The rows of towers stretched into the distance. We saw a few workers, wearing the typical Khmer head cloths, hoeing among the towers.
“Be careful of the ants,” our driver warned. Leaf-weaver ants can sting, but they also attack other insects. On this certified organic farm, we learned later, further insect control was achieved by soaking in water the leaves of a weed that grows naturally among the plants, and then spraying the concoction on the plants; it’s a natural insect repellent. Workers rub the leaves on their arms to keep biting insects away. All the fertilizer used is organic, too: cow dung, bat guano (from nearby caves), small fish, plant matter – and more of the insect-repelling weeds. The fertilizer is composted anaerobically in big underground pits, then spread on the plants.
We could go up to the gift shop, our driver said. And just as we approached a rather grand-looking two-story stone home, someone driving a big Land Rover pulled up – the owner, it turned out. The gift shop was the front room of his house, which overlooked the plantation in the valley below. It seemed a beautiful, tranquil spot.
“I originally bought the land as a getaway from Phnom Penh,” said owner Mark Hanna, a CPA originally from Derry, Ireland. He mostly lives and works in the city, a grueling four-hour drive. In fact, the roads were so bad that he’d considered buying a helicopter, he said, to get back and forth more easily. He’d also considered buying a brick factory – and now wished that he had. He’d needed a million bricks to make the pepper towers. And now, with building in nearby Vietnam booming, the cost of bricks had gone up 1,000 percent. His wife, Anna (“to be honest,” Mark said, “she does all the work”), who is Cambodian, plans to expand the plantation. But they’d be using cheaper, less durable wooden towers this time.