Along the Mekong: To Kampong Cham
Having now lived in Cambodia for several months, I notice that many of the expats rarely ever leave the city. People generally think that two days is not enough time to go anywhere. Kampong Cham lies about 100km up the Mekong River, in an area where the river itself is quite wide and there are some big islands in the middle.
In early February I decided that I needed to get away from the city for the weekend. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a weekend, other than to do it on my bicycle. For this trip I decided to just pack the bare necessities into my handlebar bag, and to take nothing else. While many people think that all Cambodian roads are utter crap, there are lots of ways to go places that take you off the beaten path. For this trip, I decided to use the Naga Ferry to cross the Mekong and ride most of the way through rural Cambodia. This seemed the better alternative than staying on the west of the Mekong. For my route plan, I used Google Maps and input the walking route, which at times gave me some fun off-road and paddy field riding.
The 93 km route took me through all kinds of villages, at a pace where every kid has the chance to yell “hello” and “how are you”. I got the feeling that foreigners didn’t ride their bikes through these villages too often, as it twice required crossing the Mekong by boat. I started the ride at 8am on a Saturday. It definitely would have been better to leave around 6:30am, as this was the middle of the hot and dry season, and by 10am it was blistering hot. I managed to cover the distance fairly quickly, and reached Bamboo Hut Guesthouse near to Kampong Cham after 5 hours of riding, including the 7km stretch of dusty gravel road, and my few off-road escapades.
Bamboo Hut Guesthouse, owned by a French couple, has a series of gazebos with hammocks situated throughout. For $5 a night, there is no cheaper option other than camping somewhere. See as I was going light-weight, this fit the bill perfectly. This place is really popular with French backpackers, but I also met a few Germans, S. Africans, and also a few cycle tourists. We had a great night of drinking beers, playing card games and eating pizza which we ordered from a restaurant in Kampong Cham. My bad luck has it that I left my cycling shirt on a fence line to dry overnight near the path that runs through their property, and in the morning it was gone. The staff were shocked that this happened, but there was nothing we could do. Lesson learned. Leave clothing to dry inside the fence-line, where it is more safe.
When I went back three weeks later with my wife, we took the time to check out the town. Even though the town itself is not that interesting, there were a few things that people can check out. The most obvious is the Nokor Bachey Pagoda, an 11th century temple dedicated to Bhahmanism. The best part is that it’s free and you don’t need to pay to go explore. My wife and I did give the buddhist nun inside some money and she did a prayer for us. I figure that any old person in this country needs respect and a bit of help. They’ve been through a hell of a lot. The bamboo bridge between Kampong Cham and Koh Pen is also really cool and worth checking out, but be aware that there is a tourist fee you must pay. I think it was 5000 riel, or $1.25 US. Also noteworthy things to see are the Phnom Bros and Phnom Srei temples just north of the city. They have an interesting story, as Phnom Bros was used as a prison by the Khmer Rouge and you can well imaging what must have went on there. Lastly, head on over the Kizuna Bridge and check out the French lighthouse. I think it’s the first lighthouse I’ve ever seen on a river.
For the ride back to Phnom Penh, I decided to stick to follow the same route home, as I couldn’t imagine the west of the river being better. I did explore the western route a few weeks later with my wife when I took her to Kampong Cham by motorbike, and, as I had predicted, it was a long, dirty route with a ton of gravel sections and lots of potholes and traffic. I heard the highway was a nice ride, but I generally avoid those if I can. While cycling back to Phnom Penh, I didn’t do the off-road sections, but just stuck to the cement road that went through all the villages. When heading south to Phnom Penh, there is a strong headwind, which made my 93 km ride a tough ride. I also left quite late, as I was watching the hockey game (I know, very Canadian). This was a terrible idea, as I was in the beating sun for the entire 4.5 hour ride.
All in all, an excellent little weekend away from Phnom Penh. If you are a cycle tourist going towards Kampong Cham or coming from there, I highly recommend riding on the east side of the river. It gets you away from the busier west side, and best of all, there are a lot less trucks flying by.