Kampong Cham is a bustling but rather dull town at the Mekong, rarely visited by tourists. Kampong Cham makes for a good stop-over on the way to other destinations further up the Mekong (Kratie and Stung Treng). Although you won’t see anything amazing there, you could certainly find a few nice places to visit. The town is most famous for a bamboo bridge over Mekong which can be seen only during the dry season. Apart from that, there are some minor Angkorian ruins located a few kilometers outside the town. It is a good place to get the real feel of Cambodia.
HOW WE ENDED UP IN KAMPONG CHAM
We deliberated a long while over how should we spend the remaining two weeks (until the visa expiry) in Cambodia. Cambodia wasn’t an easy country to travel across due to limited road network. We basically had to choose which parts of the country we’d like to focus on.
Eventually, we agreed to skip the remote and supposedly amazing eastern provinces: Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri due to their location right in the middle of the high risk malaria zone. As I was not prepared to poison myself with anti-malaria drugs and at the same time I ended up being bitten mercilessly anywhere I went, (despite all the precautions), I didn’t find it very wise venturing there.
Instead, we decided to see two sleepy towns on the Mekong river, then move to the capital and finish the trip on the coast. As we didn’t fancy travelling on the bus for too many hours, we made our first stop in Kampong Cham, 5 hours away from Siem Reap.
THE MOST MEMORABLE JOURNEY IN CAMBODIA
Going by bus to Kampong Cham turned out to be a real adventure. It seemed that all the tourists from Siem Reap move directly to Phnom Peng, to Battambang on the other side of the Tonle Sap lake or Kratie on the Mekong. That’s probably why we were the only foreigners on a packed bus to Kampong Cham.
The locals used the bus as a cargo vehicle: one gentleman carried weaved bags with live cockerels (invisible, but very audible), while another one had a cardboard box with a parrot. At some point, the parrot found its way out of the box and started flying all over the running bus, until one man caught it mid-air. The entire passage between the seats was blocked with 40-kilo bags filled with various produce. The unfortunate passengers in front of the bus travelled right next to large bags of dried fish. During the entire trip, the passengers continued having a friendly banter with a driver.
There were a couple of unexpected stops during the journey: first one was for those who wanted to buy sticky rice smoked inside a bamboo (looked like a local specialty as there were suddenly plenty of stalls all selling just that particular dish), another one was a pee break for guys, right in the middle of the field. Luckily for me, there was also a proper meal break at a local restaurant with normal toilet facilities.
KAMPONG CHAM ON A BUDGET
We got off from the bus when it was tanking at the petrol station in Kampong Cham and walked 5 minutes to our waterfront guesthouse. It wasn’t the cheapest but it was very centrally located. This mattered to us as we were thinking of staying just for one night (since there wasn’t that much to see and do in the area).
We stayed at the riverfront hotel in a room with no view which was slightly more expensive than could be expected in Cambodia. There was a shared balcony with a nice view at the river and a good restaurant for typical backpacker prices.
The local eateries didn’t seem to be a good option unless you really wouldn’t mind what you were going to eat: the staff didn’t speak English and they didn’t have the menus either. It was certainly not an option for a vegan like me at least. A few tourist-oriented riverfront restaurants on the other hand were overpriced.
Kampong Cham market vendors weren’t very used to tourists so everybody was giving us real, local prices. Enormous baguette with meat and lots of veggies cost $1.50 while sticky banana rice or fried potatoes barely cost anything at all.
The biggest attraction of Kampong Cham is the longest bamboo bridge in the world (stretching for 1 km over Mekong), rebuilt every year after the monsoon season. Sadly, the rain season had already started so the river had already taken it away as we learned from the guesthouse owner.
Luckily, we had some alternatives of how to spend the remaining half of the day. Without wasting the time, we hired two bikes from the guesthouse and sped away in the worst heat of the day to see the nearby temples.
The whole town looked deserted apart from the market, where we got snacks serving us as lunch. We passed by plenty of stalls selling delicious looking fruit and promised ourselves to get some on the way back.
NON-TOURISTY KHMER RUINS
The first of the temples was just 3 km outside the city, following the main road. Unsurprisingly, the Google maps didn’t show the right directions but after asking around a little, we found our way to Nokor Bachey. It was a lovely Angkorian ruin of a Mahayana Buddhist temple blended with modern Theravada Buddhist temple into a very exotic and charming entity.
The temple was well preserved and looked much more alive than the ones we visited in the Angkor area. Only monks, schoolchildren and grazing cows seemed to visit the temple. Dozens of modern day stupas scattered the neighbourhood. The entrance fee was just $1 but there were a couple of people trying to force some woven bracelets on us (and then surely extract a ‘donation’ for it).
MODERN TWIN TEMPLES
We knew the twin temples of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei wouldn’t be as impressive but still cycled another 4 km along the highway to see them. The road wasn’t terribly busy but some trucks and buses were passing by us from time to time. If you’re not comfortable with that, better take a tuk-tuk.
Both temples were actually modern. The first, ‘male’ one, had a sky-soaring tower and its grounds were full of monkeys. We found a small garden with brand new Bayon- style faces at the footsteps of Phnom Pros, on the path towards Phnom Srei.
Just a short walk further, there was a small hill with steps leading to the ‘female’ temple, Phom Srei. There was a lady asking for a donation at the bottom of the stairs but not a soul around (apart from a cat) on the top of the hill.
Some blogs were promising extensive views but those turned out to be seriously obstructed with the foliage. One could peek here and there, getting sneaky peat of Mekong, Phnom Pros and the fields below.
HANGING OUT ON A PROMENADE
The way back to the guesthouse felt much easier as we were riding all the way down with the sun on our backs. We stopped for a delicious, enormous, icy cold coconut and to buy a very tasty pomelo before heading back to the town.
We were slightly too late for the sunset but nevertheless hanged around the now-lively promenade, watching the neon lights on the bridge and fountain, enjoying the view of the river. It was a very intense day so we promised ourselves to rest a bit after arriving in Kratie the following day.
How to get to Kampong Cham?
Buses booked by a guesthouse or an agency connect Kampong Cham both with Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The first journey would take you around 5 hours, the second more than 3 hours.
There are also shared vans to the nearby Kratie (also around 3 hours drive): be warned they take a shortcut through dirt roads along the rubber plantations, so the ride is quite bumpy.
Prices [in USD as of June 2018]
$9 A/C en-suite double room at the riverfront guesthouse (room without a view)
$9 dinner for two with a beer and a juice at the guesthouse restaurant
$7 bus Siem Reap to Kampong Cham
$5 shared cab Kampong Cham to Kratie
$1.50 cycle hire for a day
$1.50 baguette with meat
$0.60 fresh coconut
$0.10 portion of chips from a street vendor