Friday, November 23, 2012

2012, Day 326 - Vindication

If yesterday was a day that was fraught with failure today was a day of success!  We got up and ate a really tasty breakfast at our hotel, they use real cheese in the omelettes instead of the processed crap we have getting.  Then we grabbed our gear for the day and collected Mr. Tech to head into town.  We met our guide for the day, Sarat, in downtown Kampot and after introductions we told him about the failures of yesterday and what we were hoping to see.  Sarat was happy to show us where we went wrong and we set off.

Our first stop was at the salt fields.  These were much closer to town than the ones we went to yesterday.  As we walked through the fields and Sarat was explaining the process he espied a line of motorbikes outside one of the storage barns.  He dashed off and we followed him; inside there was a crew shoveling, bagging, weighing, sealing, and stacking bags of salt.  The foreman explained that today they had to fill one thousand bags of fifty kilograms each.  Off to the side there was a large stack of finished bags and we watched as three guys stood on the top of the salt shoveling it down to the bagging crew.  They in turn fill and weigh the bags, then the bags are passed to the guy wielding the hand-held sewing machine, finally two guys pick up these massive heavy bags and load them onto the smallest guy in the crew who stacks it against the wall.  Imagine doing that a thousand time in a single day in the heat of a small salty building.  I was sweating just watching them and all I was doing was taking pictures of the process.  Then Sarat asked if we wanted salt and of course we said we did and handed him a gallon sized plastic bag which he filled completely with the best quality salt from the top of the pile.

It would have been nice to see how the salt fields are worked but we were told that it would be a couple of months before that really starts.  With the rice harvest just beginning the farmers are otherwise occupied.  When the rice paddies are empty they will start preparing the fields by draining them of any residual mud from the wet season, packing down the earth so it is like concrete, and then allowing them to be flooded using a system of pumps and ditches with sea water.  Once filled the rising temperatures will quickly evaporate away the water leaving the salt behind.  The farmers turned salt workers will then move it into storage shed where it will continue to dry until packaged as we have already seen.  Eventually the salt will be shipped all over Asia where it still be on dinner tables and restaurants everywhere.

Salted and hot we were ready to move on to our next destination.  Sarat wanted us to see some of the caves, one he said was really nice but the roads are too muddy for cars and we decided that we didn't want to see it enough to wade through mud and slime so instead he took us to another temple cave at Wat Phnom Sorsie.  The monks and nuns were busy cleaning and preparing the temple for their annual fundraising festival where there will be music, food, and decorations while the local people vie to outdo each other with conspicuous displays of generosity.  We, on the other hand, were lead through the temple where the monks and nuns greeted us, and made our way up the hillside through the jungle and to a large cave.  Even before we arrived at the cave you could smell the bat, the guano and urine have a very distinctive aroma.

We steeled ourselves against the smell and descended into the darkness.  Inside the cave the temperature dropped and we could hear high-pitched screeching at the bats squabbled for the best spots.  A flashlight aimed upwards would incite a flurry of motion and caused the bats to rain down more liquid deterrent.  The longer we stayed the more upset the bats became and their activity intensified.  After being peed on in a small way I think we had enough of the company of our winged rodent friends so the three of us started back out of the darkness towards the sliver of light at the top.

Past the mouth of the cave we climbed to a spectacular viewpoint over the rice paddies below.  The patchwork of fields went on for miles in every direction broken only by homes and a small range of mountains.  Still green from all the recent rains, soon they will start to turn yellow and, when the rice is harvested, brown.  Our timing could not have been better to see Cambodia in her lush green regalia, it is just too bad that mosquitoes accompany the breathtaking landscape.

Next on our list was to visiting a pepper plantation to see where the famous Kampot pepper is grown.  We climbed into the mountains along a narrow paved road and turned into a driveway where we exited the car.  Sarat walked us through the pepper plantation showing us where delicate new plants were being started under a network of old palm fronds supported by the posts that would train the nascent plants upwards as they become established.  It will be years before these babies would be allowed to produce any peppercorns and over a decade before they would produce in any volume.

The pepper plantations flourished under the colonial rule of the French who quickly became the largest consumer of Kampot pepper.  Their demand was so great the even the prices of local pepper became too high for the locals who were and are still buying a cheaper imported pepper for their dinner tables.  Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge the plantations were abandoned and many of the plants died.  It has only been in the last couple decades that the pepper plants were salvaged and the plantations were reestablished.  The farm we visited was, perhaps not surprisingly, certified organic.  So after our tour and history lesson we all bought a little of this fabled spice and were ready to continue our adventure.

So we returned to Kep for a third and final time.  Having seen it briefly from the car when it was light we wanted to be dropped off on the beach from which we would walk back to the crab market where we gorged last night.  With all the recent rains it was nice to see that the ocean was a clear blue rather than churned up muddy waters of the rivers that we have visited so far.  There were fluffy clouds high in the sky and fishermen were working the waters.

There are countless small homes that dot the waterfront, most of which have been abandoned for decades.  Years ago, as the country stabilized and property prices were low, real estate speculators bought up many of these derelict homes.  Today they sit as ruins waiting for someone to reinvest in this really pretty waterfront town.  Kampot may be a bigger city but Kep has some very pretty if rather small beaches and remarkable views of the Gulf of Thailand.  Against Araceli's better judgment, Francene and I were determined to explore at least one of these houses.  As we wandered through with warnings of impending collapse ringing in our ears we found the structure to be remarkably sound with a nice, if rather cramped, floor plan.

When we finished exploring the ruins the three of us continued along the waterfront.  The scattered trees provided some relief from the scorching sun as we walked and with time we made it back to the crab market.  This time we ate at a restaurant that Sarat recommended and while the menu was less extensive that that of last night the food was still good.  Araceli was the only one who wanted more crab; Francene and I ordered tom yum soup with prawns and a fish curry.  The soup was more prawn than anything else so I left the bulk of it to Francene while I worked on the fish curry.  A few more vegetables would have been nice in the curry but it is hard to fault the flavor.

After lunch we wanted to run out to Bokor.  There seemed to be some confusion as to whether or not our guide could take us because of a misunderstanding with his boss but we got that ironed out pretty quickly.  So we got back in the car and drove through and then beyond Kampot to the mountain atop which Bokor Hill Station is perched.  Built in the 1920s by colonial French settlers as a cool mountain retreat from the blazing Cambodian heat, over nine hundred people died during the construction and before the road was replaced recently it was a three hour drive from the foot of the mountain to the peak.

In the 1940s Bokor was abandoned by the French and was eventually served as one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge during the 1990s.  During the invasion by the Vietnamese the Khmer Rouge took refuge in the Bokor Palace Hotel while the invaders dug in at the old Catholic church.  The old hotel was heavily damaged during the Khmer Rouge occupation and until recently it sat as it was left, windows broken, roof leaving, and riddled with bullet holes.  Today the hotel is undergoing a complete renovation, the exterior has been patched and repaired and work on the interior is well underway.  According to a worker that Sarat spoke with the hotel is slated to become some kind of a museum but in its current state they apparently don't care about keeping people out.  Araceli, Francene, and I were able to run freely through the building to marvel at the amazing art deco architecture and the large guest rooms.  The rooftop terraces were totally accessible but the cloud cover spoiled most of the view and we retreated inside when the rain started.  Even empty the hotel is a bit of a maze and we played a sort of modified game of Marco Polo trying to find each other when we got separated.

I feel so fortunate to have been able to see the hotel in its current state.  In a few months they will be much further along in the restoration process and we would not have been able to run freely throughout.  Once completed much of the recent history of the site will be concealed and, hopefully, it will be a beautiful example of early 20th century architecture again.  But now it is probably the last time it will be seen as the shell it became during the occupation by the Khmer Rouge.

After leaving the Bokor Palace we stopped off at a small temple and monastery, Wat Sampao Pram.  The temple had an odd orange look and upon closer inspection the color was found to come from a kind of moss that was enveloping the old stone.  Behind there was another amazing view down to the ocean through clouds broken by spears of sunlight.  We stayed at the viewpoint for a little while enjoying the relative cool before walking down the hill to find Mr. Tech.  Fortunately he parked next to a pond surrounded by a low stone wall where a couple of macaques were lounging.

Who can resist monkeys?  We watched them rest, forage, and eventually wreak havoc on a pickup and then a motorbike as a small crowd gathered.  A monk tried to tempt them with part of a baguette but they were more interested in the roasted pumpkin seeds that Sarat was offering them.  Monks and tourists had them almost completely surrounded but rather than feel trapped the monkeys appeared nonplussed by the attention.  After a while they decided it was time to lounge again on their favorite wall so we took that as our queue to leave.

We dropped Sarat off back in town and then went in search of dinner.  I don't think we were too hungry or particularly picky so we ate a quick meal and headed back to the tower.  Tomorrow we're returning to Phnom Penh for Thanksgiving with Tim so we are going to need to get some sleep if we're going to pack and hit the road early.  I suspect we're going to have a really mellow day once we arrive in Phnom Penh and that can't be anything but a good idea.

Canon 1D X, Canon 24-70/f2.8L Mark II
50mm, f5.6, 1/640 sec @ 100 ISO

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