Central Kompong Chhnang province is home to Cambodia's most sublime and easily accessible scenery, while the provincial capital of the same name is one of Cambodia’s most picturesque, photogenic and fascinating regional towns. A mere hop from Phnom Penh, it deserves to see far more visitors than the current trickle who make it here.
Battambang and Kampot are firmly on the more adventurous tourist's itineraries in Cambodia and this delightful river port and market town, set amid marshlands and paddy fields, with the Tonle Sap River to one side and forest-clad hills to the other, really should be too. Kompong Chhnang has decent accommodation, easy transport links, a vibrant waterfront, interesting sights and even a few well preserved, ancient temples. Bicycles and motorbikes are readily available for hire and we came across some of the country’s most helpful tuk tuk drivers here. The residents will be delighted to see you. Kompong Chhnang is really only slightly let down by its current meagre restaurant selection, but we expect that may improve over time.
We reckon two nights and days here is enough time to explore and enjoy a rewarding experience. The town provides a great opportunity to sample traditional Khmer life and scenes without having to go too far out of the way. The large town lies on National Route 5 between Battambang and Phnom Penh, approximately 200 kilometres southeast of the former and 90 kilometres north of the capital.
Kompong Chhnang offers an opportunity to break up any journey between the two or, being just a couple of hours’ bus ride from Phnom Penh, can serve as an unusual getaway destination if you want to escape the capital for a few days. For those who imagine Cambodia’s sights to begin at Tuol Sleng and Angkor's temples and end at the bamboo train and Sihanoukville beaches, Kompong Chhnang provides an ideal antidote.
A word on the name: Chhnang means clay pot, or pottery, in Khmer and Kompong means port. Most Khmer settlements were originally established on the banks of waterways, so the latter has become a generic term for town.
It’s an ethnically mixed town, with a large Vietnamese population and substantial Cambodia Krom and Cham minorities. The Cham are Vietnamese Muslims and Cambodia Krom are ethnic Khmers who migrated from the Mekong Delta region. You’ll see Buddhist temples of both persuasions, churches and riverside mosques as well as pre-Angkor, Hindu towers.
Kompong Chhnang’s layout is very much a tale of two cities; the dry bit and the damp patch, separated by a narrow two kilometre or so causeway. Offering great feng shui credentials, it’s situated between a range of low, green hills to the west and southwest and the waters of the Tonle Sap River to the east and north.
The bulk of the town with its administrative buildings, more substantial constructions and better quality residential districts is set back 2 to 3 kilometres from the river on slightly higher ground and is bisected by National Route 5. Arriving from the north the highway does a slight detour to pass through the town’s commercial centre where you’ll find the main banks (Acleda has an ATM), Phsar Leu market and transport stops. From the Independence Monument, the route continues south, lined by hotels, guesthouses and roadside restaurants, towards Udong and the capital’s northern suburbs 90 kilometres distant.
Around the wide monument traffic circle you’ll find the main hospital, post office, police and slightly to the north the beautiful old, newly restored French provincial hall. In front is an attractive and shady park with benches, mature trees and plenty of resident cheeky monkeys. Behind, to the west, is a patchwork of residential streets containing villas and gardens, some of which have been converted to guesthouses and restaurants.
The raised causeway, directly aligned with the provincial hall’s main entrance, leads the two kilometres to the riverside and Phsar Krom itself. Known logically as Phsar Krom Street, it has a series of parallel dirt tracks to its left as you head down, lined with wooden stilt houses, beyond which is marshland. To the right, a channel separates the road from another section of stilt houses, some remarkably high. Both areas, with traditional village vibes, are fascinating districts to explore by bicycle. By late rainy season both sides of the causeway are largely underwater, while during drier periods marshes stretch down to the river.
The eastern section, past the town’s main temple, is lined with market stalls, shops and cafes until you meet the riverfront where the full on bustle begins. A raised rectangular area, protected by a high concrete embankment, has a row of commercial properties to the rear and a wide paved area full of snack vendors facing the river itself. This becomes pretty much an island during wet months with the Tonle Sap in front and water encroaching on the other three sides. Where the causeway meets the river you’ll find the tour boat jetty, marine police office and a tuk tuk park. A desk and chair on the pavement functions as a basic tourist information office. To the right, a spectacular but precarious bamboo bridge leads to the southern ‘suburbs’ while the market, fish market and main local traffic jetty lie to the left.
In dry season Phsar Krom is set up below the embankment on a muddy, litter-strewn beach and as water levels rise, the market moves up the slope until by mid-monsoon it’s on the wide concrete promenade itself. The fish market uses a different strategy and takes place on a floating pontoon over the water.
The river itself is a fascinating mass of boats of all shapes and sizes, beyond which is a range of hills on the far side of the Tonle Sap and the main east bank town of Kompong Leaeng (pronounced Leng). The river is several kilometres wide at this point (the great lake is only a short distance upstream), but is broken up by myriad islands. Larger ones are covered with villages and farms though again during rainy months much is under water. South the river flows into Kandal province and ultimately Phnom Penh itself.
A sealed road linking Kompong Leaeng with Kompong Thom is currently under construction though a projected, corresponding bridge across the Tonle Sap has been cancelled. Apart from potential chaos with the ferries this would shave a fair chunk off the Phnom Penh to Siem Reap route, as well as suddenly making Kompong Chhnang a lot more accessible. Completion is a long way off, so we’ll see how things pan out.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 8th November, 2016.