You won’t find many travellers in Cambodia who have heard of Kampong Cham or have it on their list of places to visit. Yet, this must-see city on the Mekong River is located only three hours from the capital, Phnom Penh, making it an ideal opportunity to explore one of the country’s rural provinces outside of its urbanised highlights. You can only ever truly understand the complex and diverse make-up of Cambodia once you start to explore its lesser known corners.
Our plans to travel to Kampong Cham were originally set out to be a quick stop there in order to break up the long journey we were taking from the southern coastal town of Kep to the eastern jungle lands of Mondulkiri (via a bus change in Phnom Penh).
When we arrived, the city felt so bizarre that my friend and I wondered if we had made the right choice to decamp here for a night or two. Local life moved at a slow pace, backpacker hangouts and hotels appeared eerily quiet and empty, there were far fewer tuk-tuks and people traffic, and the easily navigable area from the riverfront to the other side of town seemed to lack character.
Since I had been living in Siem Reap at that time, I had grown to like the bustle of Cambodian cities and this was very different. But how wrong we were that nothing at all was happening there. The spontaneous visit was actually a welcome surprise and there was plenty to see, do and explore in the end. So much so, that I advise you not to make this a fleeting day trip.
Why You Should Go to Kampong Cham, Cambodia
It’s likely you will be passing through the Cham, rather than planning any particular long excursion there. I spent two days and one night in the city and it fast became one of my favourite destinations in Cambodia.
It oozed charm; an underrated, hard-to-explain-unless-you-are-there-living-it charm that made it interesting. It wasn’t quaint and nor was it pretty. We were not hassled and nor were we ignored. The emptiness and the calm of the place just had something about it.
The Koh Pen Bamboo Bridge
One of the main Kampong Cham attractions was the Koh Pen bamboo bridge that connected the mainland to a small lake island. I had always wondered why a Khmer friend of mine from the town had once told me about it with such bounding enthusiasm. It turns out this bridge was not only a feat of architecture – re-built every year when the river water subsides during the dry season and then taken down completely when the tide comes in – but an interesting contraption to cross with your bicycle.
I feel lucky to have witnessed it and to have made the journey across it because sadly, it is no more. The last erected bamboo bridge construction was in 2016, where thereafter a government-funded steel and concrete bridge was built further up the river, meaning the iconic Kampong Cham bridge came to an end.
My friend and I screeched like children as we made our way over it. The click and clatter of the bamboo strips and the softness of the multiple layers felt like it could give way any minute. You dared not look over the edge and motos and cars would zoom past you creating an adrenalin-fuelled wobble in the path as you tried to find your momentum again.
It was unique and exhilarating, although be prepared to pay for the privilege – the dollar you pay being over four times that of the local price.
Biking on Bamboo Bridge Island
The island you find yourself on is essentially a giant village. Our grand idea of cycling all the way around it was cut short when we realised that we had been cycling for over an hour and had not made much progress in terms of reaching a half-way point on the island’s circumference and we still hold on to the belief that the road was never-ending. We were also short-changed by locals who decided to ignore my limited Khmer.
Still, there is not much else to do besides looking at people’s lovely houses and the farmed landscape, alongside random cows, corn cobs and stinky durian fruits.
You can hire a bike in town for as little as $2 for the day.
Visit the Kampong Cham Temple Complexes
Other sights in Kampong Cham are based out-of-town including a pair of temples called Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey and the province’s last remaining wooden pagoda. We decided to visit what is affectionately known as Man and Woman Hill – where two hills each have a temple atop of them, surrounded by Kampong Cham’s ‘killing fields’, which is a beautiful area albeit slightly unnerving.
If you have time there is also a large temple complex, Wat Nokor (Banteay Prei Nokor) that is built with black sandstone and pre-dates Angkor Wat. It is located less than 30 minutes northwest of Kampong Cham and is easy to get to by taxi or by bike.
Kampong Cham Waterfront and City Exploration
Daily life in Kampong Cham moves at its own pace and is a place to take a rest stop and not feel the need to have to rush around. It’s here that you can meander the wide boulevards filled with crumbling colonial-era buildings, or lose yourself in smaller city back streets. The fact that nothing much happens here is a perfect reprieve from long travel and a chance to observe daily life integrate more with local people.
Make sure to find time to walk along the waterfront promenade, which becomes a popular spot for locals to take exercise classes in the day or hang out in the evenings.
There’s no nightlife in Kampong Cham apart from being able to soak up the atmosphere at the local street food and clothing market, which has great food and decent fashion choices. However, we got lucky – there was a beer sponsored concert in town where we got to see a staged game of musical chairs and the extreme signing talent of a local blind boy who roused such generosity from the crowd (who eagerly clambered to the stage to donate money).
We left with happy memories. Not only did we save ourselves a backache and energy by not spending all day on buses getting to Mondulkiri, but we got to see a less-popular, untouched part of Cambodia. Most importantly, travel here resulted in having our preconceptions challenged, proving that’s it sometimes worth taking the risk and trying somewhere random. Spontaneity often produces the best of adventures and a real insight into local life, even if it does initially appear bizarre.
How to Get to Kampong Cham
The main highway NR6/NR7 connects the capital, Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham. It’s well-paved which means the long journeys are not too painful and since it is a well-frequented road, there are no issues with regards to safety.
- There are daily buses that frequent this route and the total journey time is three hours.
- Buses depart from Phnom Penh Sorya Bus Terminal at 10:45, 11:45, 12:45, 15:45, 17:45 and 19.30 and arrive in Kampong Cham near May Bank.
- The Sorya bus ticket costs $7.25 or there is a minibus option for $9. You can book online with CamboTicket or directly at the bus station in Phnom Penh on the day.
- Taxi options The bus is a much cheaper alternative than a private taxi, which can cost up to $60 one way for a four-seater taxi SUV.
Where to Stay
Looking for a hotel in Kampong Cham? There are plenty of options now for those looking for a little comfort outside of traditional Cambodian hotels to homestyle style accommodations in bamboo huts, perfect for relaxing in this beautiful rural setting.
- Boutique: The modern Reasmey Cheanich Hotel is great for those looking for a little style comfort in a central location. It has a 24-hour front desk, Wi-Fi, great city views and is just 300m from the (Thom Thmey) Central Market.
- Homestay Style: Those looking for a homestay style experience near the Mekong should check out OBT Homestay Chiro in Chiro Village. You can stay in a bamboo hut in rooms decked out in comfortable matrasses, mosquito nets and an overhead fan. You can relax on the terrace in a hammock and eat at the on-site restaurant that serves local dishes. The Mekong Bamboo Hut Guesthouse also has a similar offering with community dinners in the evening.
- Traditional: The Mekong Hotel along Riverside Road is the largest in town and a typical Cambodian style hotel. It lacks any particular flair or homely warmth, but you can often land good last-minute deals for multiple nights.