• A giant crab statue welcomes visitors to Kep, in southern Cambodia. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

Sightseeing in Kampot and Kep, Cambodia

Kampot is a small coastal city, far from the tourist beaten path of beaches and scantily clothed tourists. I’ve not been there before, so why not visit? Kampot is known for its durians, that smelly Asian fruit with a big fan following. It’s the durian capital, or so they say. Well, they believe this enough to mark their central (and only) traffic circle with a giant durian statue. Enough proof for me.

But durians are far from the only draw in this sleepy town. The area is also known for its pepper plantations. A world famous (they say) pepper is produced here as well. So, of course, we had to visit a pepper farm to look at the hanging pepper fruit and to sample the wares. This is not your normal pepper, and the prices are very high, but hey, when in Rome …

Nearby Kep eschews the durian statue. They have their own effigy, a giant crab that welcomes all comers. Kep, they say, is the crab capital. So, after a tuk-tuk ride from Kampot to Kep, we stopped at the crab market for lunch. I ordered crab cooked in Kampot pepper, what else?

The dish was delicious – one large crab surrounded in a flavorful sauce – but I must admit, I ordered steamed crabs too. As some of you readers may know, crab is a favorite food of mine, and in Kep I was in crab heaven!

One day, we took a long boat ride up the river, looking for wildlife and various sights. Alas, most of the wildlife in this part of Cambodia has disappeared due to culinary interests, development and, most likely, water pollution. In three hours spent along a mangrove-lined inlet, we only saw one bird, a common kingfisher, and not much else. But we did see illegal sand mining, where a boat was dredging the river to provide sand for an artificial beach. Such beaches were all along the river, and even the beach in Kep was made of river sand. This activity disturbs the organisms that live at the river bottom, destroying the food chain, and muddies up the water, harming fish. No wonder there was little wildlife to be seen.

More unusual sights in this area were large, concrete, windowless buildings scattered here and there. We finally found out that these are “birdhouses” for swifts. In the past, people had to climb up flimsy bamboo ladders into giant limestone caves to remove the bird nests, made of bird saliva, and a regional delicacy served as soup or in drinks. But the Chinese people in this area found a creative solution. These tall, windowless buildings mimic the dark conditions of a cave, and swifts are lured into them by a broadcast of recorded birdcalls until they finally settle and make their nests there.

As with many new practices, however, this one also has a drawback. There used to be many fireflies in the area, lining the riverside, and a basis for “firefly tourism.” But now there are more bug-eating swifts and the firefly population is no longer dramatic. Maybe there are fewer mosquitoes too; who knows? I don’t.

After our visit to Kampot and Kep, Bucko and I took a car ride up to Phnom Penh. I was delighted to find an old favorite of mine along the way – lotus seed pods! At my behest, our driver stopped at a roadside stall so I could purchase some. Having been in Cambodia many times before, I knew the drill. All during the rest of the drive, I happily split open the seed pods, extracted the green, encased seeds, peeled off the outside layer, and popped the healthy little morsels into my mouth. It is sort of like eating the boiled peanuts you can purchase along the road in North Florida. Perfect.

In Phnom Penh, our trip took a darker turn. Although I’ve seen these sights before, it was Bucko’s first time here. We made the rounds of the historical sites from Pol Pot’s reign with the Khmer Rouge. In the late 1970s, about one-quarter of the country’s population – many millions – were either put in prison and tortured, executed en masse in the killing fields, or simply died of starvation and exhaustion in the work camps they were forced to labor in. I will spare you photos. It is too horrible to share.

All in all, our brief visit to Cambodia was enlightening, full of charming people and interesting sites. Maybe that’s why I always come back.

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