the colour varies from dark brown to black, often with a reddish tint. Kampot pepper’s unique aroma is not unlike marijuana and it has a slightly sweet, eucalyptus taste. Good quality pepper is sorted and graded and a traceability code will track the batch back to the farm that produced it.
At my last stop, my trusted supplier had a real shock for me: In less than a year the price of their pepper had almost doubled! Hung, the young Khmer that always helps me, explained to me in perfect English that
Kampot’s entire stock of pepper had been sold long before it was even harvested. Some farmers were holding onto a precious few kilograms until the next crop is ready and sell it for two to three times the price offered by the marketing board. And no, they were not willing to negotiate a volume discount. I had to pay far more for these valuable peppercorns than I had anticipated.
They are quick to grasp a joke and will go out of their way to help you or make you feel at home. They will share their food, buy you some whiskey and get your motorbike tire fixed. They will warn you that the farm next door is selling Vietnamese pepper, or that there are only two farms selling Kampot pepper in the area.
Nothing more than a fish market and tourist accommodation, Kepville or Kep is famous for its fresh sea crab and frequented by NGO’s, food lovers and adventurous travel writers.
Here, live crab in bamboo baskets are fished from the salty waters and prepared in front of hungry diners.
Nothing beats the sun setting over the Gulf of Thailand. Pepper, crab, and a pint of Cambodia’s finest. Priceless.
Thanks to the NGO’s, food ctiques and travel writers, Kampot’s pepper is slowly been restored to all its former glory and once again, finding its way to the tables of Cambodia’s former masters.