Now I know Kampong Cham doesn’t feature on many Cambodia bucket lists, but I honestly think it should. Had I visited this gorgeous, peaceful riverside town the first time I came to Cambodia in 2012, I would have left with an entirely different – and more favourable – impression of the country.
Named for the region’s Cham ethnic group and home to the majority of Cambodia’s Muslim population, Kampong Cham has a completely different feel to the country’s better developed, more popular tourist destinations. A walk down the main street – with its colourfully painted colonial buildings and Chinese shophouses, glimpses of the shimmering Mekong visible down every side street – is like stepping behind Cambodia’s curtain.
In fact, the more time I spend in small towns like Kampot and Kampong Cham, the stranger Phnom Penh feels. I really believe an accurate impression of Cambodia can only be formed if you take the time to delve a little deeper into the rural provinces.
Located just three hours from Phnom Penh along one of the country’s best-maintained roads, Kampong Cham is the perfect place to do just that. Kampong Cham province (of which Kampong Cham town is the capital) is the gateway to Cambodia’s north and west. It’s well-suited for a one or two-night stopover if you’re travelling between the capital and Siem Reap, Kratie (or the Laos border) or even Ratanakiri and you want to stretch your legs.
If you’re coming from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, you’ll notice the pace of life is a lot slower in Kampong Cham. A few things are missing, too – there’s fewer tuk-tuks, less traffic overall, and much less pollution. Add to that extremely welcoming locals, a clutch of great restaurants and some of the most picturesque villages I’ve seen anywhere in Southeast Asia, and Kampong Cham is bound to steal your heart.
Here are six of my favourite things to do in Kampong Cham – plus recommendations for where to stay, what to eat, how to get around, and some other travel advice.
Waterfront & architecture
Hours can happily be spent biking along Kampong Cham’s wide boulevards and back streets. There are plenty of well-worn colonial buildings to admire along the way. A huge paved promenade lines the town’s waterfront and is a popular place to hang out in the early evening.
Freshwater seafood of all shapes and sizes is the order of the day in Kampong Cham. The area is famous for its giant, juicy snails that live in the rice paddies and on river banks. Fish, crab and shrimp (fresh and BBQ’d) can be found in abundance at the wet market in the centre of town. The lemon-coloured dome of the market is reminiscent of Phnom Penh’s Central Market and the main phsar in Battambang.
Cheung Kok Ecotourism Village
For something completely unique, spend a morning at Cheung Kok Ecotourism Village. Cheung Kok is an authentic, living Cambodian village and home to about 150 families. Looking to improve alternative income streams for the community, French NGO Amica helps run a range of projects in the village, including handicraft production. Independent tourists are welcome to wander through the village at any time, or you can call ahead for a guided tour. Some families also offer homestays.
Koh Pen bridge & island
It’s not every day you get to cross the longest bamboo bridge in the world. Linking Koh Pen (Pen island) to the mainland and strong enough to support small cars, Koh Pen Bridge is nothing short of an incredible feat of engineering. We were told that 2016 is the last year Koh Pen Bridge will be re-built – so we felt very lucky to be there for its last annual opening day. Even when the new concrete bridge takes its place, it’s well worth cycling over to the villages of Koh Pen to experience another slice of rural Cambodian life that rivals Cheung Kok.
I never made it to Kampong Cham’s most famous pair of wats, Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey, but I got my temple fill at Wat Nokor (Banteay Prei Nokor), located about 20 minutes from the centre of Kampong Cham. Incredibly vivid Buddhist murals inside, ancient stonework outside, the main structure predates Angkor Wat and has been gradually added to over the years to create a vast prayer complex. The Wat was shortlisted by UNESCO in 1992, but it’s still relatively unknown, among foreign tourists at least.
Most of Kampong Cham’s eateries are located on the riverfront. Smile Restaurant (run by NGO Buddhism Society for Development), Moon River and Lazy Mekong Daze are my pick of the bunch. Smile serves huge portions of incredibly tasty Khmer food; Moon River does a great Western breakfast and excellent fish and chips; and Lazy Mekong Daze is best-known for its thin-crust pizza.
Last time I was in Kampong Cham with my work colleagues, I had the pleasure of eating at one of the bungalow restaurants that hover high over the Mekong floodplains on the opposite bank of the river. If you can manage it, a feast of snails, fish, shrimp and lots of canned beer is a truly local experience.
Mekong Hotel is the biggest and most centrally located of Kampong Cham’s budget hotels. I stayed here the first time I visited and found the rooms basic but adequate. Ten minutes from the waterfront by foot, Reasmey Cheanich is a new and little-known boutique hotel with well-appointed rooms.
A taxi from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham will cost you 40 USD (one-way) or 50 USD for a return trip. You could feasibly make a day trip, but I recommend staying at least one night. A number of local bus companies run buses to and from Kampong Cham throughout the day. We took the Sorya bus (5.50 USD per person, booked through our hotel) back to Phnom Penh and apart from a painfully long rest stop, we had no dramas. As I mentioned earlier, the road between PP and Kampong Cham is well-kept and generally quiet, so we felt safe taking public transport.
Other HELPFUL info:
Bicycles and motorbikes are available to hire from Lazy Mekong Daze. We paid just 2 USD per person to hire a new, geared bike for the day. There are plenty of ATMs around town if you need to withdraw cash. There is a fee-free Maybank on the same road as the Sorya bus stop.