Visitors to sleepy Kompong Cham are surprised to hear it's the capital of Cambodia's most populous province. The province derives its name from the ethnic Cham, or Chinese Muslims, who inhabit many of its villages.
One of the many legends about the town's history explains that a fish swallowed a Cambodian boy whose father was bathing him in the river. The fish swam to China where fishermen caught him and sliced him open, revealing a live child. The emperor raised the boy as his own. Years later, the prince returned with ships full of Chinese sailors to populate the land that became known as Kompong Cham.
Today the Mekong River splits this fertile land, which is home to numerous tobacco, cashew and rubber plantations, and because the tourism hubs of Angkor Wat to the northwest and the coast to the southwest overshadow this region, it retains much of its charm. Locals are quick to point out their city's merits, reminding visitors that Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen was born there and that it's the home to notable historic landmarks, such as Wat Nokor and 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 is as enjoyable as the visits themselves. Rent a moto ($6, 24,000 riel) 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.
Nearly all of Kompong Cham sits within a 2-square-km 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 Kazuma 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 a bit north of the Mekong Hotel. 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 St, 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).
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: (015) 900 264 Open Mon-Fri, 07:30-16:00 and Sat, 07:30-12:30.
ANZ Royal Bank Intersection of Preah Monivong & Neary Rath Kosamak St, southwest corner. Open Mon-Fri, 08:30-16:00.
Canadia Bank Intersection of Preah Monivong & Neary Rath Kosamak St, southwest corner. 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 central market sells an array of medicines and a Vietnamese doctor works there week days. 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 offers one international border crossing into Vietnam, from Trapeang Phlong to Xa Mat, Vietnam. 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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The 12th century Wat Nokor temple, the 6th century Han Chey temple, and the boat trip down the Mekong River to the century-old Wat Maha Leap are the top three sites in Kompong Cham. Each provides insight into Cambodian history, both the grand and the grotesque, and the travels there, in the case of Han Chey and Leap particularly, are as pleasant as the destinations themselves.
The twin hills of Phnom Proh and Phnom Sray, or Man Hill and Woman Hill, are also an easy 15-minute drive from Kompong Cham and feature both striking views and historic temples. Crawling with monkeys, fortunetellers, and street vendors, the gendered hills have become the most trekked tourist destinations in town.
Kompong Cham's city centre features a bustling central market, sometimes called Olympic Market or Kompong Cham, that is standard to any larger Cambodian town. In and around the one-storey yellow building, vendors sell fresh produce, fly-swarmed meats, spicy steamed clams and prepared Khmer dishes like fried noodles and dumplings.
Spend as much time as possible at the riverfront. With the exception of the modern Kazuma Bridge spanning the Mekong, the promenade is a quiet, far cry from Phnom Penh's chaotic, dusty riverfront. We'll see how long the peace stays.
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Text and/or map last updated on 26th September, 2015.
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