Often overlooked, the area is full of surprises for the unsuspecting traveler.
“It’s beautiful,” whispers 10 year-old Beang Sokha, staring up at the images painted on the vivid blue ceiling. “Because… because of the amazing pictures.”
Sokha is one of a gaggle of young boys who rushed to throw open the shutters to the wooden temple as we arrived at Wat Maha Leap, a collection of buildings not far from the banks of the Mekong river in Kampong Cham province.
Once there is enough light to see properly, Abbot Kien Chantha begins his talk.
“This is the oldest wooden religious building in Cambodia,” explains the 33-year-old head of the Wat and leader to five other young monks.
“It was built 138 years ago and has been in constant use since then,” he says. These days, a newly constructed concrete pagoda and monk’s quarters mean that the wooden temple, known as the Preah Vihear – meaning Sacred Shrine – is used only for important events, such as the ordaining of new monks, and the piles of bat and pigeon guano on the floor signal that there are few such events.
It had taken us about 50 minutes on motorbikes to reach Wat Maha Leap from Kampong Cham city, passing through innumerable small hamlets along the way, with farmers drying tobacco leaves and corn by the road side. And it had been worth it.
The colorful tiled floors, ornate golden relief designs on the wooden pillars and walls are all in remarkably good condition, but the blue ceiling especially draws the eye, with its depictions of Garuda and other deities.
As the young boys look on, Chantha explains the other images, which run around the clay-tiled ceiling.
“They show the birth, life and death of the Buddha,” he says, pointing to the different depictions, although admitting that he couldn’t remember the significance of all of them.
And yet despite the beauty of the building, he says that few tourists come to visit, a refrain we are to hear at many of the sites visited during the next few days. We are here to explore one of Cambodia’s most overlooked cities, Kampong Cham, a place known more as a pit-stop on the way to more obviously exciting landmarks than as a destination of its own. Only two hours from Phnom Penh, much of it on the newly resurfaced National Road 6, the journey is a joy. Passing farms thirstily drinking in the first rains of the year, the road also goes through the town of Skoun, famous for its fried tarantulas.
As a base, the city offers a variety of short trips, especially geared to history buffs who don’t mind getting off the beaten track. From speaking with Chantha, it’s clear that word of the area’s beauty is still a well-kept secret.
“If more tourists come they can bring money to help us restore the building,” he suggests. Steel support girders on the ceiling show the work required to keep this antique structure upright, and gaps in the clay tiled roof suggest it is a battle that is constantly being fought.
Indeed, it is likely only due to a famous historical figure that the building is still standing today.
According to Chantha, it is the ordination place of Samdech Nil Teang, the Supreme Patriarch and leader of the largest sect of Thai Therava Buddhism, Maha Nikaya. Teang died in 1913, at the age of 90.
“It was also used as a regional hospital by the Khmer Rouge,” he says, showing how the cadres covered up the paintings but didn’t destroy the building.
Seventy kilometers in the opposite direction, in the neighboring province of Tbong Khmum, lies the ethnic Cham village of Svay Kleang. It too is home to an old religious building, which managed to escape the ravages of time, albeit not unscathed.
While the old village mosque was razed to the ground as the Khmer Rouge evacuated residents in 1977, 59 year-old Sman Patri explains that the adjoining brick tower had been spared.
“Maybe it was too difficult to destroy,” he suggests.
Two hours by motorbike north of Kampong Cham city, reached down a narrow dirt track just after crossing the metal bridge into the village, you pass through a bustling market before suddenly coming to the somewhat forlorn looking tower, now little more than a traffic obstruction, with the track forking around it.
“It is important; it is a symbol of our religion,” says the village’s Deputy Hakim (a muslim local authority) Tes Sen, underneath his wooden stilt house not far from the tower.
“Some say it was built in 1860, some even before that,” he says. He explains that the mosque had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in retaliation, after crushing an armed uprising in the village in 1975, one of the three known “Cham Rebellions.” With the mosque gone, he says they didn’t need to demolish the brick minaret.
It wasn’t until 1982 that a new wooden mosque was completed in the village, and a new concrete one is on the way. Despite the community’s desire for restoration of the minaret, he says the funds are unavailable at the moment.
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Heading back towards the city, travelers have two options: take the ferry across the Mekong at Trea village – itself the site of Cham resistance to the Khmer Rouge in 1973 – and then down the left bank of the Mekong on smooth roads, or dive into the heartland of the rural area and continue along the right bank, passing through the patchwork of Cham and Khmer villages that make up this part of the Cambodia. With the surface alternating between asphalt, concrete and mud, the journey is not for the faint hearted, but the reward is tremendous.
By taking this route, the newly concreted section of the road passes below arguably Kampong Cham’s most well-known attraction, the French colonial watchtower, visible from the city and by anyone crossing the Mekong on the Japanese-built Kazuna bridge, heading towards Mondulkiri and beyond.
According to the man in charge of preserving it, the tower will soon be getting a permanent light on top, courtesy of the city authorities, although he wasn’t exactly sure why.
Hieng Roeun, 54, explains that the tower had been used by French military to watch traffic coming up the river, and at one time the French had a small garrison next to the base.
He wasn’t sure how old it was, but various online sources say it is at least 100 years old.
“It was still in use until Sihanouk’s time,” he says, although he is unsure if the government or Khmer Rouge forces had ever made use of it.
The view from the top, once the brave have climbed the near vertical metal staircase, is glorious; the city, the river, and the seemingly endless rubber plantations for which the French valued this part of their Indochinese empire stretch into the distance.
To the south, the large island of Koh Paen is clearly visible. Reaching the island, however, is an adventure all by itself.
During the dry season, largely November to June, an almost 1 kilometer long bamboo bridge is constructed annually, making it quite possibly the world’s longest such bridge.
It costs Yong Oun, 56, between $50,000 and $60,000 to build each year, in addition to the $80,000 annual license he needs to buy from the Ministry of Public Works; he recoups the cost by charging a toll to passengers of 1000 riel for locals and $1 for foreigners. With only 30 percent of the previous year’s bridge being reusable, it requires a team of 30 to 40 laborers working for a week to build, he says, as well as a lot of bamboo.
Open 24-hours, between 500-1000 people cross each day, he says. Motorbikes, cars and horse drawn carriages pass by while we talk.
Oun’s business may be in jeopardy, however, as a new permanent bridge is due to be completed by next summer, which will put Oun out of business.
“Once the new bridge comes, then there will be zero people crossing, and no more bamboo bridge,” he says, thus ending a practice that dates back at least fifty years, only pausing under the Khmer Rouge.
With this year’s drought, he predicts that the bridge will remain open until the end of June at the latest. The drought also means that the sandbar at the northern tip of the island is even larger this year, allowing mainly local people to come to relax and swim.
Though the rickety bridge feels like it will buck you off at any moment, Oun swears that it has never suffered such an incident. It is far more dangerous for the construction crew, he says, showing scars to his hands from deep lacerations. Pum Saron, 55, who has constructed the bridge each summer for as long as he can remember, is even less lucky. An accident involving a mallet in 2000 led to the loss of a pinky finger.
While next year will likely be the last time the bridge is constructed, Mr. Oun says he won’t necessarily be too sad. The cost and effort involved in making it each year is not financially rewarding enough for his liking.
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On the way back into town at sunset, one is instantly reminded of Phnom Penh’s riverside, and of how different Kampong Cham feels to the capital.
While renovations for the now annual River Festival have made for a clinical and twee riverside area, complete with garishly lit water features and miles of concrete slabs, the oblivious young couples and packs of exercising retirees make the area feel far more lived in than Phnom Penh’s equivalent waterfront area.
A handful of tourist-oriented guesthouses and restaurants cling to a block or so of the riverfront area; otherwise the town is truly provincial in feel. Lacking the crumbling charm of Kampot or Battambang, it feels altogether more prosperous, and perfectly content to carry on without the need for tourists.
Which is not to mean there aren’t things for people to see. Far from it. Boasting its own Angkor-era temple ruins, tours of rubber plantations, and easily accessible rural villages, exploring for the unexpected makes Kampong Cham a joy to visit.
On a hillock, about 7 km northwest of town, sits a more modern attraction than elsewhere in the province. The site of the former United States military-built airport, it is now largely a strip of gravel surrounded by scrubland.
The forlorn remains of the control tower are all that stand of what was once one in a series of airstrips dotted around the country, used not only to allow quicker access to the more remote provinces, but to support the government troops of Lon Nol in their unsuccessful fight against the Khmer Rouge.
Shelled in 1975, the airport hasn’t seen a plane land since, explained Ma Buto, Deputy chief of Ro Ang commune’s Administration department. He has lived in a small police hut next to the runway since he was transferred here 20 years ago, after losing a leg to a landmine while fighting against the Khmer Rouge in Pailin in 1995.
Insisting that the airport had only ever been for civilian passengers during the Sihanouk era, he says it is now used for storage for the new bridge to Koh Paen, and for the occasional helicopter landing.
“Two people from the Prime Minister’s cabinet came on May 24,” he says, consulting his phone for details and showing off photographs of the event. “This year only one helicopter has landed. Sometimes there can be no landings for a whole year,” he explains.
His task when people do come, he says, is mainly to ensure the free-roaming cows don’t get in the way. Buto, who hasn’t himself ever flown in a plane or helicopter, says he would love for the site to be developed as an airport again, but admitted it probably wasn’t realistic.
“Now that the roads are so good to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, there isn’t really much need. Maybe an international airport?”
A monk prays at Wat Maha Leap in Kampong Cham Province. KT/Fabien Mouret
What’s left of the old mosque in Svay Klean village. KT/Fabien Mouret
Deputy Hakim Tes Sen of Svay Klean village. KT/Fabien Mouret