Kampot is a province and a small town in Cambodia’s far south, near the Thai Sea and only a few kilometers from the Vietnamese border. It’s famous for growing black pepper, being one of the Khmer Rouge’s last strongholds, and producing a lot of durian for export to Vietnam. The city is a popular weekend getaway for expats seeking to escape the incessant traffic and heat of Phnom Penh and get a taste of nature.
|Even the driver shares his seat
We liked Kampot immediately. The city is marked by a huge durian statue in the middle of a traffic circle, which is actually not clogged with traffic. A wide blue river meanders along one side of the city, and green mountains rise above the French influenced buildings. Various tour companies offer many different activities, like visiting a pepper plantation, swimming at waterfalls, or taking a boat tour of the canals. Rob and I, however, were durian hunting. So we arranged our own tour. We rented a motorcycle, hired an English-speaking tour guide, and headed off at 8 AM the next morning.
The guide took us to the durian growing region, which is only 9 km on the other side of the river from Kampot city. Small stands dotted the road, durian hanging from yellow strings like deflated balloons, with durian trees on either side. Our first stop was a small durian orchard of only 1 hectare. Our guide explained that this is a very typical plot in Cambodia, and said we were unlikely to find a larger farm.
The land belonged to Ea Som Ann, 45, who purchased the plot upon the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. When we arrived Mr. Som Ann was not at home, so we spoke to his son Ea Kim Son, 21, and his daughter Ea Kim Lee, mother of twin 18 month old boys who toddled around in the nude. The family has about 40 durian trees with bananas interspersed around the property. It’s currently the dry season in Cambodia, and the soil was like cement covered by thin patches of sickly weeds and completely bare in places. The large artificial pond, dug 8 meters deep, was only half full, exposing a solid wall of greyish white soil. During the monsoon in July and August, the pond fills with water and the family uses this water for the rest of the year for drinking, washing, and watering their trees.
As we were leaving, Mr. Som Ann arrived home. He invited us to sit in the shade of his porch and talk while we watched his round-bellied grandsons play with a tiny fat black puppy. Mr. Som Ann said that when he bought the land in 1979 there was not a single fruit tree on it. Whatever fruit there had been had been cut down by the Khmer Rouge, who disapproved of growing anything except rice. He said that his parents had owned 100 durian trees, but their trees had been cut down and the land converted to rice fields. For four years it was illegal for people to grow their own vegetables or fruits, and if anyone so much as picked a coconut from a tree they would be accused of stealing. When the regime fell, Mr. Som Ann purchased this land and immediately began planting durian seeds. His oldest trees are around 30 years old now. Recently he has planted more trees, of the grafted variety. He said that people don’t use seeds to plant durian anymore.
Durians are expensive in Cambodia. At $3 a kilo, a small to medium durian costs a whopping $6. Considering that the Cambodian government defines poverty as subsisting on less than 75 US cents a day, durian is a luxury not afforded by most. This also means that durian farmers are very, very wealthy. Mr. Som Ann’s neighbor is a 72-year-old durian farmer named Seng Keang. The son of pepper farmers, he also saw his parent’s farm destroyed when the Khmer Rouge took over Kampot. He planted durian in 1979, and has been able to use the proceeds from the durian to build a fancy hotel and restaurant by the river in Kampot. Now a wealthy business man, Mr. Seng Keang was busy watering his durian trees one by one with a hose.
As a parting gift, Mr. Seng Keang gave us a small Sidongkat durian. Sidongkat is an older variety, from when farmers still planted seeds. It was a wonderful durian that left us wanting more, especially as each seed contained only the barest scraping of potent flesh. So we headed to the market and picked up a Kulkat, said to be the best durian in Cambodia. And it may be the best. Amazingly smooth and silky, sweet and strong, it was like the best Indonesian durian with 3 times the flesh. The trick was getting it open. Unlike a Thai or Indonesian durian, which when ripe pop open with the slight twist of a knife, the Kalkut was reluctant to reveal its sweet innards. Rob had to saw the thing in half with a kitchen knife before we could have a taste.
We were sad to leave Kampot, with its clean air, quiet streets, amazing durian, and beautiful scenery. But our visas were ready at the Thai embassy. So after three days in relative paradise, we headed back to Phnom Penh.