The Halloween Scooter Bandits

For Halloween, Lynn and I decided we would dress up as people who know how to ride a motorbike in order to rent one for the day to visit the local pepper farms with.  We had noticed Kep had significantly less traffic than anywhere else we had been and it seemed like an ideal place to get some practice on the road before we got to Indonesia and needed those skills to get around the island.  So after breakfast we asked at the desk about motorbike rentals and without so much as a question back, the lady got on the phone and ordered us one.  Ten minutes later we heard our gold colored, automatic, 125 cc motorbike come up the gravel road and into the parking lot.  The receptionist guided us over to it and handed us helmets.  With all the confidence I could muster I asked for a refresher of how to ride one “as it has been a few years.” She didn’t speak very good English but read through that and responded with, “You don’t know how to ride!?”

“No, no, of course I do.  It’s just been a little while.”

She looked at me warily, said she didn’t understand and after we stared at each other in awkward silence for a few seconds she showed me how to start it.  I knew enough from watching on our tour in Vietnam to know that to go you twisted back on the right handle so I did that and tore off through the front gates and, very wobbly, onto the road.  I did a loop, testing the brakes, and came back in to try it with Lynn on the back.  The receptionist by this point had no doubt seen through our ruse, but was either satisfied enough with my awkward driving to think we wouldn’t total her scooter, or didn’t care.  Lynn climbed aboard the back, which immediately gave a very different feeling to the balance of the bike but off we charged anyway.

Lynn immediately yelled at me to slow down and I realized I was probably going a bit too fast down a rutted out dirt road with what amounted to now 30 seconds of experience so I headed her pleas.  We pulled out onto the main road and putted along, slowly while I got the feeling of the bike.  Luckily no one in Kep seems in a hurry to be anywhere and 30 km/hour about fit the pace of the few other bikes and cars that were around us.

We quickly realized that we would need more gas for our trip and stopped at a roadside convenience shack and had them put the gas from an old liter Pepsi bottle into our tank.  We headed off again but noticed that had barely made a dent in our fuel gauge.  We stopped again and asked for two more at a dollar each.  We turned the bike back on and it now read over full so (bike) bellies full, we headed off to the pepper farm.

We made it along without an issue, gaining more confidence as we went.  Lynn was on constant lookout for cars and faster motorbikes passing us but there was a wide shoulder so it wasn’t really an issue.  The only real issue was when we turned off the main road and down the gravel road the farm and the bike got a little loosy goosy in the deep gravel at the turn off.  We made it through fine, but we stopped for a second so Lynn could stretch her thighs which she had strained squeezing me to stay on the bike. After a little rest, I asked her if she wanted to try driving.

She initially said no, but I convinced her this was as good as place as any since we were staring down a fairly wide, straight, and abandoned road.  I took the backpack from Lynn and she climbed aboard.  I gave her a quick briefing of all I had learned, which wasn’t much, and off she went.  She thought it would be much harder than it was, and credits her yoga balancing skills with making it easier.   With Lynn feeling confident (though still not in turning) I climbed aboard the back and off we went.   I enjoyed riding on the back and cuddling Lynn while we rode and used the opportunity to take pictures between the large trucks that passed, creating dust storms in their wake.  We were both quite happy that we had thought to put on our handy dandy handkerchiefs as dust masks, especially because we got to look like bank robbers.  It was Halloween after all.

Lynn on the scooter.  We used our handkerchiefs to keep the dust out of our lungs since all the roads were dirt for the most part.
Lynn on the scooter. We used our handkerchiefs to keep the dust out of our lungs since all the roads were dirt for the most part.
I thought we looked an awful lot like bank robbers making our get away on a very small and slow scooter.
I thought we looked an awful lot like bank robbers making our get away on a very small and slow scooter.

Lynn successfully negotiated a turn in the road but had me get off so she could make it through the one into the pepper farm.  I walked up after her and we parked the bike in the shade while we met Norbert Kline, a relocated German who helps run Sothy’s Pepper Farm. Norbert looked about 65 and had a bright white beard that looked like it could use a good trimming and wore loose fitting clothes and a straw hat for protection from the sun.  He suggested we sit in the shade of the onsite restaurant while he went over how they grow and cure pepper before going back out into the heat for a tour of the fields, to which we happily agreed.

Norbert was quite the expert in pepper farming it seems and we learned all about the history of farming in Cambodia and Kep in particular.  When the French took over Cambodia in 1863 they quickly discovered Kep peppercorns and sent them off to restaurants in France where they became coveted as some of the world’s best pepper.  We also learned about peppercorn cultivation and that all four types of peppercorn: red, white, green, and black all come from the same plant.  They are just varying degrees of ripeness and then dried or boiled for different amounts of time.

The four types of pepper.  Green are fresh peppercorns that are not yet ripe.  Red are ripe and dried in the sun.  White are ripe and boiled and then have the skins peeled off. Black are unripe and turn from green to black when they are dried for two days in the sun.
The four types of pepper. Green are fresh peppercorns that are not yet ripe. Red are ripe and dried in the sun. White are ripe and boiled and then have the skins peeled off. Black are unripe and turn from green to black when they are dried for two days in the sun.
The peppercorns out in the sun.
The peppercorns out in the sun.

After the briefing we walked around the fields for a little while.  Pepper plants grow in the shade and so large palm fronds protected them from the sun.  We also learned that the plants flower and produce their berries year round so we saw a number of grape like clusters of tiny white flower and green peppercorns on all of the plants.  The whole process seemed very manual with Norbert explaining that the peppercorns are all harvested by hand as they become ripe, then are sorted by hand and dried in bamboo baskets.  After drying they are picked over with tweezers and divided by color to ensure the best quality, with the ones not up to snuff being sold off and ground up for pre-ground pepper packets and restaurant shakers.  The good stuff is finally sold around the world at about $20 per kilo depending on the type, with red and white being more expensive since the red berries that they come from aren’t as plentiful on the plants.

Norbert showing us the poles that the pepper plants grow up.
Norbert showing us the poles that the pepper plants grow up.
Pepper grows best in the shade so they use palm fronds to protect them from the sun.
Pepper grows best in the shade so they use palm fronds to protect them from the sun.
Doug on the scooter in front on the pepper farm.
Doug on the scooter in front on the pepper farm.

We wandered the fields a little more on our own and took an interest in the fruit trees that they also have onsite, namely mango, papaya, and durian (gross).  As we headed back to our motorbike a British man caught us and wanted to show us a little hiking path up the hill at the edge of the farm if we weren’t in a rush to leave.  We were not and followed him through the farm while he described the great views you could get from this trail.  He left us at the head of it and we walked the whole length in about five minutes, and while we were able to see the whole farm, the view had certainly been overhyped.  We headed back down, climbed back on our bike and after trying several times couldn’t get it to turn over.  We were starting to get worried when the British man came over and had me hold the brakes while he gave it some gas and tried to start it.  After a few attempts he got it go, and relieved, we thanked him and climbed aboard to ride back into Kep from some lunch and the beach.

We pulled into Kep, which really is just an intersection with about 30 tourist shops and restaurants in two plazas clustered around it, and headed into one of the shops to buy our bus tickets for our return to Phnom Penh on Monday.  We checked with the guy there for where we could park our bike for the next few hours and he seemed unconcerned with where we had left it on the side of the road so we went looking for a boulangerie Lynn had found on wikitravel.  This was at one point where the French colonists had their summer homes, so we figured we were in for some good chocolate croissants.  We were a little let down, and also a bit frustrated with the stupidity of the British woman being trained behind the counter.  She was certainly friendly though, so I guess that’s something.

After a lunch of olive bread, a ham and cheese croissant, and a chocolate croissant we crossed the street to the beach where we took a brief swim but decided that the water was too murky, the sun to bright for my Irish skin, and the children to screamy, so we headed back to our hotel to lay by the deserted pool instead.  It seems that we are the only people staying at our 9 room resort.

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and reading by the side of the pool until 5.00 when we decided to walk back to crab market, this time in time to catch the sunset over the ocean.  We returned to the Crab Kitchen which we had had luck with the day before for lunch and sat at a counter top overlooking the ocean.  We ordered a plate of garlic and ginger crab and watched the sun set as people from neighboring restaurants waded out into the water to collect crab from the line pots they had placed out in the bay.

We stayed for a few mojitos and daquiris after dinner to watch the heat lightning roll in again before walking back to our resort.  We finished the evening in the pool, looking up at the stars, every so often hidden by the lightning in the far off distance while fake Loki stayed nearby for the occasional head scratch. Eventually some new visitors arrived at the hotel and headed to the pool and we retired into our room to get away from their splashing.

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Dinner of crab in garlic and ginger sauce while people are harvesting fresh crab right in front of us.
Dinner of crab in garlic and ginger sauce while people are harvesting fresh crab right in front of us.

Daily Walking Miles : 3 miles

Daily Motorbike Miles : 21.9 miles

Fun Facts:

  • Pepper plants produce for about twenty years and take four until they produce their first harvest.
  • The Kampot region is famous for its pepper, likely because of the amount of quartz in the soil. No one really seems to know why but several people have pointed out Bordeaux also has a lot of quartz in the soil.  Maybe peppercorns and grapes are similar?
  • Renting a motorbike with no experience is easy if you look confident.
  • Fake Loki really likes chewing on rocks and getting neck scratches.

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