Although Kampong Cham is Cambodia’s third largest city, it hardly feels it. Its relaxed atmosphere and small-town vibe are a good thing for travelers, who come in small, but steady numbers. The limited but adequate tourism infrastructure that exists has grown since the last time I visited 4.5 years earlier. The few budget hotels and guest houses and tourist cafes support the backpackers on the banana pancake trail from Laos and others doing a circuit around Cambodia. There are a few things to see and do which merit at least a day in this town along the mighty Mekong River. If you’re not rushed for time, you could find something to fill an extra day or two.
One of the most popular things to do is to rent a bicycle or scooter and venture across the famous bamboo bridge to Koh Paen (Koh Pbain) Island. This outing is first and foremost an excellent way to get insight into village life in the region. Secondly, in the dry season you get to cross the impressive bamboo bridge.
Koh Paen is a 10 km-long island in the Mekong River just southeast of Kampong Cham. Here the town life of Kampong Cham quickly yields to the rural lifestyle. Ox cart wagons are used in favor of trucks, neighbors help one another with the corn and tobacco harvest, and those who aren’t farming or raising cattle, make for the river to catch fish. One lane dirt roads criss-cross the island and dust kicks up every time kids ride past on a bicycle.
Koh Paen is the perfect place to ride a bicycle that you’ve rented in Kampong Cham. It’s flat and when you get hot there’ll be an opportunity to rest and drink a coconut from a roadside stall. The wooden houses here are all built on stilts and people are quite friendly. If you show an interest in their life, they’ll probably try to communicate with you. When I cycled around the island there were no shortage of people sorting through recently picked corn, hanging tobacco to dry, and mending fish nets.
There are only two ways to get Koh Paen. In the rainy season, you’ll cross by boat. In the dry season you’ll walk or ride across the 900-meter-long bamboo bridge. It’s surprisingly strong (cars and trucks can pass over!) and hand made every year at the beginning of dry season. It costs foreigners US $1 to cross (return) and half the fun is hearing the crackling of the bamboo under your bike tires. Believe it or not, the bridge washes away when the rainy season emerges and all the toil used to carefully construct the structure washes down the Mekong.
Cycling across the Kampong Cham Bamboo bridge to Koh Paen Island is just one of a few things to do around this city on the Mekong River. After you walk around the old colonial center, head a couple kilometers west of town to Wat Nokor, a fantastic complex situated around an 11th century temple. Another day trip could be a slow motorbike ride north along the Mekong to Wat Hanchey (Temple).