Kampong Thom | An Amazing Bus Stop
People rushing from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap usually miss Kampong Thom even though the bus stops here for one of the many breaks the bus driver enjoys taking: Maybe that’s is why people miss it. Here there are exotic lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, and more than 200 ancient temples. This place is Kampong Thom and is definitely worth staying a couple of days to see what’s going on.
At first Kampong Thom Province might seem unassuming. The bus dumps you off in front of a glitzy hotel full of Cambodian diners. Its best feature is the toilet! Near the hotel are a couple of cheap and cheerful guesthouses if you choose to stay overnight.
The Old Governors House
Kampong Thom town itself has a few places of interest. The old governors house from the French colonial era can be visited. It is an old house rather than a house full of old governors. This colonial building can be found behind the market. To get in, you have to squeeze through the main gate and with a bit of luck the front door will be unlocked: it does happen. The house is empty with only a few fittings remaining. However, the house has a Sleepy Hollow feel to it. To add to the eeriness, there is also a colony of fruit bats that roost in the grounds.
Kampong Thom Museum
Another place worth a visit is the Kampong Thom museum, if for no other reason, it will give you an interesting introduction to Khmer architecture. As you try to find it, don’t blink because you might miss it. It is on the main drag near the main temple. I went there one blistering hot afternoon and the door was shut. I was sure I had the opening times right. I was about to leave when a voice blurted out of the shadows, “Do want to go in?”
The man was Virak the museum attendant. He and his mates were having a siesta. For a small museum, it is packed with artefacts and information. A lot of the stone works were lintels and Virak explained that from the lintels a person can determine during what period the building was constructed. One wall had a giant map stuck to it, and it was peppered with red dots.
“They are the sites of temples. You know, Cambodia has more than eight thousand temples,” explained Virak.
He let that sink in then added, “Although there are a lot of big ones, like Angkor Wat, but a lot are just a pile of bricks in a rice field.”
The French Influence?
I landed him a question about the French discovery of Angkor and he replied, “The French discovered nothing, the Khmers have always been at Angkor.”
Kampong Thom Temples
Although 200 temples would drive the keenest archaeologist mad, there are a few a visitor can see and enjoy, and there is an Angkorian bridge in the neighbourhood. Nearby Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk is definitely worth a visit and the mountain-top Phnom Santuk is another worth taking the time to see. There are also the Praying Rain temple and the Floating Temple, but I’ll let the inquisitive investigate those two.
Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk is a pre-Angkorian site with temples scattered about a large area. Sambor Prei Kuk was built during the Chenla Kingdom (late 6th to 9th century), established by king Isanavarman I as a central royal sanctuary and capital, known then as Isanapura. It is a good 30 kilometres out of town, so take at least half a day to see Sambor Prei Kuk. As a Chenla and pre-Angkorian temple, Sambor Prei Kuk will whet your appetite for the monumental buildings at Angkor.
Phnom Santuk is a clash of kitsch and tasteful, a recurring theme at many of Cambodia’s temples, as the colourful, maybe hand-sculptured, concrete statues peppered around the place add a macabre atmosphere to Phnom Santuk. The best time to go is late afternoon so you can catch the sunset. The view and the sun setting over the rice fields is spectacular. There are quite a few statues of Buddha on the mountain. One is 10 metres long and quite impressive. Next to Phnom Tantuk is Phnom Srah Kmao, which has a brick temple and a bat cave.
Spean Preah Toeus
One other Angkorian site to visit is the bridge Spean Preah Toeus. It is a bit of a hike northwest of Kamphong Thom. It is still used today by local traffic; although, I’m not sure how the bridge would handle a semi-trailer. The bridge is on the 5,000 Riel note. An interesting side note is that King Sihanouk is on the other side.
On the way back from the bridge you can enjoy relaxing at a lake. Here there are huts where you can kick back for a few hours and be served cheap food and drinks.
Pol Pot’s Birth Place
One of Kampong Thom’s more notorious sons is Saloth Sar, or Pol Pot, former Khmer Rouge dictator and Prime Minister. Just outside of the town is the unassuming village of Prek Sbauv. It is like any other village in Cambodia except it was the birth place of Pol Pot. It is possible to go there on a motorcycle.
Kampong Thom Boat
One way to leave Kampong Thom is by boat. The boatman waits under the main bridge; time unknown but in the morning at some point. He goes to the Ton Le Sap along the Steung Saen river and is reported to dock at Kampong Chhnang.
Kampong Thom to Siem Reap
For those seeking an alternate route to Siem Reap from Kampong Thom, there are motorcycle riders who wait at the bus stop and will take you north through the jungle, rice fields and villages. With you sitting on the back of the bike, your driver will take you to a village where you spend a night with a family and visit the temples of Preah Khan and Koh Ker on your way. Part of the journey leads you along an old Angkorian road and over its ancient bridges. The ride itself is tough and takes a couple of days. Then onto Preah Vihear, and from there you will head to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng,
And those heading to Phnom Penh, have a pleasant journey.