Our hopes of ever making it to the Starling Pepper Plantation are deflating like the bike tyres in front of us. When we glanced at the Treetop Guesthouse bike selection on our way home from dinner last night we thought they seemed OK. It’s only this morning, as we’re about to leave, that we realise one bike doesn’t have working breaks, the seat pin on the other is missing and both have very spongey tyres. Macca decides he can live with a low seat, since his bike seems to have working gears (it doesn’t) and I swap the deathtrap with no brakes for a big cruiser. Things are on the up, until we ask our friends at Treetop to pump up the tyres. They bring out an ancient pump, and rummage around in a toolbox for the right attachment. There’s a hiss of air, and Macca’s back tyre deflates completely. Not ideal. For the next half hour, we watch on as they try every attachment in the toolbox and rig up a few of their own with bits of string. Finally, something works and we set off on our 25km ride out to the pepper farm, looking pretty badass in our face masks.
We ride along the highway between Kep and Kampot for an hour before stopping for breakfast. It’s not the nicest stretch of road to ride along. The dry season means lots of red dust, and heavy traffic means plenty of it gets blown in your face. Figuring we were close to our turnoff, we stop at a local restaurant for breakfast. The place is full of old Cambodian men glued to a TV screen, and we’re the only foreigners there. We order a plate of noodles, and the owner brings them to us and sits down with his young daughter. Mr. Kip explains that he’s trying to get her used to foreigners. She looks uncertain, as though she’s about to cry but doesn’t. As we eat his wife’s noodles under the wary stare of his daughter, Mr. Kip tells us his life story. He’s built this roadside restaurant up from a small coffee cart, and has plans to expand it even further to include an information booth because tourists like us are always missing the turnoff to the pepper farms. He was proud of doing it all with money he’d saved working as a tour guide across Cambodia, without any handouts from his parents who own a salt farm 1km down the road. Eating in places like this and chatting to people like Mr. Kip makes us happy to be on bikes taking this trip slowly rather than flying past in the back of a tuk tuk.
We roll off after breakfast, and (true to Mr. Kip’s comment) completely miss the turnoff. Twice. That information booth is clearly a smart idea. Finally, we find a tiny track that looks right on google maps and give it a go. After a while, the track joins up with a slightly bigger road that takes us most of the way to the pepper farm. The dirt road is potholed and bumpy, but it’s a fun ride anyway. We’re flanked on either side by farms and buffalo grazing or lying sleepily in the long yellow grass. Everybody waves, and kids yell “hello!” with so much excitement it makes us realise we’re off the tourist trail today, probably for the first time this trip.
We keep going, and going, and eventually (25km later) arrive at the pepper farm, dusty and sweaty. We can’t see anyone or anything suggesting a tour, so we go and park our bikes in what we later discover to be the pool area of the owner’s fancy house. Someone sees us wandering aimlessly around and brings us down to a guy in a fluffy, white beret who turns out to be the chef. He offers us a tour of the plantation and we follow him down the hill.
Even though we both love pepper (for Katrina this borders on obsession), we’ve never really thought about how it’s grown and farmed. The chef takes us around and shows us the different stages of the famous Kampot pepper vine. First off there’s green pepper corns, which are harvested young at about 3 months of age and need to be eaten fresh or preserved in brine. As the pepper matures, the berries begin to turn yellow. When these are picked from the vine and dried for a few days you get black peppercorns. If you soak these in water for a few hours and rub off the husks you’re left with smooth, white peppercorns. The most mature of all are the red peppercorns, picked when the berries are fully ripe and bright red in colour. The chef tells us this is his favourite pepper, the most fragrant and delicious.
After our tour, we head back to the restaurant for lunch. We can’t go past the red pepper prawns, given that it’s the chef’s favourite pepper variety. The food is amazing – juicy prawns stirfried in a lightly salty sauce with ground red pepper through it, along with loads of fresh green peppercorns and vegetables. By this time, five or six tuk tuks have arrived with other tourists from Kampot and Kep. Their drivers are showing them around, and we feel incredibly lucky to have been given a private tour by the chef.
Fuelled up, we get on our bikes and start the long ride home. By this time it’s early afternoon, and the sun is fierce. To make matters worse, the poor quality of the bikes is starting to catch up with us. Bumpy roads, terrible seats, and long legs on bikes with low saddles all add up to make it a very uncomfortable 25km ride home. By the time we make it back to our guesthouse we’re completely wiped out. To reward and console ourselves, we go to the fancy guesthouse next door, order a jug of beer, swim in their beautiful pool and eat a two course Swiss dinner. Not a bad way to end a really great day.
Starling Pepper Farms is accessible from both Kep and Kampot. You can find a map and more information on their website: http://www.starlingfarm.com. If you want to attempt the bike ride from Kep, it takes 2 to 3 hours depending on the quality of your bikes, how fast you ride and how often you stop. Once you’re off the main highway between Kep and Kampot the roads are dusty, bumpy and pretty slow. All up, we estimate the trip was around 25km one way. You can hire bikes at most guesthouses in Kep. Ours were 1 USD a day each. There are plenty of places along the ride to stop for a cold drink or snack but bring plenty of water. Starling Farm also has a restaurant, where the chef will cook you up something delicious using their pepper. Meals go for between 10 USD and 20 USD, but they’re worth every penny.