Visitors to sleepy Kompong Cham are surprised to hear it’s the capital of Cambodia’s most populous province. The province derives its name from the ethnic Cham, or Chinese Muslims, who inhabit many of its villages.
One of the many legends about the town’s history explains that a fish swallowed a Cambodian boy whose father was bathing him in the river. The fish swam to China where fishermen caught him and sliced him open, revealing a live child. The emperor raised the boy as his own. Years later, the prince returned with ships full of Chinese sailors to populate the land that became known as Kompong Cham.
The Mekong River splits this fertile land, which is home to numerous cashew and rubber plantations.
Because the tourism hubs of Angkor Wat to the northwest and the coast to the southwest overshadow this region, it retains its original charm. Locals are quick to point out their city’s merits, reminding visitors that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen was born there and that it’s the home to notable historic landmarks, such as Wat Nokor and Han Chey.
The local government takes great pains to maintain the town and attract new business. Though the exterior of the city’s French colonial buildings often seem to be in a state of decomposition, the actual infrastructure is surprisingly functional, with wide boulevards, a riverfront promenade and a picturesque bridge expediting tourism and trade with points east.
Well-maintained gardens and Angkorian-themed statues grace the city’s medians and central squares. At night, ornate lampposts and illuminated water fountains light up the town’s main street, Monivong Boulevard.
Most travellers use Kompong Cham as a layover on the journey from Phnom Penh to the provinces of Kratie or the Mondulkiri plateau (visible from several of the hilltop pagodas outside the city centre). But Kompong Cham is worth an extended visit for its own merits.
Nearby temples dating to the 6th century AD reveal Cambodia’s oldest remnants of Angkorian architecture. Travelling to these temples is as enjoyable as the visits themselves. Rent a moto ($6, 24,000 riel) and speed alongside the Mekong River, beside rice paddies and over tree-lined streets. Hire a boat driver and meander through winding Mekong tributaries where villagers pass in boats made from hollow tree trunks and fishermen stand on the banks, swooping wide nets through the water.