Kampong Cham is one of the loveliest provincial towns in Cambodia. Here are the best things to do in Kampong Cham, and how to get there from Phnom Penh.
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.
Kampong Cham market
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.
Kampong Cham bamboo bridge
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.
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, Koh Pen (also spelt Koh Paen) is a long, skinny island that sits in the middle of the Mekong River. A short bike ride from central Kampong Cham over the famous 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 wet season, the island is green and overgrown; it’s shady pathways the perfect place for an afternoon cycle.
The track that joins up with Koh Pen’s bamboo 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. We also saw some incredible mud-adobe structures used for storing hay, and sheds thrown together from scraps of rusted tin.
Earlier in the day at Cheung Kok Village, we learned that 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. Many of the locals we met were either on foot or travelling by bicycle. 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 modern-day 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 new 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. Our tuk-tuk driver informed us that this particular 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 itself 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 – acting as something of a refuge for a group of older Khmers who appear to live inside.
Where to eat in Kampong Cham
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.
Where to stay in Kampong Cham
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.
How to get to Kampong Cham
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 tips for visiting Kampong Cham
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.