Puddles, punctures and pyjamas: a day in the country

Largely on the basis that a moving tuk tuk means a breeze, we decided on a few hours tour of Kampot’s surrounds. Our driver, Chian, suggested a few sights we could include and we were off.

Roads in Kampot are pretty good but deteriorate quickly once we leave the main road. Luckily, Chian has done this a lot and skilfully negotiates the potholes and large pools of muddy water left over from yesterday’s rain. He is a slow and steady driver, which is proven when we are regularly overtaken by but eventually catch up with another tuk tuk carrying a party of tourists to many of the same places.

The main road is a twisting, churning river of mopeds, trucks and carts, studded with little food markets and other commerce. Chloe is delighted to see that the Khmer pyjama ladies are still in evidence. Traditional women’s daywear in Cambodia is a combo of light cotton trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. This is often fashioned in brightly coloured, matching fabric, rendering a pyjama-like ensemble. Topped off with a wide-brimmed hat, it is surely the most practical of outfits. Younger women increasingly opt for long shorts and t-shirts with a baseball cap – probably more fashionable but far less practical (‘go out in that hat and your neck will burn’, ‘those jeans shorts will never dry out after it rains!’ we imagine frustrated parents calling after their daughters). We dream of a future in which smart pyjamas are accepted outdoor wear in Britain.

Our first stop is a salt farm. With rainy season drawing in, the fields are not being worked, but Chian shows us the patchwork of shallow fields (similar to rice paddies, with raised sides and irrigation systems). In this case, the water is bought from the sea into large pools and condensed under the sun for about a month. It is then diverted into smaller pools where the final bake is completed in a week or so and the salt removed. The best salt, called ‘fleur de sel’, is the very top skimming of the new crystals and sells to the best restaurants. We peered into a wooden storage shed to see enormous piles of salt awaiting distribution, and we wondered what happens when the roof leaks…

Turning off the tarmac and roads immediately become red dirt – alternately dusty and muddy. We chug through several roadside villages, which look very much like the villages we saw around Siem Reap on our last trip. There are signs of improving conditions – better maintenance, more power lines, refrigeration and, an unexpected sign, more people at leisure as they take a break from work during the hottest part of the day. Children are better dressed, youths suck on ice lollies, adults exchange news over a coffee. It’s no utopia though. Despite some relatively affluent looking homes, incomes are clearly still very low.

 

After a couple of hours of bumping, we reached the obligatory cave (wherever you go – waterfall, temple, cave). But this one was different. Yes, it was a temple in a cave. We thought that was probably worth 200 steps in the baking heat. The stairs were spectacular, each handrail was an enormous naga so you simply followed the snake body upwards. The cave itself housed a little temple, which reminded us of a miniature version some of the carved buildings we saw in Petra, and some impressive stalagmites that resembled elephants.

After a short hiatus to fix a burst inner-tyre, we eventually reached Secret Lake and revelled in the cool breeze coming off it. It’s a reservoir that helps make this one of the most fertile parts of the region, demonstrated by the mangoes, pumpkins, tomatoes, peanuts, green beans, chillies, turmeric, pepper, cabbages and garlic we saw growing. Basically, it was like driving through a live veggie curry.

Our final stop was a pepper plantation but, given its importance here, we think it deserves a post of its own. A special mention, though, must go to the durian field we paused at. This fruit splits continents, societies and families – we certainly can’t agree on whether it’s a delicious if stinky treat or from Satan’s own bottom.