Saturday, May 07, 2011
Phu Quoc: Black Pepper And Pearls
I’ve just spent a blissful two weeks living in a beachside bungalow on Vietnam’s largest island Phu Quoc, a place famed for its world-beating fish sauce, black pepper, and pearls. It all started with a late night conversation in the bar, when Rodney and Josh asked if I wanted to go there with them.
The fang-shaped island – which was briefly captured by the Khmer Rouge during the Vietnam-Cambodia war in the 70s - is only a short boat ride from Sihanoukville, or at least it should be. But because it’s owned by Vietnam (an issue still hotly contested by Cambodians, who call the island Ko Tral), you have to travel for hours overland to the border crossing at Ha Tien, and then get a ferry from there, meaning the journey takes about seven hours instead of two.
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They are talking about opening up a ferry route direct from Sihanoukville soon, but anything involving the foot-dragging Cambodian government often takes years to arrange. For instance, there’s an international airport already built in Sihanoukville, but due to squabbling between foreign investors and Khmer officials, it’s been standing there empty for years. It’s incredible when you think that the only plane in the city sits under a hangar in the middle of a Russian-owned nightclub, called imaginatively enough Airport.
Josh said he was hoping to persuade his wife Loung to go with us. But he’d been warned that Khmers aren’t good travellers. The vast majority of the population have never been abroad – and are deeply distrustful of foreign food. Tom told him when he took his Cambodian girlfriend to Vietnam, she’d hardly eaten anything in eight days.
You wouldn’t think the Khmers would be so picky when you see them tucking so readily into raw duck foetus, fried tarantulas, boiled snakes, and frogs stuffed with oranges. But it’s not that Vietnamese food is so different, it’s just that the Cambodians view their sworn enemy as a marauding demon race who eat pickled babies and other unspeakable meats, a view shared almost as enthusiastically by the Thais, and find absolutely everything to do with them hard to stomach.
Josh and Rodney said we’d be leaving on the Thursday, and over the next two nights I taught Akara how to make the kebabs, and the night before I left I made a new batch of chicken for her. Then we headed off on a white knuckle taxi ride to the border. I was the only one with a Vietnamese visa. The others said you didn’t need one as long as you told the immigration officers you were only going to Ha Tien. They said no-one ever checked your visa on the boat to Phu Quoc.
On the way, we almost hit a cow and two cyclists as the driver overtook on blind bends and threw his Toyota over the red dust roads with one thumb permanently fastened to the horn. We stopped in Kep-sur-Mer, a former colonial retreat for the French elite later obliterated by the Khmer Rouge, and had breakfast at the crab market.
Wooden, ramshackle restaurants were perched on the narrow beach (above). They were so near, they often flooded at high tide. Nothing had been built in Kep for years - it was definitely the water getting closer. Families were dragging crab pots like sledges over the coarse sand to position them 100 yards out for the tide change. Boys were spear fishing near the rocks as long-tailed fishing boats waited for dusk. A woman knelt over a bucket as she picked through hundreds of small crabs.
It was only 10am but the restaurant barbecues were already lit, grilling sumptuous seafood as fresh as your hat. A group of Cambodian fishermen were sharing a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and singing in one corner. They’d probably just got back from a night on the waves.
I ordered a plate of grilled prawns. They came with a side dish of sea salt and lime juice mixed with the local Kampot pepper, an incredibly aromatic spice long prized by chefs in Europe. Two years ago, it became Cambodia’s first product to be awarded Geographical Indicator (GI) status like champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies. But just 30 years before that, the country’s pepper farms were all but destroyed by Pol Pot, who ordered his black-clad automatons to turn the palm-shaded vineyards into rice fields.
As we left town, we saw more bombed out villas and I imagined what the place must have looked like before the war. It took at least an hour going through customs. A sour-faced official kept grilling me about why I had a visa for Vietnam and my travelling companions didn’t. He clearly knew they were heading to Phu Quoc. Eventually his tone changed and he pulled out a wad of notes from his pocket and asked if I wanted to change some money.
We descended from the ferry into chaos on a long narrow pier crammed with motorbike taxis. We rented three beachside bungalows, surrounded by cashew nut, water apple and star fruit trees. It was incredible waking up and picking a mango for breakfast.
It soon turned out Josh had the whole trip planned out in irritating detail. He said that night we’d head down the coast to a pearl farm owned by a few antipodean friends of his.
“They’re big drinkers” he kept saying. “They’re definitely big drinkers.”
He said expats often converged there on Friday nights and it was traditional for everyone to bring something to barbecue. I knew what was coming next.
The market was a seething, fishy circus, and mopeds battled with pedestrians and stall holders along the narrow street. I bought 2kg of pork shoulder, tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilli, coriander and limes to make kebabs. Then Josh remembered something.
“We need a banana for the monkey,” he said. “We can’t turn up without a banana for the monkey.”
The pearl farm was a stunning place, overlooking a deserted beach. The pearl boys were as tough as Josh had described. They were enormous men with huge, barnacled hands. But then they had to be. They had hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of pearls growing in the sea, and had an armoury of shotguns and high-powered spear guns to ward off pirates.
The monkey devoured the banana in seconds, but I didn’t get too close. It looked friendly enough, but they kept it on a leash because the last one had bitten someone’s ear off. It was best friends with a small ginger cat. One of the pearl boys picked up the cat and put it next to the monkey. It immediately began cuddling the cat, and they sat there quite happily for a few minutes. The monkey had brought it up as a kitten and would carry it up trees until it got too big to lug around.
We all gathered near the oyster beds to watch the sunset (below), and then there was a power cut and I had to prep the pork kebabs under torch light. It was an almost impossible task, and it was only the bluntness of the machete that stopped me losing a finger.
They told me they had a different method for producing pearls. Normally farmers nucleate the oysters by cutting opening the hinge and inserting a piece of grit, but they inserted a small pearl to speed up the harvesting process, which can take up to five years. Some of the necklaces they had on display in the museum were priced at $15,000 (£10,000).
We dug into the kebabs, and shared a huge red snapper between us, but there were no oysters to be had. We drank from pint glasses as rum bottles were passed around the table, and soon I was sitting in a brain-fogged haze, looking out at the dark sea and wondering at the undiscovered, man-eating leviathans it contained, while being mauled to death by worryingly-large mosquitoes. Scores of squid boats were anchored in a long northerly line. There were so many out there, their lights looked like a distant motorway at night – a memory far removed from the tranquility of that mosquito-filled, island paradise.