In a nutshell
Visit nearby ancient temples by motodop, riding through rice paddies and plantations of cashews and rubber. Hire a boat and putter through the Mekong's tributaries. Check out Man and Woman Hill, for their striking views, temples and vendors angling for attention.
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.
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.
Text and/or map last updated on 8th September, 2012.
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