I had to spend a night in Phnom Penh because I had missed the last bus to Kampong Cham. While Vietnam had come full of recommendations, I had almost nothing planned for Cambodia. I had already done Phnom Penh, Kampot and Otres on my earlier visit to the country and now I was at a loss as to what the country held for me. Consequently, I had decided to trace a big circular loop till Siem Reap going through the north-eastern and northern provinces of Cambodia. Kampong Cham, a small town to the immediate north of Phnom Penh, was my first stop in off-beat Cambodia.
Off The Backpacker Trail
I woke up the next morning and freshened up before heading out to catch the 9:45 AM bus to Kampong Cham. The Sorya ticket cost me 5.25 USD for a 130 kilometer journey. The bus was not the most modern one but was pretty comfortable and uncrowded. The highway was in a really good shape. I assumed that these were well maintained because they were the main arteries. My travels over the next two weeks would tell me for sure if the roads in Cambodia were good in general or in parts.
The bus had started around 10 AM and we stopped at a highway resting point at 11:30 AM. I was not looking to eat since the highway places are usually something of a rip-off. But as I walked around observing the food items on display, I saw something interesting being served. It was chicken curry with rice vermicelli noodles. My love for bun kicked in and I asked for a bowl. Surprisingly, it cost me just 2 USD, a price that was extremely reasonable for anywhere in Cambodia.
Curry Chicken - As delicious as it looks!
The bus resumed it’s journey after the short lunch break and we reached Kampong Cham in another 45 minutes. The moto drivers were not as persistent as elsewhere in the country and left me alone once I said I did not want a ride. I quickly inquired about the buses for onwards journey and then set out to look for a guest house to stay in. Kampong Cham was not really a well known tourist destination. Being off the beaten path had it’s pros as well as cons. The benefits were that the locals were a lot more friendlier and less given to rip you off. Also, the place was generally much less crowded and perfect for enjoying a few lazy days. The cons, on the other hand, were that there was a dearth of budget lodging options. I had a difficult time finding a place to stay in. The lodgings on the riverside were asking me 7 USD for a simple fan room so I ventured inside town and took a shoddy room for 5 USD which was hardly worth the price. On hindsight, I should have bunked in one of the better known guest houses since it would have allowed me to meet one of the rare travellers who venture into such off-beat towns, something that is always a treat. Anyway, I checked into a dingy and smelly room with serious hygiene issues and a barely working WiFi connection. I planned to move out once I had found a better option but I ended up staying there for the entire duration I was in Kampong Cham.
Pro Tip #15
Expect higher expenses when visiting destinations that are not popular with the backpacking crowd. However, the more popular options might offer you more options to socialise.
I did some chores and then decided to take a nap. The dingy room had one thing good about it, the room went pitch black when the lights went out. I had a tough time waking up when the alarm went off. I forced myself up anyhow, put on some clothes and went out. The sky was clouded, a pleasant change from the harsh sun of the afternoon. The black clouds and heavy wind even threatened of a possible incoming storm. I made my way across the city and towards the riverside, crossing the city’s small market on the way.
Kampong Cham from the riverside
The brown waters of Mekong looked impressive and I walked along it in awe. I came across a beautiful Buddhist university and decided to walk in to click some pictures. There were a few students who were goofing around near the gate. They passed me a curious glance and went about their business.
As I walked along the river, I came to understand that I had walked myself out of the small town. So I consulted Google Maps to check what my options were. There seemed to be a lake nearby so I walked in the direction. It turned out to be a lowland instead of a lake, with lotuses on either side and a dirt track cutting right through it. There were houses on stilts on either side and I walked on to that looked like a Buddhist temple at the end of the dirt road.
House on stilts
It started raining as I reached the stupas on the other side. The monks and others around scattered to take shelter and I found one myself in the form of a tarpaulin sheet over a tea stall. The old lady who ran the stall invited me to sit on a chair behind the small stall. It was a very small stall that served snacks and tea. A girl was lying on the wooden charpai on the back side, apparently recovering from an illness. She and the old woman joked about something; it was either my presence or the old woman’s attempts to remove water that had accumulated on the top of the tarpaulin. I helped in getting rid of the accumulated water. The rains had stopped in the meantime and I went up front. The monks were coming out of their recluse and leaving in groups.
I pointed at a tea kettle lying around and asked what it was. The woman did not speak English but she and another man, who was hanging about, tried to explain to me what it was. She eventually ended up making me a packet of iced lemon tea which was quite delicious. They call it dtai, something of a mixture of tea and chai. The old lady would not take money from me for the tea so I bought a pack of peanuts to repay her for her kindness. It is experiences like these that make my walking around worth the effort! I walked out of the Buddhist complex, which was actually a high school. The monks I had seen all around were the students. Buddhist schools and universities were something new to me, but I guess it made sense that religious studies would have it’s own center.
Socializing at the tea stall
I walked to the city by an alternate route. There was a beautiful provincial hall which seemed to double up as a sports complex. It seemed to have volleyball court and all. There was also a small garden up front and two lanes of lit up roads. The architecture was colonial and quite charming.
I slowly walked in the direction of the guest house. Earlier in the afternoon, with all the fuss around the room, I had started thinking that it might have been a bad idea to stop in this town but now I was convinced otherwise. I rested a while in the guest house and then decided to head out to grab a bite. I walked around and ended up on the riverside. I ate a kachay cake from a stall and then returned to the main market to have dinner at one of the places I had seen that afternoon. There were quite a few locals there so I decided to go in. The menu said that every dish was for 2 USD, which is rather cheap by Cambodian standards. I ordered a beef soup and it came with a casserole full of rice! I finished it all. 🍲 🍚 😄
Rice plate : Before
Rice plate : After!
I had overeaten and decided to take a walk down the riverside road to aid digestion. The promenade was beautifully lit up and there were a lot of locals hanging around. It seemed like the night time activity of choice for everyone in town. There was a market there as well which was really big. It seemed like the entire town was there. I decided to join the crowd and walked inside. They were selling everything, from mattresses to laundry baskets to shoes to delicious looking food. There was a stage with some ongoing drama, EDM blasting from somewhere and maybe a ferris wheel somewhere. 🎡 I went around once and then walked out. I was too tired to continue and called it an early night back in the guest house.
The vibrant night market
The Missing Bridge
I woke up and went to the coffee shop I had seen the last day. It was Italian style coffee with all the espresso and cappuccino. I was missing the Vietnamese cafes but I guess you cannot have everything everywhere! I found time to write more than my daily logs after a long time. I worked a little on some of my stories and sipped on the coffee. Around 12, I packed up and went back to the 2 dollar rice meal place to have another amazing meal of fried fish with ginger and rice. This place was good! For the inquisitive, the restaurant is on the crossing of Rue Pasteur and Preah Bat Ang Eng.
Best Cambodian food!
Then I returned to the guest house for some respite from the hot sun and a welcome nap. I got up and went out around 4 PM.
I walked along the roads to one of the sights of this small town. Kampong Cham boasted of the longest bamboo bridge in the world. I walked up to the riverside and the brown Mekong was beautiful as always. Its width and vastness never failed to amaze me. I walked up to the point that Google Maps said was the beginning of the bridge, but there was no bridge in sight. There was a ferry going to the other side but was there not supposed to be a bridge right here?
Ferry to Koh Paen
Looking at the voluptuous Mekong, I made the wild guess that the bridge had probably drowned under water. That would be pretty cool. A bit of searching online told me that the river washed away the bridge every year and it was rebuilt when the river subsided enough to reveal the banks. Such undulation! My respect for the river had gone up several notches. I sat by the riverside and made more failed attempts at taking time lapse videos. I really liked the concept and I was trying to learn the different effects of frequencies, etc. My camera was not suited for videos of any kind though. I spent close to an hour trying things and managing little success.
The sun was about to set when I got up and turned around. There was a Buddhist building right behind me (Dei Doh Pagoda) that I had missed till now somehow. It looked interesting so I thought I would check it out. I was not too sure if it was a pagoda, a monastery or another of those universities. There were massive Buddha statues and stupas all around.
Huge Buddha statues
The stupas here are quite different. They are a curious mixture of a stupa and a temple, with a square fenced complex of it’s own and towers that sometimes had four faces looking in different directions.
I walked about and went further in since the gate was open and no one was telling me otherwise. There was just another man sitting in front of the big pagoda. There were many beautiful sculptures all around and up ahead there were houses for monks. A few kids were playing football and a dog took note of me and started barking at me. I walked around some more before heading out and making my way back to the hotel in the darkness.
Dei Doh Pagoda
I rested at the guest house for a bit and then headed out to grab something to eat. Despite the awesomeness of the rice place, I wanted to try something different and I walked around quite a bit before eating a big plate of noodles at one of the street side joints. Then I walked back to the hotel and was looked upon expectantly by some girls standing in front of a massage parlour. No secrets as to what it was all about. It surprises me how obvious things are out here.
An Old Temple
I headed back to the coffee shop the next morning. I worked a bit on a blog post while drinking my morning americano and trying the overpriced chicken and rice. Then I started working on a story and forgot all about the uploads I had to do. Another coffee ensued in the meanwhile. Sense happened to catch hold of me before I ordered a third cup and I decided to get out of the cafe. I never realise until it is too late and end up drinking one cup after another and suffer caffeine jitters for the rest of the day. I continued my writing in the comfortable solace of the dingy room I had rented out. I had made it something of a routine to spend the afternoon indoors to escape the blazing sun. I went out to explore the small town later in the evening when the weather was much more conducive to such activities.
I got out around 4 PM as usual with the plan of checking out a pagoda complex to the east of the town. Nokor Bachay Pagoda was right outside the main town and Google Maps put it at 3 km and 40 minutes of walking. I had made it a point to walk any distance that was within an hour away. The benefits were twofold. One, I saved money; two, I got some much needed exercise. There were some dark clouds approaching from the east but I consciously ignored them thinking that they would pass after a fleeting shower as the day before.
I took a slightly longer route that went through the rural countryside. The villagers eyed me curiously but I had my ears pried for threatening barks from village dogs. The Cambodian dogs seemed to have something against me and this was perhaps the first time in ages that I had been nervous about dogs. A few children started hello’ing me and this put me at ease. I hello’ed back and realised that this was perhaps the first time that the I had experienced Cambodian people pay me unsolicited attention. I looked around and smiled at the curious glances that I was getting from the adults. They smiled in return. Maybe they had just been waiting for me to initiate all this while! I made a mental note to test out this theory in the rest of the trip.
Village roads and incoming storm
The wind turned into a gale and the small droplets started falling when the pagoda was a couple of hundred meters away. It waxed into a drizzle and I hurried through the gate of the complex and took shelter under a tarpaulin sheet and watched the storm come by. I stood there in the monotonous and never-ending drizzle for quite a while. Eventually I decided to walk out in the direction that said “Entrance” since the rain seemed consistently harmless. There was a big pagoda right up ahead and I went in and around it. The back side of the pagoda sheltered me from the heavy wind and measly rain. I attempted some time lapse videos of the passing storm. I stood there longer than I would have cared to in hope that the storm would pause, but it was not to be.
Taking shelter in the pagoda
I went back to the front side to check out a certain sound that had been coming for some time. I found a few young monks beating a big drum at some distance. I stood under yet another tarpaulin sheet to watch them play. The evening prayers started and the chants blared out of loudspeakers that I could not locate. The drum beats mixed with the chants sounded wonderful.
Young monks beating the drum
I eventually decided to head back, not sure if I had seen what I was supposed to see in the complex. I saw a ruined structure on the way out and decided to check it out and take a few pictures. It seemed to be under renovation but I decided to go on until I could. I could see some light coming from within. Some people, seemingly the workers who were renovating the building, were lounging about. But the inside of the complex was a different trip altogether! The inner chamber was a renovated Buddhist temple but the entire structure clearly betrayed styles similar to Hindu temples of yore. I went on a clicking frenzy since this was my first exposure to the famed temple architecture in Cambodia.
Scenes from the ancient temple
On the other side of this temple I came upon the pagoda from whence the chants were emanating. I slowly walked around the temple and headed back to the exit. This had been a nice detour.
There are more pictures of the pagoda and the temple in the album.
I walked back to the guest house in the intermittent rains. I stopped under the nearest shelter when the rains picked up and walked on when they paused or slowed down. I dried myself in the room and caught up on some correspondence with old friends and new.
Walking back in intermittent rains
It was still raining when I decided to go out to grab some dinner. Since it was my last day here, I thought of trying the most famous restaurant that everyone had been recommending but I had avoided since it seemed to uptown. Hao An was pretty good but somewhat expensive as I had expected. It was alright for an occasional treat but that 2 dollar rice place had been the best food I had had in Cambodia thus far (in the whole of Cambodia in fact!). Sometimes you don’t know that you have chanced upon the best option until you try others out, and therein lies the fun!
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Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Kampong Cham leg of the trip.