Kampong Cham Overview
Kampong Cham Province is in a lowland region with a huge stretch of the Mekong River running alongside it. Known for its rural charm, riverside activity and quaint city life in the province’s urban centre – also called Kampong Cham, many people travel here from nearby Phnom Penh for a slice of ‘real Cambodia’. While the city has a mixture of French colonial architecture and a combination of Chinese and traditional Khmer influences, the broader province is all about rustic charm, working the land or fishing in the river. With a number of off-the-beaten-track Angkor-era temples to visit too, Kampong Cham Province has a little bit of everything that better-known Cambodian resorts have to offer, but on a smaller scale and with fewer people.
One of the most famous sites in Kampong Cham city was previously its bamboo bridge, connecting the mainland to a Mekong River island called Koh Paen. Previously the longest bamboo bridge in the world at 1km long, it could amazingly carry large trucks as well as the numerous cars, motorcycles and bicycles that crossed it every year. Washed away each and every year during monsoon season, the famous bamboo bridge was painstakingly rebuilt every year without fail. A concrete bridge has now replaced this famous bamboo bridge, although a smaller bamboo bridge has been built nearby, which people can cross on foot or by pushing a bicycle over it.
It's worth making the trip over to Koh Paen for the bridge experience as well as to explore one of the Mekong’s islands. Cycle around for the best experience and to discover small villages, island temples and the beach where there are some snack stands selling traditional Khmer flavours too.
On the edge of the city is Wat Nokor, part of the ancient Banteay Prey Nokor temple complex. This is the location where it is believed King Jayavarman VII used as his headquarters for a significant period of time to exert his influence over other local regions. Unlike many other temple complexes in Cambodia, which are usually constructed using brick or red sandstone, Wat Nokor is built from black sandstone. The central tower of the temple depicts a number of scenes from Buddhist teachings.
One of the most iconic sights in Kampong Cham is the French Colonial Watchtower on the banks of the Mekong. It was built in the 1900s to guard the river, as Kampong Cham was an important trading port for the French at this time. It looks magical on the riverbank and reminds visitors of a former era. It’s possible to climb the very steep staircase to catch the views from the top, from which Kampong Cham city and the Kazuna bridge are both visible.
A temple worth visiting outside the city is Wat Maha Leap, as it is one of the only wooden pagodas left in Cambodia. After being used by the Khmer Rouge as a hospital with original adornments covered up, monks have painstakingly restored some of the pagoda’s features to their former glory. Monks still live and pray from a building next to the temple. Another interesting pagoda just outside the city is Wat Hanchey. With origins at least as far back as the 8th century, this hilltop temple also offers fantastic views of the Mekong River and the surrounding area.
Phnom Srey (‘Woman Hill’) and Phnom Pros (‘Man Hill’) are two hills located on the outskirts of Kampong Cham city. Home to temples, statues and pagodas, there are also many local legends that relate to these hills and stories between men and women that the name of the hills originate from. The hills also offer magnificent views over the surrounding countryside.
Kampong Cham Province is well-known for its rubber plantations, and it’s possible to pay a visit to some of them to see how the fascinating process works. One plantation not too far from the city is the Chup Rubber Plantation, where tours for visitors are possible. For those visiting from Phnom Penh, or for those who want to visit Cambodia’s capital from a base in Kampong Cham, it’s as quick to travel between the two by road as it is by boat along the Mekong River. The latter option offers a wonderfully scenic experience of Mekong life, so take advantage of the opportunity.
There are a number of villages that specialize in weaving in Kampong Cham Province, including in the area surrounding the city. One of these villages is Prek Changkran, where almost every home also has a loom for weaving. Many of the villagers here specialize in making the traditional Cambodian krama, which locals have multiple uses for, including as a scarf, bandanna or for decoration. The region is also famous for silk, so many of the garments made here are made from these locally produced silks too.
For another fascinating insight into rural life in Kampong Cham, pay a visit to the village of Cheung Kok on the outskirts of the city. Visits to this village are run by an NGO and give visitors the opportunity to gain an insight into agricultural practices there, such as rice harvesting. There’s also a shop where local hand-made crafts are sold.
For those who enjoy performance arts and want to soak up some traditional Cambodian culture, there are occasional performances of Apsara dance at Nokor Wat, usually at around 5pm on weekends and holidays. Apsara is a Khmer classical dance that often depicts myths or religious stories, with stunning and elaborate costumes helping create a magical atmosphere.
Those keen on doing a bit of shopping should go to the Central Market in the centre of the city. The Art Deco building is fascinating enough, but the shops sell everything here, from fashion to handicrafts.
The Khmer New Year is Cambodia’s most popular event, taking place in April around the harvest season for three days. The festival sees numerous religious rituals take place in temples and pagodas, which plenty of people visit to pay their respects. In the city of Kampong Cham, many shops and businesses close, but there are a lot of festivities on the streets, with food, traditional games and music. Some locals have a tradition of climbing the +300 steps at Phnom Srey for Khmer New Year and other holidays.
Another holiday observed in Kampong Cham is Pchum Ben. This is a 15-day Buddhist festival which usually falls in September or October each year. During this time, Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives and people bring food offerings to temples and pagodas. Pchum Ben is more of a family affair than a public celebration, but visitors will notice the flurry of activity and offerings happening in religious locations throughout the city, with people wearing their best brightly colored clothes.
The Mekong River Festival takes place in a different city and town along the Mekong each year, and Kampong Cham is one city where the festival sometimes takes place. It involves a gala with sporting activities and many riverside festivities, in order to pay tribute to Asia’s seventh longest river.
Kampong Cham is a rural and agricultural province, so much of what you find in the shops and restaurants has been sourced locally. This ranges from jackfruit to delectable fish from the Mekong River. Sugar cane is also locally produced, and fresh sugar cane juice is sold from small carts on almost every street in the city.
In the city of Kampong Cham, there is a stretch of restaurants that serve a mixture of Khmer and international cuisine along the riverfront. One of these is SMILE Café, which is run by a local NGO and helps train orphans and vulnerable young people in hospitality skills. Lazy Mekong Daze nearby serves great Mekong fish, for those who want to try the local foodstuffs. A number of food and drink stands also set up along the riverside during the evening for those who want an informal meal.