We're sitting under a great old tree, on plastic chairs by the slick stirring waters of the Mekong. To our right the brilliantly lit Kasuma Bridge spans into the darkness. Beyond, the faint outline of the French-period guard tower is set. Below us a gaggle of sampans bob and bump in the river's current. Above the far bank, the moonrise lights the river in electric ghostly hues. It's midnight in Kompong Cham and we have the entire place to ourselves.
Kompong Cham's heyday hark back to the 1930s and 40s, when the town was a cosmopolitan, bustling Indochinese river port supporting the sprawling French administered rubber plantations that once patchworked across much of this part of Cambodia. Many of these plantations were destroyed during the American war and those that survived the bombing languished in disrepair during the Khmer Rouge period. Today, moves are afoot to resuscitate the business and one can easily visit a plantation should they wish.
The name Kompong Cham refers to a sizeable population of Chams who took up residence after being chased out of Vietnam when the Kingdom of Champa collapsed. These people, distinctive in their religion, dress, customs and language, were picked out for particular attention by the Khmer Rouge, who decimated the Cham population. Today, with its plentiful Chinese-script signs, Kompong Cham feels more like a Chinese trading town than the Cham agrarian centre it historically once was.
While precious little remains to bear evidence to the Cham period, Kompong Cham has a wealth of leftovers from the French. The ever-watchful guard tower on the far bank of the Mekong sits in direct line of sight to the mayor's house in the centre of Kompong Cham -- in time's past, guards would light a furnace atop it to warn town that invaders were on the way. Until recently in a state of disrepair, the tower was recently restored -- supposedly with a French expat's money -- and painted pink. The town also has its fair share of French-influenced buildings and trader shopfronts -- while often badly dilapidated they retain an austere grace so totally lacking from the more modern concoctions that invariably flank them. While not nearly as beautiful as Phnom Penh, Kompong Cham retains enough urban points of interest for at least a pleasing stroll through town. Given its small size, it's no challenge to explore the bevy of back-lanes and shopfronts throughout the town on foot.
Many think of the Mekong River as a singular mammoth river twisting its way own from Cambodia's northern frontier with Laos before pouring itself out and across Vietnam's delta, but it's also a river of 101 tributaries, and exploring some of these by boat from Kompong Cham is what easily justifies a longer stay than your guidebook may suggest. Cruising up a narrow tributary is like dropping back 100 years in time. Unadulterated village life runs the length of the river, intermingled with forest and bamboo, with the occasional rundown colonial mansion -- once home to plantation overseers and their families -- poking out above the trees.
Wat Maha Leap is one of Cambodia's largest remaining wooden temples and sits towards the border with the neighbouring province of Prey Veng, a 40-minute boat ride along the Tonle Thoit (small river) tributary that runs off the Mekong to the south of Kompong Cham. When the Khmer Rouge seized power many temples were pillaged and often burnt to the ground, but superstition, it seems, protected Wat Maha Leap. Believed to be over 100 years old, the temple's exterior is bland and unappealing, but the interior reveals towering gilded teak columns (each from an entire tree) supporting a beautifully painted sky blue roof. We found it to be eerily reminiscent of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in northern Thailand. Sadly, while the temple survived the Khmer Rouge, it is slowly losing a long-running battle with termites burrowing through the slender columns.
Upon leaving the wat, continue along the river to the renowned weaving village of Prey Chung Kran. Jump out of the boat to the familiar click clack click clack of villager's looms, and visit house after house where weavers fashion an excellent range of Khmer kramas and a variety of other fabrics. Buying off the loom here will guarantee yourself a better price than Phnom Penh (in fact many stores in Phnom Penh travel here to buy their stock). You're also supporting a worthwhile cottage industry.
When you're done at the temple and the weaving village, return to the Mekong and head back towards Kompong Cham. En route be sure to stop off at the island of Ko Paen, which sits towards the west bank of the Mekong just to the south of Kompong Cham. When the Mekong is low, you can cycle or walk to the island by a small bamboo bridge, but when the river is high, the bridge disappears under the muddy brown waters and a boat becomes a requirement rather than an option. A small agrarian island, Ko Paen is a terrific spot to observe typical Khmer rural life. Watch out for the fishermen standing by the river's bank with huge badminton-racket-like hand-held silky white fishing nets. The fishermen slowly scoop the net through the river, drawing a slow but steady catch. In the late afternoon light, these nets really glisten -- don't forget your camera.
Kompong Cham has a seemingly disproportionate number of really friendly motorbike guys who speak amazing English and know the town like the back of their hand. There are still Khmer ruins, hilltop temples and more boat trips all requiring your attention.
And don't forget to fit in a few midnight drinks under the shade of the big tree on the Mekong's bank.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 19th May, 2015.