Kampong Charm a little known town in Cambodia
Kampong Cham a small town on the banks of the Mekong River isn't a well known destination in Cambodia, however it fast became one of my favourite locations in this amazing Asian country.
Only three to four hours from the capital Phnom Penh, it is (or was when we visited in 2013) a great place to experience the real rural Cambodia. Its quite a few hours on a local bus, but the farming family we met kept us entertained with stories and games. We did learn some kind of game that I can only compare to pickup sticks. Pretty hard to play on a moving bus though.
About Kampong Cham
The “Cham” in Kampong Cham refers to the local Cham people, while the Kampong means port. Effectively it is the port of the Cham people.
Kompong Cham has a huge french colonial influence in the abandoned buildings around the city, but is also very Cambodian at the same time. Lots of dawn markets, busy streets, locals carrying sacks on their heads and not many westerners at all. Very charming indeed.
The Bamboo Bridge
Of the best days we had in Cambodia was the full day we spent at Kamong Cham. Our guide organised a cycle tour for us and to start we had to cycle over this very wobbly rickety bamboo bridge to Koh Pen, an island in the river.
The bridge gets rebuilt every year after the monsoon season is done and while it doesn't look that bad, it was close to terrifying to cycle over. The locals cross each other like its nothing but I was wobbling around like a crazy woman! Not only does the bamboo make it hard to ride across, it rocks from side to side as well so its like riding your bike across waves. So it is a bit scary riding over the bamboo bridge. Actually it was really scary and I might have let out a little girl scream more than once.
NB: Sadly the last time the bridge was rebuilt was in 2016. The government build a new concrete bridge so this experience will no longer be an option. I understand that the locals have been making their own pedestrian only bridge to try and keep the tourism alive however I'm not sure even that still happens.
Once we arrived on the island we did a little Tikki tour around the island on our bikes. All the local kids come running out screaming “Hello – Hello”. It was really fun and great to be riding bikes through the rice paddies. We all very much enjoyed our afternoon in the upstream delta of the mighty Mekong.
On to our home stay
Leaving Kampong Cham the next morning, our next stop was our homestay. Unfortunately I forgot my diary this day so I can’t for the life of me remember the village name, but I’m guessing it won’t matter to most of you…
This is a village of 740 families but it's more of a rural village. Originally it was a very rich rice growing area, but during the Pol Pot – Khmer Rouge era the villagers went into hiding and the land became very overgrown and heavily treed. When the villagers returned around 1987 there was no fields left to grow rice so they proceeded to fell and sell the large timber in the area. Of course they had no knowledge of the damage they were doing or the lack of sustainability of this process so they decimated thousands of acres of tall timber.
Then in around 1996, some environmentalists came and started to educate the village on the benefits of being aware of the environment they were living in. The villagers have since turned the area into an eco tourism destination and have 36 families that do homestays for visitors. It is Eco-tourism in the most remote sense of the word, but they have setup a community fund and have a very exacting process of splitting up money they earn throughout the community. The whole time we were there I kept thinking that it is really like the purest form of communism. Equality. Materially and statistically. The community grows and then individuals grow.
The other thing they have introduced is a women's kitchen facility. When you stay in the home stays you don't eat with the family, you eat at the Women's Kitchen. The women (who are widowed or divorced) take turns to cook for the visitors and that’s how they earn an income. It's a fantastic idea, awesome food, great service and superb to know that is keeping some families afloat.
We ate our full, watched some of the kids do a traditional dance show, played a few games, and took ourselves off to bed for an early night. You all sleep in the same room (about 6 to a room) so its a pretty entertaining evening. After a night of Nic snoring his box off, Adam chatting to lord knows who and the old favourite – the bamboo sleeping mattress – we were up at 5.45 for our waterfall trek
Hiking to the Waterfall and an Ox Cart Ride Home
They have a great jungle waterfall which we hiked up to and then rode the ox carts back some of the way. Another community initiative. The ox cart drivers rotate to earn extra income when they are not tending their rice crops. It is really a great “family” community. I loved not only the idea of it but to see the actual success in a community was really inspiring. We could all learn a lot from the community spirit they have carefully cultivated.
While this was very much a part of our Intrepid tour, we did meet one German girl at the home stay who had found it herself. If you wanted to find it independent of a tour, my first point of call would be contacting Intrepid. If they don't do it as a stand alone trip, I would be very surprised. It is really worth doing if you can. The bus ride is about 3 hours from Phnom Penh and both the accommodations and the food are first class (think bamboo mats and mozzie nets though – a hotel its not).
Tips for this homestay trip:
- Make sure your iPod is charged for the bus trip, (wow how old was this post – now its all about music on your phone!)
- Check with the kitchen if you have any food allergies – nuts and soy are used heavily.
- A small personal torch or book light is essential if you aren't someone that can go to bed at 9pm when the lights go out.
- Ensure you have rubber thongs for bathing. The floor is dirt and you will need clean feet to go to bed.
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Check out these TourRadar Tours of Cambodia that are under $1500 AUD. Up to 12 days in length these tours are from reputable operators like Intrepid Travel or G Adventures.