As Cambodia’s sixth-largest city, Kampong Cham is often described as “sleepy” and “provincial”—not the kind of place we normally hit up. But our time in Cambodge had been spent almost purely in tourist hotspots getting targeted by tuk-tuk drivers (not today or tomorrow, buddy!) and child beggars, so we were more than happy to take a bumpy three-hour bus ride (on what might be Cambodia’s most under-construction road) to this little backwater village on the mighty Mekong.
There’s not a whole lot to see in Kampong Cham, but the things we wanted to check out happened to be really far from each other. So we did what everyone should do in Southeast Asia when they want to check out the landscape like a local: We hired a scooter.
It cost just $8 per day from a cafe on the river for a peppy little automatic. “If the police stop you for not having a helmet, just pay him 2000 rial ($0.50),” said the waiter. Nice.
Our first stop was an old B-52 airstrip from the Vietnam War, about three kilometres west of the town. There wasn’t much left of the airstrip itself, but the locals have reappropriated it into a very bumpy road. There were ruins of an old pillbox and the control tower nearby, but not much to see besides that.
Next was Phnom Hanchey, about 20 kilometres north of Kampong Cham. We managed to get massively lost on the tiny roads that wound through the jungle, but when we peeled through a little neighbourhood a guy was nice enough to hop on his own scooter and lead us to the Mekong. Couple that with the chorus of “HELLO!!” that we received from little kids around every bend, and we were given a great impression of the friendliness of Cambodian people once you get out of the main tourist holes.
The internet describes Wat Hanchey as “an ancient hilltop pagoda dating from the eighth century” with “breathtaking views” of the Mekong. What no one really mentions is that this monastery and temple complex is absolutely brimming with cement sculptures of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, animals, and gigantic fruits and vegetables. Gigantic, like, two-metres tall. And while the architecture of the temples are pretty classically Cambodian, the level of detail and colour schemes that they’ve used are really wild. I tend to use the word “surreal” a lot, and here I’m going to use it again. It was farking surreal.
There were a few monks relaxing in hammocks, some ladies selling fried noodles, and a handful of foreign and domestic tourists, but other than that it was peaceful and surreal.
It took us quite some time to go the 40 kilometres to the temple and back, and by the time arrived in town, heat had begun to get to us. We wanted beer. But we decided to make one last excursion to Koh Paen, a large island in the Mekong. The island itself is quiet, leafy, and even more sleepy than Kampong Cham, and for most people the main attraction is actually the amazing bamboo bridge used to access the island during the dry season. Every year the locals build this thing in the late autumn, and every year it gets washed away in the spring as the waters of the Mekong rise. It’s quite an engineering achievement, and for $1 per person, the villagers let us barang clog up their precious bridge with our slightly nerve-wracking joyrides. It’s fucking loud.
(turn down your volume)
When we got onto the island and drove around, we passed quite a lot of new SUVs and pickup trucks. It made us wonder if the bridge is really the only way to access the island, as is advertised.
After that we cruised around a bit more, then headed back to the cafe to return the scooter. The day ended like so many of our days end, by watching the sun set while drinking beer.