Until very recently, Kampong Thom was one of those overlooked regions of Cambodia, with travellers steaming towards the newly discovered grandeur at Angkor or the glitz and gore of Phnom Penh. Situated perfectly between the two major tourist destinations, lying around 160kms or three hours from each, Kampong Thom is now slowly being recognised as equally satisfying, and those fortunate enough to spend time here have access to a wondrous range of unique, yet indelibly Cambodian sights and attractions.
Kampong Thom is also the starting point for the remote and seldom visited jungle plains of northern Cambodia, with moto trips able to be arranged from here to the majestic Preah Vihear Temple, and onward to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng, the site where Pol Pot is alleged to have died.
Brief guide to Kampong Thom
Lying on the banks of the serpentine Stung Treng River, which winds its way south to connect with the Tonle Sap River at the foot of the iconic Tonle Sap Lake, the district is blessed with several outstanding wildlife regions that thrive as the great lake ebbs and flows. Under an hour away from the city centre are the pre-Angkorian ruins of the ancient Chenla capital at Sambor Prei Kuk, where the 100-plus temples are among the oldest and most untouched in the land.
The countryside around the bustling yet quaint provincial capital of Cambodia’s second-largest province is an explorer’s paradise, with grassland marshes teeming with incredible birdlife such as pelicans and storks, verdant rice paddies and fruit fields sitting alongside stilted fishing villages full of wonderfully hospitable Khmers.
The town itself is picturesque, compact, relaxed and typically full of character and characters, and remains largely unspoilt by mass tourism. Orientation and transport in Kampong Thom is straightforward, with the new market and the bus station flanking the NH6 at the heart of the city. Wandering the streets is rewarding and getting lost, which is half the fun, is nearly impossible.
South of the central block, streets are numbered from one to nine on the western side of the road, and two to twelve on the eastern. Two minutes walk north and you reach the river, where the old Japanese-built bridge sits alongside the kangaroos of the newer Australian version. Streets start from 101 across the bridge with the same left/ right numbering, though the most interesting walk is along the waterfront.
The range of accommodation in Kampong Thom is gradually improving, and there are now at least three upscale hotels in addition to several mid-range versions, while half a dozen seasoned guesthouses provide Western travellers with all the creature comforts such as television, air-conditioning, internet and travel advice. There are also a heap of US$1 a night places around the bus station for the truly adventurous or budget conscious.
The area opposite the new market, completed in 2008, is the focal point for local food vendors and features a selection of delicious tukalok (fruit shakes), sautéed fish and the obligatory spam baguettes and sticky rice. As with all of rural Cambodia, anything that moves can be fried or barbequed, meaning plenty of meat-on-a-stick variations and a dizzying array of edible insects.
There are several notable restaurants in Kampong Thom specialising in both Western favourites and traditional Khmer dishes, with a stretch of local venues south of the city popular with Cambodian travelling businessmen and local elite. The location of the town, surrounded by riverine sources, means fish-based delicacies, such as the fabled amok, are among the best in the land.
While the upgrading of the National Highway 6 (NH6) between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, which was heavily bombed by the US during the time of the Khmer Rouge, means the trip between the two cities can now be made in half a day, a stopover in Kampong Thom is highly recommended, wonderfully practical and richly rewarding. Discover it now, before the rest of the world turns shows up.