Kampong Cham Cambodia: Port of the Chams
If you are thinking about a detour from Phnom Penh, or perhaps you have decided to travel north along the Mekong, then more than likely you will find yourself in Kampong Cham. The name in English means “Port of the Chams”, the Chams being an ethnic people who have lived in the area for centuries and were an ongoing thorn in the side of the Khmers. In fact, when you ask Cambodians living in Phnom Penh where they are from, more often than not they say Kampong Cham. The town rests besides the Mekong and a bridge crosses the river to form the main route to the north of Cambodia and beyond.
Getting To Kampong Cham
Should be no more than a two-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh. It could be, but the obligatory stop at a restaurant adds half an hour or so to the journey. This stop is Skun the hub for buses going north to Siem Reap or in the direction of Kampong Cham. From what I have experienced, most bus companies in Cambodia have buses going to Kampong Cham throughout the day and you normally don’t need to buy a ticket in advance. There used to be a boat from Phnom Penh, perhaps one day it will start again. The more adventurous could try their hand at travelling to Phnom Penh along the east bank of the Mekong. However, this would require a car or motorcycle, or changing from Tuk Tuk to trucks to ferries and back again to get to the town. Or, you could cycle to Kampong Cham, but more on that later.
Most buses will drop you off in the centre of town near the bridge traffic circle. The latter is a handy landmark to get your bearings in town. As far as accommodation goes you have a lot of choices. I stay at the Leap Viraksa Hotel because I stumbled upon it years ago and haven’t bothered with anywhere else. There are a bunch of guesthouses along the waterfront, and the town has a lot of reasonably priced hotels. Anyway, you won’t be left short if you need a roof over your head.
At first glance Kampong Cham is an unassuming town, but there is a lot going on in this place. For example, Cambodia’s first son, Prime Minister Hun Sen, is from Kampong Cham Province. He has a house in town, which is next to his brother’s; who would have thought. Also, the monarchy has a house in town, which is an interesting trip through history. It has been abandoned for some time, but it is possible to get inside and have a look around. The last I heard, it was going to be demolished, which means be quick if you want to see it.
Nokor Bachey Temple
The most famous place in the neighbourhood is the thousand-year-old or so Angkorian Nokor Bachey temple. It is on the outskirts of town. If you visit, go in the back way and avoid the questionable ticket guy hovering outside the front of the temple.
Built in the middle of the 11th century, during the reign of Suryavarman II and King Ouphey, it was dedicated to Brahmanism. Inside you’ll see lions, dragons and devils carved in sandstone, and the sandstone and laterite walls have intricate carvings indicative of the period. Just remember to leave the way you entered, or you’ll have to deal with the devil outside.
Actually, there are a couple of ruins in the area. Another temple within striking distance of the town is Prasat Han Chey. It is north of the town and the best way to cover the 20 or so kilometres to get there is by motorcycle. It is interesting as the temple is from the Chenla era, a pre-Angkorian period. The ride there is picturesque as you travel along the banks of the Mekong, and the temple is at a bend in the river.
Kampong Cham Is French Colonial
The crumbling temples reflect the crumbling buildings in town. There are many French colonial buildings, as the town used to be a French colonial trading port. Rubber, a business introduced by the French, used to thrive in colonial times but the civil war and American bombing put an end to that. Across the river the rubber plantations have bounced back since the end of the war. If you travel through them, you can often see Khmer families having picnics amongst the rubber trees. And, if you are lucky, they will invite you over for a drink and something to eat.
The tower is another relic of the French era. Not for the faint of heart or people suffering from vertigo; because, the climb up the stairs can be nerve racking as you can see straight through the metal steps to the ground which is far away. However, the reward waiting you at the top is worth it. The views are spectacular. The town is spread out in front of you, boat traffic up and down the river and gardens far below.
Back in town there was some excitement on the riverside. Men were playing boules. This game, a hangover from the French era, is popular. The players try to get their metal balls as close to the target ball as possibly. However, the players try to knock opponents’ balls away from the target ball. While watching the game I notice that behind the players and across the river was the watchtower.
For food, I headed to the riverside where there are quite a few food stalls and seafood and Khmer restaurants. I chose a rather auspicious looking seafood restaurant near the bridge and was delighted. It was one of those cook your own style places. During the meal, I met most of the family. In fact, it was difficult not to as the waitress was a daughter, the manager an uncle, the cook a brother and the other staff were aunties, cousins and sisters. That’s a family business, and the food was fantastic. The owner’s husband even drove me back to the hotel as it had started to rain.
So, if you have the time consider a trip to Kampong Cham. You will be pleasantly surprised.