Photo: Streetside drying chillies near Kompong Cham.

Introduction

A surprisingly pretty province, with several interesting Angkorian and pre-Angkorian sites, Kompong Cham is commonly viewed as a simple layover en route to the northeast, but also makes for a pleasant, restful diversion if you have a day or two to spare.


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On the west bank of the Mekong, just over 120 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh, Kompong Cham is the drowsy capital of Kompong Cham province. Once the second-most populous province in Cambodia, it was divided and literally cut down to size by the government at the end of 2013, perhaps for having had the temerity to vote for the leading opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), despite being the home province of Cambodia’s long-standing premier, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The east of the Mekong, and the border with Vietnam, are now in the newly formed Tbong Khmum province, together with extensive rubber plantations, many of which were originally set by the French. The five districts that previously fell within the borders of Kompong Cham all voted for Hun Sen’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and the new province can almost certainly now expect to receive preferential treatment in return for the favour.

Kompong Cham province gets its name from its large population of ethnic Cham, Muslims who may have originated in Borneo before fanning out and establishing populations in Cambodia, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Thailand.

At the height of the Khmer Empire, in 1177, the Cham briefly won control of its territories, before King Jayavarman VII defeated them in an epic battle on land and water, scenes of which you’ll find on the walls of Bayonand Banteay Chhmar temples. The victory sealed his reputation as a warrior, despite the fact that he was in his sixties, and he was crowned king in 1181.

A local legend has the story of how the Chams came to be here another way, telling how a fish swallowed a Cambodian boy whose father was bathing him in the river. The fish then swam to China, where fishermen caught him and sliced him open, spilling out the live child inside. The emperor raised the boy as his own, but years later the prince returned to Cambodia with ships full of Chinese sailors to populate the land that became known as Kompong Cham.

This fertile region — though in early 2016, the land looked wasted and desiccated as the drought of 2015 looks set to be followed by yet another — is home to numerous tobacco, cashew and (to the east) rubber plantations. It’s also remarkably pretty, not only in the landscape, but also in the architecture. If you want to get a feel for a real Cambodian city — Phnom Penh is predominantly Chinese or Sino-Khmer, and Siem Reap is… something else — then this offers an interesting glimpse.

The city is large, though the central area hugging the Mekong is where you’ll likely spend most of your time. From there, explorers will be rewarded with an array of architecture styles from early French colonial buildings, typical Chinese shophouses, and buildings influenced by the New Khmer Architectural style developed during Cambodia’s “golden” years in the 1960s. Locals are also quick to point out the city’s other attractions, such as Wat Nokor and the pagoda at Han Chey.

The local government takes great pains to maintain the town and attract new business. Though the exterior of the city's French colonial buildings often seem to be in a state of decomposition, the actual infrastructure is functional, with wide boulevards, a riverfront promenade and a picturesque bridge expediting tourism and trade with points east.

Well-maintained gardens and Angkorian-themed statues grace the city's median strips and central squares. At night, ornate lampposts and illuminated water fountains light up the town’s main street, Monivong Boulevard.

Most travellers use Kompong Cham as a layover on the journey from Phnom Penh to Kratie or Sen Monorom on the Mondulkiri plateau (visible from several of the hilltop pagodas outside the city centre). But Kompong Cham is worth an extended visit for its own merits.

Nearby temples dating to the sixth century AD reveal Cambodia's oldest remnants of Angkorian architecture. Travelling to these temples can be as enjoyable as the visits themselves. Rent a moto ($5) and speed alongside the Mekong River, beside paddy and over tree-lined streets. Hire a boat driver and meander through winding Mekong tributaries where villagers pass in boats made from hollow tree trunks and fishermen stand on the banks, swooping wide nets through the water.

Orientation
Nearly all of Kompong Cham sits within a two-square-kilometre area. Three roads frame Kompong Cham's city centre: the thoroughfare National Road 7, which connects Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham from the west then heads east over the Kizuna Bridge toward Kratie; Sihanouk Boulevard, which borders the river; and Monivong Boulevard, whose two lanes and grass median cuts through the western part of town.

Between Sihanouk and Monivong is the market, two police stations and most hotels and restaurants. One police station is on a small courtyard two blocks west of the river. The other one is on Sihanouk Boulevard in between Kizuna Bridge and the Bamboo Bridge. The post office is located on the northwest part of town, two blocks north of the hospital, which can be easily found by taking a left off Monivong onto Kosomak Neary Roth Street, the intersection where all the banks are located, including the National Bank of Cambodia (or Banque Rouge, as it's known for its trademark red walls).

There are several small grocery stores dotted along the riverside road, and going back from it, where you can pick up snacks and basic toiletries. The main market should also have most of what you may be looking for. There are two markets. The new one houses the food stalls, while the old market — which is worth a visit in its own right — sells household goods, shoes and clothing, cosmetics and toiletries, fabrics and food.

Several banks have international access ATMs and there are several Western Union wire transfer sites throughout town as well. Across from each other at the main intersection on the northern end of Monivong Blvd are Canadia Bank and ANZ Royal Bank. They accept both Visa and Mastercard. The Acleda Bank on National Road 7 permits Visa cards. All their ATMs are accessible 24 hours. A fourth international ATM at Cambodia Public Bank near the central market is open during the bank's open hours weekdays from 08:00 to 15:00.
Acleda Bank: National Road 7. T: (042) 941 703 Open Mon-Fri, 07:30-16:00 and Sat, 07:30-11:30.
ANZ Royal Bank: Intersection of Preah Monivong & Neary Rath Kosamak St, southeast corner. Open Mon-Fri, 08:00-16:00.
Canadia Bank: Intersection of Preah Monivong & Neary Rath Kosamak St, northwest corner. T: (042) 941 361 Open Mon-Fri, 08:00-16:00 and Sat, 08:00-11:30.

Kompong Cham's two main medical institutions are the Kompong Cham Clinic and Kompong Cham Hospital. It can be difficult to find an English speaker at either place, and for anything serious, head back to Phnom Penh (or really serious, Thailand). The 24-hour clinic on the south side of the main market sells an array of medicines. The Samai Pharmacy to the north of the market also has a good range, though as usual you’ll need to know what you’re looking for before you go. The Kompong Cham Hospital is also open 24 hours. It is located two blocks south of the post office on the northwest part of town and provides a full range of health services.

Kompong Cham no longer has an international border with Vietnam, but if you continue east on the N7, and then N72, you’ll find the Trapeang Phlong to Xa Mat crossing. There's no public transport, though a taxi or moto will take you. Be sure to get your visa beforehand by contacting the Vietnamese Embassy in your home country or from the Vietnamese Embassy
in Phnom Penh.


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