As the 3rd largest city in Cambodia, you can imagine that there is a lot to be seen, done, and eaten in Kampong Cham. The geographical layout is mostly rural with a bustling city center- you really get the best of both worlds when visiting. You can experience old school Cambodia with village tours and handicraft-making excursions and then transition into city life where you can join the workers on their pilgrimage to food during lunch hours.
The population in Kampong Cham is especially unique to Cambodia. Whereas most of the country is ethnically Khmer and Buddhist, there is a large portion of Muslims and Christians in Kampong Chan alongside citizens with ethnic Chinese backgrounds. This means that you have a chance to experience a Cambodian melting pot with a variety of religious centers and even better, a variety of food!
Let’s explore the best things to do in Kampong Cham:
1. Visit the Local Market
Although this market doesn’t seem to have an official or unique name, it is certainly easy to find. Head to the Mekong Crossing Restaurant and across the street, you’ll notice a collection of stalls and lots of people buying and selling goods with high energy.
This market is as authentic as it gets in Cambodia. There are no tourist-aimed gimmicks or goods. Instead, this is the place where locals come to buy their produce, meat, and spices, along with clothing, hardware, and toys.
You can buy local organic fruits such as mango and dragon fruit here. They also offer dried seafood like squid and shrimp- ask for a sample! A few items that may surprise you is whole pigs heads that have been pinned to smile and live buckets of sea life such as splashing fish and frogs. Just go with it.
2. Sunset Boat Tour on the Mekong River
When you sign up for the Sunset Boat Tour, you get a lot more out of the day than you’d expect.
You’ll jump in a boat on the Mekong River around 3pm. Your English speaking guide will tell you a bit about Kampong Cham and the life of local fisherman whom you’ll pass along the way. There will be two stops on your boat trip, one the island of Koh Darch and one on the island of Koh Pene where you can experience local village life.
Hop back on the boat as sunset nears and enjoy a cold beverage as you peacefully glide over the water and watch the clear sky turn from blue to orange as you slowly head back to shore.
3. Koh Paen Island
How does spending the day on a quite, rural South East Asian farming island sound? Rent a bicycle and head to Koh Paen Island where you can get lost on small dirt roads for miles and miles. At times, it will feel like you are the only one left on this bright green earth until you suddenly come across a cheerful farmer or a lazy cow.
Go out of your way to ask these farmers if they can help you get a coconut from a nearby tree. The friendly interaction and the coconut are worth it. You can expect local kids will run out of their houses to say hello; feel free to give out high fives all day.
Stop by local shops to buy treats, even if you don’t need them, and sit down for a soda at a local restaurant, even if you aren’t particularly in the mood for one as it’s the connections with the residents of Koh Paen Island that make this place so special.
4. Khmer Cooking Class
Khmer cooking isn’t as widely known around the world as Thai or Vietnamese, but is just as delicious and unique. Learn a skill that will impress your friends and give you some bragging rights when you go home.
For just $15, you can take a 3-hour cooking class where you will work your way through a 3-course menu of delicious Khmer food. You’ll start with a visit to the local market to buy fresh, organic ingredients, then head back to the kitchen where the head chef will guide you towards culinary perfection! From curry to stir-fry, you’ll learn step by step how to recreate authentic Cambodian dishes on your own. Afterwards, you’ll even be sent home with your own cookbook to recreate these dishes for your loved ones.
5. Phnom Srey and Phnom Pros Mountain
Take a joy ride on a rented scooter to explore Mountain Pros and Mountain Srey, two mountains located just west of the city.
Your adventure to Mountain Pros, a mere 30-meter tall peak, will be full of surprising and strange sights. This mountain is home to a collection of impressive pagoda temples, strange fruit statues, curious monkeys who will steal your food, and sugar cane vendors selling sweet sugar can juice.
Nearby Mountain Srey requires a climb up a set of ancient-looking stairs with 308 steps surrounded by bright green forests. Once you reach the top, you’ll encounter an old temple abandoned and in ruins that is simply breathtaking.
Between the two mountains is a valley which the Khmer Rouge used as a killing field during the genocide- however, there is no monument to visit- just a significant fact to know.
6. Chup Rubber Plantation
I bet you didn’t realize that rubber came from trees. There are rubber plantations all over South East Asia, including one right here in Kampong Cham. Take your bicycle or motorbike out to the plantation that is located about 20 kilometers outside of town.
The tall forest of rubber trees is a stunning site. These grandiose, leafy pillars with incredibly thick trunks are perfectly arranged, row after row, leaving little alleys of dirt and light running between them like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland.
It’s best to go in the morning to escape the heat and also to witness the farm workers in their element. You can take a quiet walk between the trees, and then, for $1, you can wander into the actual rubber factory where you’ll see the rubber being processed by loud machines with a man or two sitting in a plastic chair half asleep.
7. Ko Paen Bamboo Bridge
Once a year – every year- the locals gather together and slice up thousands of pieces of bamboo to construct one long bridge over the dry lands where the water runs during rainy season. The bridge holds its own just enough for locals (and curious tourists) to cross over it during the day-to-day. However, each year that river erodes the bridge and it eventually wastes away. Then, they build it again! Maybe they do it for fun or maybe for tradition- whatever the reason, they seem to be happy to carry on without striving for a permanent solution.
If you’re brave enough to drive over on your motorbike, prepare for it to be extremely loud and rickety. If you’re a bit more cautious, a slow walk will do just fine in order for you to get the idea. It will cost $1 per person (aka tourist) to cross both ways.
8. Motorbike to Kratie Town
Enjoy a nice breezy afternoon ride tracing the Mekong River as you make your way to Kratie town. Only 100 kilometers away, it will take you just a couple hours to reach your destination, with gorgeous views along the way and excuses to stop for food.
There are quite a few natural spectacles in Kratie including Irrawaddy River Dolphins in the village of Kampi, bird watching opportunities along the river, and a turtle sanctuary run by an enthusiastic, non-English speaking monk.
Understand that Kratie is a traditional rural town, so dress appropriately with covered shoulders and avoid the short shorts. The locals will be delighted to have you in their town and overjoyed if you attempt to speak even just a couple words of the Khmer language with them.
9. Eat at the Bamboo Café
Support a local NGO café that supports local people. The Bamboo Café is a training center for youth who want to learn skills in the kitchen, and in a restaurant. Better yet, the training is free for these workers and is purely aimed at the social growth and progress of their community.
The food is outstanding at Bamboo Café, as well! You can find traditional Khmer dishes such as fried fish with spicy sauce and Amok curry, along with western dishes like American continental breakfast and fruit shakes. The ambiance is peaceful under a palm-thatched roof overlooking farm fields and surrounded by nature, perfect to wind down after a long day of adventure.
10. Phnom Hanchey Hilltop Temple
Roll out of bed around 4am if you want to make it up to Phnom Hanchey around 5am for one of the most gorgeous sunrises that you’ll experience in Cambodia. As the sun emerges, it slowly illuminates the mountains, valleys, villages, and the river of Kampong Cham.
In the morning light, you can explore the grounds of the temple where you’ll find a traditional burnt orange roof atop a gold and white pagoda. Nearby is an extremely unique Buddhist statue reminiscent of a Hindu god with multiple arms and tools. Also on site are unnervingly realistic statues of former monks that will leave you expecting them to come to life at any moment. This site is not only unique to Cambodia, but to all of South East Asia.
11. The French Lookout Tower
If you happen to rent a motorbike during your time in Kampong Cham, then why not journey on over to the French Lookout Tower?
Built with a western design, this tower sticks out like a sore thumb. It sits next to the river with its purpose to monitor river traffic that doesn’t really exist on such a wide river with such tiny boats- but hey, it offers some great views of the town. You’ll see traditional Khmer house on stilts, be able to peer into the daily lives of the families living below, and have the chance to catch a picturesque sunset!
Hopefully, you’re not afraid of heights as you’re going to have to climb over 100 rickety stairs to get to the top of this building. The tower is slowly dilapidating which makes climbing it quite the thrill.
12. Destiny Coffee House
It’s such a treat to find real espresso in rural Cambodia! At this Kampong Cham coffee house, you can get latte art, pop cakes, iced Thai tea, fruit shakes, fresh juice- everything that you could ever want in a contemporary café.
The décor is clean, the wifi is free, and the café is air-conditioned. It’s a modern-day oasis.
The cherry on top is that Destiny Coffee House is also a Cambodian NGO helping children and youth learn skills in the service industry so that they can provide a better future for themselves and their families. Help them help themselves and get your caffeine fix at the same time.
13. Cheung Kok Village
Life happens a bit differently than what you’re used to in the NGO sponsored rural village. You’re in for an eye-opening experience in of Cheung Kok, seeing the humble manner in which these villagers live.
Whole families live in one-room wooden teak houses on stilts surrounded by large banana trees and flat farmlands. Many houses have silk-weaving machines below where the women spend their days making scarves and shirts to sell in the markets to support their family. Meanwhile, the husbands are out in the fields harvesting crops or doing odd jobs around the village. Small school kids play in the dirt, happy as can be while wearing their official school uniforms.
You’ll find the hospitality here very warm here as villagers interact with you and show you a glimpse of their life. Hire a tuk tuk driver to give you a tour.
14. Nokor Wat Ruins
This Angkor-era temple was built during the 11th century with a similar style to the ‘wonder of the world’ temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.
Inside this Kampong Cham wat, there are tombs containing human remains from Khmer Rouge genocide with paintings on the wall depicting death, torture, and souls escaping to the afterlife. It’s quite the eerie atmosphere.
To get there, bike or tuk tuk 1 kilometer out of the center of town towards Phnom Penh. When you arrive, you will likely be the only tourists in sight. You can find monks nearby who you must politely and respectfully ask to unlock the temple for you to enter. For girls, wear appropriate clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.
15. Traditional Apsara Dance Performance
During the weekends, venture behind Wat Nokor at 5pm and you’ll be able to witness traditional Cambodian dance by Khmer kids dressed in beautiful customary clothing and headwear.
The NGO called Buddhism for Social Development Act (BSDA) is responsible for these lovely performances as they aim to educate Khmer youth on their cultural history and preserve tradition in the community. It is the Buddhist monks who lead the cultural education and direct the students in the dances. If you show up and no one is dancing yet, just wait around. The performances usually only occur when there is an audience waiting. The show is free but donations are certainly welcome to keep this project alive.