Kampong Cham is hands down my favourite provincial city in Cambodia. This detailed guide shows you all the best things to do in Kampong Cham, where to eat and drink, where to stay, and how to get there by bus from Phnom Penh.
When I lived in Phnom Penh, I had a constant craving for small towns. All I wanted was a place I could walk around without having to worry about traffic; somewhere I could while away the morning at a market, go for a bike ride through greenery, photograph interesting architecture, and munch on street food.
When I was invited to go to Kampong Cham on a work trip, I found my paradise. Since my first visit in 2015, I’ve been back to Kampong Cham no fewer than four times, most recently on my return solo visit.
I just can’t get enough of this charming little town!
Named for the region’s Cham ethnic group and home to the majority of Cambodia’s Muslim population, Kampong Cham city has a very different feel to the rest of the country. A walk down the main boulevard – 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.
Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are must-sees, but Kampong Cham (and Kampot, Kratie and Battambang) are on a different level. At risk of sounding like a total cliche, it’s where you can find the real Cambodia.
The pace of life is a lot slower in Kampong Cham. There are fewer tuk tuks, less traffic overall, and much less pollution. You’ll also see far fewer tourists, as not many people take the time to come up this way.
Add to that extremely welcoming locals, a clutch of great restaurants, stellar temples and some of the most picturesque villages I’ve seen anywhere in Southeast Asia, and Kampong Cham is bound to steal your heart.
I’ve travelled up and down Cambodia multiple times, and Kampong Cham remains my favourite provincial town to this day. This guide brings together all my knowledge and passion for the town. I hope it comes in handy for planning your own Kampong Cham trip!
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Where to stay in Kampong Cham
There are a handful of guesthouses and hotels in Kampong Cham, most of them spread along the waterfront, which is by far the most popular place to stay. Rooms are unlikely to sell out, but it’s a good idea to book at least a couple of days in advance to avoid disappointment.
- Budget: Mekong Hotel, a massive 70-room riverfront property, is Kampong Cham’s most popular hotel. It’s a bit shabby around the edges, but it’s usually clean. AC doubles start from $10. I stayed here on my first visit to the city. For something more ‘bespoke’, Moon River Guesthouse (from $11) has simple rooms with en suites and a popular restaurant downstairs. Daly Hotel (from $13) offers spartan rooms and balconies overlooking the city.
- Mid-range: I used to recommend Reasmey Cheanich as my accommodation of choice in Kampong Cham, but I was disappointed to find rooms have gotten really run down since my last visit (they have a serious mould problem!). Instead, you could try LBN Asian Hotel, Kampong Cham’s newly opened ‘luxury’ hotel. Rooms are tailored to local tastes (heavy furniture; not a lot of natural light), but they do have an indoor pool. Doubles start from $29.
- Homestay: Run by NGO Organization for Basic Training, OBT Homestay Chiro accommodates guests in rustic bamboo bungalows. The location 7km out of town in a small village makes it a great escape and an ideal way to get a taste for the ‘real’ Cambodia.
- Resort: Hanchey Bamboo Resort is an eco-retreat run by local NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA). It offers palatial rooms and hosts yoga retreats under an incredible bamboo pavilion. It’s about a 40-minute drive from the centre of town, so I’d treat it more as an overnight getaway than a place to base your stay.
- Out-of-the-box: Located on Koh Pen, the Mekong island adjacent to Kampong Cham’s waterfront, Mekong Bamboo Hut offers rustic accommodation in riverside hammocks. At the time of my last visit, it was unfortunately closed and up for sale. It should hopefully re-open in time for high season.
Essential travel info
Kampong Cham city (AKA Krong Kampong Cham) is the biggest population centre in Kampong Cham Province. It’s located roughly three hours north of Phnom Penh along one of the country’s better roads. Kampong Cham is a gateway to Cambodia’s north and far east, and therefore well-suited for a one or two-night stopover between the capital and Kratie (or Don Det and the Laos border), Ratanakiri or Mondulkiri.
You can find full transportation instructions – including recommended bus companies and links to buy tickets online – at the end of the post.
When to visit Kampong Cham
Like much of Cambodia, Kampong Cham is prone to flooding in the wet season. The weather is getting more and more erratic and it’s difficult to predict when the rains will come, but I would generally avoid visiting during the peak rainy period (August and September). In years past, the city’s main road and riverside promenade has completely washed away into the Mekong due to heavy rain.
December, January and February are the driest months. March and April are the hotest months and should be avoided at all costs – that’s unless you like temperatures of 40° Celsius and a face full of dust every time you go outside.
My last visit was in September, historically the height of the monsoon season. But I only had to contend with afternoon storms. The benefits of travelling in Cambodian during rainy season often outweigh the cons – everything is fresh and green, there are Buddhist festivals on, the temperatures are cooler, and it’s generally more lively.
In sum, May to July and the end of September to November are my favourite times to visit Kampong Cham and Cambodia in general.
How long to spend in Kampong Cham
Two full days is an optimal amount of time to spend in Kampong Cham. In 48 hours, you can take your time exploring the city, and get out into the surrounding countryside on a bicycle or motorbike.
Personally, I spent four full days in Kampong Cham on my last visit and didn’t get bored. I love the low-key vibe, the ritual of visiting the market every morning and watching the sun go down over the river at dusk. I also love being the only tourist in town, which does happen from time to time! It’s a great place to hit the pause button and chill out for a few days.
ATMs & money
Unlike in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, most cafes and restaurants in Kampong Cham only accept cash. Having some US dollars (or better still, riel) on hand is essential when visiting local markets and taking tuk tuks around town.
There are plenty of ATMs in Kampong Cham, with all major banks represented. The ABA Bank on Preah Monivong Street dispenses both USD and Cambodian riel. It also has the lowest withdrawal fee of all the ATMs in Cambodia at $4 per transaction.
As in other cities, ATMs attached to reputable banks are open 24/7 and watched over by security guards.
The central part of Kampong Cham city is small enough to circumnavigate on foot. Most major attractions and restaurants are within earshot of riverside.
To reach the lighthouse and temples, I recommend hiring a pushbike from Lazy Mekong Daze (2 USD for a full day). They also have motorbikes. The owner is really sweet and can give you tips about getting around. Pay upfront, and if it’s high season, considering dropping in the day before to reserve your wheels.
If it’s too hot to ride or it’s raining, you can use PassApp to book tuk tuks or taxis.
Things to do in Kampong Cham
For a town of its size, Kampong Cham has a lot to offer. Here are my favourite things to do in Kampong Cham.
At the end of this section, you’ll find a handy Kampong Cham map with all the mentioned points of interest marked out.
Browse the undercover market
No matter where you are in Cambodia, the best way to start the day is with a trip to the local wet market. It’s always a sensory explosion.
Kampong Cham’s main market sits right in the centre of town. The large lemon and white pavilion houses a knot of undercover stalls, selling clothing, manchester and haberdashery. Out the front and at the back, you can find women cooking up bowls of steaming bo bor.
The building’s design is distinctively French and reminiscent of Phnom Penh’s Central Market and the main phsar in Battambang. Like the clock on the front, the entire market feels like it’s stuck in time.
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, dried and BBQ’d) can be found in abundance inside the wet market.
The bare bulbs that hang from the dim market’s ceiling casts vendors and shoppers alike in dramatic light – I absolutely love wandering around markets like this with my camera in hand. Kampong Cham doesn’t see many foreign tourists, so locals will typically welcome visitors with a generous smile.
Outside, fruit and veg vendors spread right around the exterior of the market and reach off into neighbouring streets. At night time, the fruit stalls shutter and are replaced with barbecue stands selling grilled fish and skewered meats.
Admire the architecture
Kampong Cham’s city centre is a lovely mix of French, Chinese and Khmer-style buildings. Hours can happily be spent biking along the wide boulevards and back streets.
There are plenty of well-worn colonial buildings to admire along the way, many with their original plaster moulding and wooden shutters still attached. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to pop my head inside some of those shop houses! I bet the floor tiles are to die for.
Stroll along the river front
Kampong Cham’s crowning glory is its sprawling Riverside Park. The pedestrian promenade and green space stretches out from the end of the Japanese Bridge to the end of the main street, tracing the sinuous line of the Mekong.
Tall palms and crimped bougainvillea vines shade bench seats sprinkled along the walkway. Every now and then, you’ll come across a totally bazaar statue (the Kampong Cham dolphin is my personal favourite).
At sun down, the park comes into its own, transforming into a thronging celebration of aerobics, street food and families out for a stroll.
See the French ‘lighthouse’
Looking out across the river on a clear day, you can just make out a tall auburn-coloured building on the opposite bank. This is one of Kampong Cham’s more curious landmarks. Commonly called the French ‘lighthouse’, it is on the water, but it’s not a lighthouse at all – it’s actually a watchtower.
Built in the 1920s by Kampong Cham’s colonial rulers, the watchtower served as a protection mechanism for the profitable rubber plantations around town. If bandits were approaching on the Mekong, a fire would be lit in the tower to warn the Governor, who had a direct line of sight to the tower from his house. The tower’s external plasterwork and vertiginous internal staircase (it’s more like a set of ladders) was restored in 2005.
To get to the French Watchtower, cycle, motorbike or walk over the Japanese Bridge and take a hard left when you get to the opposite bank. The tower is open 24/7 and it’s free to climb the ladders to the top (if you dare!). If you need to leave your bicycle somewhere while you do, the family who own the shop at the base of the tower (just to the left) will gladly watch it for you.
Cross Kampong Cham bamboo bridge
Linking Kampong Cham’s waterfront with Koh Pen (Bamboo Island), Koh Pen Bridge was nothing short of an incredible feat of engineering. The world’s longest bamboo bridge was dismantled and re-built every year either side of the rainy season.
When I first crossed the bridge in 2016, I was told that was the last year Koh Pen Bridge would be constructed. A new concrete bridge was in the works, and the bamboo bridge was about to be usurped. It survived a few more dry seasons, but now it’s gone.
In the high season, locals now erect a smaller bamboo bridge for tourists to walk or bicycle on. It keeps the memory of the old bamboo bridge alive. It costs a few dollars to cross the bridge, payable to the attendant at the end.
Cycle around Koh Pen island
When Cambodian crooner Sin Sisamouth sang about Koh Pen island, his lyrics conjured a little slice of paradise where the water meets the land.
Much like Koh Dach near Phnom Penh, Koh Pen is a long, skinny island that sits in the middle of the Mekong river. A short bike ride from central Kampong Cham over the bamboo bridge (or by ferry if you’re visiting during wet season), Koh Pen is where you can find some of Cambodia’s prettiest rural villages.
At the tail end of the monsoon, the island is green and overgrown; it’s shady pathways the perfect place for an afternoon ride.
The track that joins up with the end of the bridge will lead you into Kaoh Mitt Commune. One of the most interesting features of this little village are the coloured doors that decorate almost every house. Even the humblest homes have little design flourishes and beautifully kept flower gardens at the foot of the front stairs. You can also see some incredible mud-adobe structures used for storing hay, and sheds thrown together from scraps of rusted tin.
High-stilted houses like these are a relatively new style of architecture in Cambodia, where homes have traditionally been built lower to the ground. The additional space this creates is a well-ventilated and cool, and you’ll see many extended families hanging out in hammocks drawn between the stilts. Some houses have been built-out underneath as a living space for adult children and their families.
Portions of pathway through Kaoh Mitt are paved, but most of Koh Pen’s trails are deeply rutted mud tracks. Thick bamboo and banana tree groves give way to stunning open rice fields as the main track loops around the island’s northern tip.
Most homes have fruit trees out the front bearing voluptuous melons, huge jack fruit and other tropical treats. Some have elaborate trellises used for cultivating zucchini and vine vegetables. Baskets of fresh produce are set out for sale all along the island’s pathways, and every now and then a corner-store style shop selling packaged foods and drinks appears. White cows graze on front lawns; long boats and woven fish traps lay in wait at the edge of rice fields for the next wet season. Kaoh Mitt has all the trappings of a fertile, self-sustainable village, where most of what’s consumed is grown footsteps away.
It’s easy to romanticise a place like Koh Pen, but life in a village of this size must have its struggles. This is the reality for many Cambodians who live outside the big cities. After visiting a place like Koh Pen, you gain a new appreciation for the hardiness and resourcefulness of families who live in rural Cambodia.
Wat Banteay Prey Nokor
For most people, it’s Angkor Wat. Personally, I loved the 100 Pillars Pagoda in Kratie the first time I laid eyes on its Buddhist murals and candy-cane columns.
But Banteay Prey Nokor in Kampong Cham might just be my favourite pagoda. It’s kind of a combination of Angkor and 100 Pillars; a post-modern fusion that is ancient and modern both at once. On closer inspection, you can see why: a new pagoda has been build over and around the original temple, resulting in a strange blend of architectural features (research tells me this is called a ‘Chatre’ effect).
Stone relief carvings reminiscent of Bayon outside, elaborate murals and colonial-style floor tiles inside, Nokor has it all. The ambiance is slightly menacing and it’s not exactly well cared for – but to me, that only adds to the temple’s charm.
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.
Wat Nokor, the main temple, is 13th Century vintage, dating back to the final years of Jayavarman VII’s reign. One tuk tuk driver I had in Kampong Cham informed me the ruler was a peacemaker and built Nokor – which blends Hindu and Buddhist flourishes – as a symbol of unification for a Cambodia divided along religious lines.
The main temple is built of black sandstone. Huge blocks of puckered laterite are stacked outside to form an exterior wall, which is skirted by smaller shrines, pavilions and prayer halls that have been added to the complex over the years.
Inside the new pagoda, incredibly intricate Buddhist murals stretch from floor to ceiling over every surface. The mid-morning light filtering through the columns is a sight to behold. Elements of the stone structure jut out here and there, creating beautiful contrasts of tone and texture. Light and shade is a good way to think about Wat Nokor.
The pagoda is stunning, but it has a darker side. It acts as something of a refuge for a group of people who I assume are disabled or war veterans or both. On my first visit I noted that there were a few people who appeared to be living inside the temple. When I returned in 2019, there was a large congregation.
I’m sorry to report that as I approached the temple, a few of these individuals saw it as an opportunity to harass me for money. It’s nothing to be worried about, but it’s something to be wary of.
Visit the twin mountain temples, Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei
Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei (literally ‘men hill’ and ‘women hill’) is located a little further up the road from Wat Nokor. I came expecting two discrete temples, but I discovered it’s actually a sprawling complex of shrines, gardens, temples, a library, and plenty of food stalls.
The origins of the twin mountains and their shrines is steeped in legend. The whole area is a Buddhist pilgrimage site, and if you visit on a weekend or around a religious holiday, you’ll find lots of families about paying tribute.
A 308-stair walkway guides visitors to the top of Phnom Srei. Phnom Pros, set closer to the road, is easier to access via a short flight of stairs. I really love the bright interior murals inside some of the temple’s shrines and the stark, all-white exterior of others. There’s a working monastery inside Phnom Pros, so you’ll often see monks wandering about.
Watch out for the monkeys that live in the trees above the temples – they can sometimes get aggressive if there’s food involved. Apparently there’s a $3 entry fee for Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei, but I’ve never been asked to pay.
Take a tour at Cheung Kok Ecotourism Village
For something completely unique, spend a few hours at Cheung Kok Ecotourism Village. Located directly opposite the entrance to Phnom Pros/Phnom Srei, 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.
Watch the sunset over the Mekong
As the sun sinks, there’s only one place to go in Kampong Cham – Riverside Park. Locals flock to the waterfront at the first sign of dusk, and food vendors set up their carts and vans along the boulevard in preparation.
There’s always something interesting going on, be it an aerobics class or a cruise ship sighting. Northern Mekong sunsets are some of the best in the world, and the atmosphere in Kampong Cham is particularly awesome.
Grab dinner at Kampong Cham night market
If you’re not shy about street food, Kampong Cham’s Night Market is a great place to grab a quick bite. The market is set back from the river front, and features clothing shops at the front and a collection of restaurants at the back. People ride in on their motorbikes and park alongside their plastic tables. All the classics are on offer, with seafood featuring heavily on most menus.
Rice flour pancakes (pictured below) make for a great nighttime snack. Smeared with gooey coconut cream and sprinkled with shredded coconut coloured yellow or orange, they’re then rolled into an attractive cone shape.
For something more substantial, Ly Ly BBQ, a giant undercover barbecue restaurant at the back of the market, is a local favourite.
Where to eat & drink in Kampong Cham
- Smile Restaurant: My top choice and go-to in Kampong Cham. This breezy restaurant is run by NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA) and very popular with expats and tourists. They serve large portions of Khmer food (the loc lac is wonderful), fruit smoothies, and a full spread of Western dishes. Prices are a little higher than usual, but profits support their social development work.
- Mekong Crossing: A no-frills pub-style eatery with outdoor seating opposite the waterfront. The mainly Western menu includes burgers and pasta. The grilled fish with lime and chips is absolutely delicious.
- Lazy Mekong Daze: Also on the waterfront, this place is a popular drinking hole and best-known for its thin-crust pizzas.
- Home’s Cafe: Because it’s away from the waterfront, prices here are closer to local. Portions are large (I always enjoy the simple chicken and rice with a garden salad), and they make the best barista coffee in town.
- Moon River: Located on the bottom level of the Moon River Guesthouse, this little cafe serves great breakfasts and light meals. The menu is almost identical to other riverside eateries.
- Moustache & Nico: Cocktails and ‘rustic’ home-cooked French cuisine. Sadly the owners were out of town the last time I visited, so I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.
- Destiny Coffee House: This cafe-bakery doubles as a training centre for disadvantaged women.
- Amazon & Arabitia: Two chain cafes that serve decent coffee and cakes. A great laptop-friendly choice (and both have excellent air conditioning).
Kampong Cham map
How to get to Kampong Cham
There is no train line in Kampong Cham. Buses and chartered taxis are therefore the only way to travel. Coming from Kampot, Kep or Sihanoukville, you’ll need to transit through Phnom Penh. If you’re coming from the Lao border, there are direct bus services connecting Kampong Cham with some cities in the north-east.
Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham
Two local bus companies service this route, Virak Buntham and Sorya. I prefer Sorya because they have a better safety track record. There are 7 daily buses that leave from the Sorya stop at the south-western corner of the Central Market and terminate in central Kampong Cham. The first bus is at 7am, and the last bus is at 4.30pm. Tickets cost 6.50 USD and can be pre-purchased online through Bookaway. The trip takes approximately 3 hours.
Travelling the opposite way, buses bound for Phnom Penh leave from the Sorya office in Kampong Cham between the hours of 7.45am and 4.30pm. Tickets can be bought at the office or online in advance.
A private taxi from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham costs around 40 USD one-way or 50 USD for same-day return.
Siem Reap to Kampong Cham
There are no direct buses from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham, so you’ll need to get to Phnom Penh first, then change buses. It’s possible to do the trip in a day, but it will take you about 10 hours. Check schedules and ticket prices here.
5 things to pack for Kampong Cham
- A reusable water bottle. Absolutely essential in Cambodia for minimising plastic waste and staying hydrated. I love my S’Well water bottle – it’s vacuum insulated to keep water icy cold for the whole day, and it doesn’t sweat. If you like your mango smoothies, pack a reusable smoothie cup as well.
- Rehydration tablets or sachets. At the end of a long day bike riding or exploring temples, your body will be crying out for electrolytes (believe me!). I prefer Hydralyte tablets because they come in a handy tube. If you forget to bring some from home, the Double D brand is sold at most pharmacies and grocery stores in Cambodia.
- Rain jacket and travel umbrella for the wet season. Wet season is my favourite time to travel in Cambodia because the countryside is so verdant. Downpours come out of nowhere, so it’s essential to have a rain jacket with you at all times (I love the packable rain jackets by Lomon for women and EZRUN for men). I also carry a travel umbrella in case it’s too hot and steamy to wear a jacket. This one is UPF 50+, making it great for sun cover as well.
- A sturdy day pack. An anti-theft backpack is particularly good for the cities, especially Phnom Penh. Opt for a minimalist backpack that doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb.
- Cambodia guide book. I prefer Lonely Planet’s dedicated Cambodia guidebook or regional guidebook that also covers Laos, Vietnam and Northern Thailand.
Planning a trip to Cambodia? Here are some of the resources and tools I personally use to organise my travel plans in the Kingdom.
– Find affordable flights to Cambodia on Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).
– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Cambodia and apply for an expedited visa online.
– Pre-book your hotel transfer from Phnom Penh Airport or Siem Reap Airport.
– Find the best hotel deals in Cambodia on Agoda or book a Cambodia hostel.
– Buy your Cambodia bus tickets online in advance through Bookaway or organise a private car and driver through BookMeBus.
– Download Pass App to book tuk-tuks and taxis on the go.
– Find the best cooking classes and foodie experiences in Cambodia.
– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Cambodia.
– Try an alternative tour or DIY experience with social enterprise Backstreet Academy.
– Pick up a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Cambodia.
More Cambodia travel resources
- 51 free things to do in Phnom Penh
- Where to stay in Phnom Penh – neighbourhood & accommodation guide
- Where to eat Khmer food in Phnom Penh – my top restaurants
- Where to eat breakfast and brunch in Phnom Penh
- My complete guide to Kampot, Cambodia’s sleepy riverside town
- Where to stay in Siem Reap – the best hotels for visiting Angkor
- How to get to Siem Reap from Bangkok
- How to use PassApp to get around in Kampong Cham and beyond