Delightful Provincial Cambodia 4 – Kompong Cham Town
In Phnom Penh, we steer the Isuzu jeep across the Japanese bridge and go north on highway 6 along the Mekong. 22 kilometers on, the main highway moves away from the river. But we follow a very small road that – according to the "Cambodia" Gecko Map – continues to hug the western riverbank and even is shorter on our way to Kompong Cham.
This road is very dusty and bumpy, and the villages around aren't as picturesque as, for example, in the hinterlands of Battambang or Kampot. Most of the time, houses and trees block the river view, except for a few stunning places with mud cliffs and fish farms.
Finally we roll into Kompong Cham, a provincial capital 120 kilometers away from Phnom Penh.
— INTO TOWN —
To be honest, Kompong Cham is just a stopover on our way to Mondulkiri, Cambodia's "wild east" (see later articles). Anyway, in Kompong Cham I hope to meet another delightful piece of provincial Cambodia, something in the range of quaint Kampot or Svay Rieng towns.
The best hotels in town are in the ten-dollars-range. From Pursat and elsewhere we know what that means: rambling one-mode-air-con, tiled floor and a so-so all-in-one bathroom where the shower sprays right onto your toilet seat, onto your toilet paper and towels. This shower may be hot or cold-only, but in this hot season not even I need hot water. We opt for the Mekong Hotel, where our room has a view of Kazuna bridge – Cambodia's only bridge spanning mighty Mekong river, but no architectural highlight.
The corridors in Mekong Hotel are so wide you could park your A380 there; Norah, my Khmer lover, refuses to walk them alone. On our second stopover in town, on the way back from Mondulkiri, Norah demands a different hotel: "The corridors are TOO BIG, darling!!!" So we stay at Mittapheap Hotel, which has drab rooms comparable to Mekong Hotel, but hospital-like narrow corridors – much to Norah's liking.
For sunset we explore the riverside. Along Stung Mekong, Kompong Cham boasts a decent river promenade. It's wide and pleasant to walk, and not too many paving stones have been stolen so far. Actually, this riverside is even too big: There are only few vendors and not many strollers; no place for people watching. We had hoped for a cool wind, but in vain: On this late March evening, the town remains steaming hot and balmy into the late hours. I couldn't get decent work done there, and I couldn't live my life in a place like that.
— CULINARY EXPLORER —
After sunset, we try to find some of the more interesting restaurants from the guidebooks, but they don't materialize. Other places look appalling. We end up with noodle fast food at the dirty night market. Of course we spot "takalok"-stalls nearby. We order this traditional Khmer mixed fruit smoothie to our special liking – without sugar and raw egg. They tell us takalok is not possible without egg or sugar.
For the next takalok we find a different stall of course. Much to our satisfaction, the lady agrees to prepare our vitamin infusions without egg or sugar. But then it comes with lots of stinking durian – another item we have to countermand next time.
8.50 pm in Kompong Cham. Anything to do here? Oh, the place does have a western-run pub, called "Mekong Crossing". I study the sign outside which promises "Cocktails" in big letters, then we walk inside. To be welcomed by the western owner, according to Lonely Planet "The affable Joe": "You come for food? Sorry, too late. Kitchen already closed."
I ask him which cocktails they do. He rattles off four different spirits on the shelf and leaves it up to me which cocktails could be made of them. He has nothing fruity, no Mai Tai or Pina Colada is possible.
I surrender and order a soda lemon. Affable Joe: "Sorry, no lemons. Kitchen already closed."
On our second night in town, Norah refuses to try dinner in Joe's "Mekong Crossing". We drive slowly through town, until we discover a small string of roadside restaurants – two are empty, one is overcrowded, so we join this crowd. Soups, veggies and meat come pre-cooked from pots under display cases and are quite delicious. For food, two cokes and the usual free tea we pay a total of 2,50 USD.
At one point during our dinner I nearly faint. A lady with a baby on her arm stands next to our table. My brain is still damaged from Phnom Penh: Of course I expect the mother to tear off baby's clothes, shove kid into my face and demand "money, siiiir" in high pitch. But no, this is just quiet Kompong Cham. This mother looks out for friends, we never see any beggars in town.
— OVER THE BRIDGE —
Coming back from Mondulkiri, we take lunch near Kompong Cham, but on the eastern side of Mekong coast. Close to Kazuna bridge, several restaurants await customers on stilted platforms over rice fields. We stop the jeep at the first one. A waitress with a happy, surprised look runs towards us, wanting to assist in parking. Only now we realize that the parking lot is quite empty while the next eatery, 200 meters on, has lots of cars lined up. A waitress with a disappointed look gets smaller in the rear mirror, as we speed over to the other, busier resto.
We get our own small wooden picnic pavilion and are served delicious food by very attentive service. I wish 'pong Cham had *hotels* in the same line of quality. Unfortunately, our restaurant offers no lounging on floor or hammocks as in Phnom Penh; we have to sit on chairs. The soft breeze from the rice fields is a fake – it comes from a fan.
In this restaurant we see lots of rich looking Khmer and western guests. Many cars bear the "Government VIP" sign, among them fat black Benzes. After all, several of Cambodia's biggest noodles hail from Kompong Cham province, including strongman Hun Sen. His brother controls the province. Another family member has one of Kompong Cham's more interesting hotels, so of course I can't bring Norah to stay there.
Delightful Provincial Cambodia –
– 1 Kompong Chnang, Kompong Luong, Pursat Town
– 2 Pursat to Pramaui (Veal Veng District)
– 3 Pramaui to Thmordah (Veal Veng District)
– 4 Kompong Cham Town
– 5 Around Kompong Cham
– 6 Into Mondulkiri
– 7 Mondulkiri Elephant Outing
– 8 Mondulkiri Boo Sra
– 9 Out Of Mondulkiri
– 10 Bassac River Road 1 (Kandal Province)
– 11 Bassac River Road 2 (End)