After a few days I was beyond ready to get out of the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh and so I set my sights on the smaller city of Kampong Cham. I didn't know much about what there would be fore me to do there but I figured if it was anything like Kampot I wouldn't have any problems. The bus ride was bearable but would have been nicer if they let me put my big backpack under the bus, instead of stuffing it in between my feet. Also I've decided that no matter where your traveling to or from in Cambodia the estimated travel time is 5 hours.
I spent my first afternoon exploring the city by foot which wasn't too hard as the central area only spans a few city blocks. The eastern side of the city is bordered by a beautiful river so I had no problem spending some time relaxing there and finishing my book. By the time the sun was setting my stomach was growling so I decided to check out the popular NGO in town, Smile restaurant. The restaurant aims to teach orphans and other venerable children skills to help them succeed in life. Here the kids can learn cooking, service, English and restaurant management while visitors can learn about some of the hardships children in Cambodia face. I loved the layout of the restaurant and the food was pretty good too, had I stayed in the city longer I probably would have made a second stop.
The next morning I chose to do some penny-pinching and visited the local market for my breakfast, which was an awesome idea on my part. For a grand total of about one dollar and fifty cents, I came away with a delicious iced coffee, Chinese style pork bun, fresh mango and some mysterious deep fried dough. The least amount of money I'd spent on a meal thus far and I couldn't even finish it all.
After enjoying my haul by the river I made my way back to the guesthouse so I could meet Dara's (my tuk-tuk driver from Siem Reap) brother, Seng Hour, whom we agreed would pick me up at 9 o'clock to show me around town. He was there on time, holding a sign with my name on it and greeting me with a big friendly smile. Clearly a little shy about speaking English, but also eager to improve I was unsure exactly how this day would go. We started the day with a drive out to Nokor Wat, an Angkorian era temple dating back to the 11th century. Despite his limited English and having to navigate his way through traffic Seng Hour spent a good portion of the ride trying to talk to me and even managed to take a phone call.
The temple, being one of the first of it's kind I've seen, was extremely impressive. We spent a good deal of time walking in and around the different portions of the temple and surrounding area. The heat was extreme but thankfully there were a few patches of shade we could escape to. Seng Hour was clearly eager to improve his English as he kept asking me what things were, unfortunately though he was asking questions I could not give answers to, my knowledge of types of trees is not that great.
After a few hours here we drove across town so we could take a ride over the new(ish) bridge,to the opposite side of the Mekong in a small village. There's not much to see on the opposite side of the river but we did decide to climb the rickety stairs to the top of the French lookout tower which offered some great views out over the river and city.
After the tower it was time to head into the countryside where I was to have lunch with his family, awesome bonus. As I arrived the entire family, plus a few more, welcomed me with warm smiles. I was led upstairs and told to sit and relax while they finished preparing lunch. I know it's customary for the guest to be waited on like that but I hate sitting around feeling useless while others serve me, I suppose it would have been rude to do otherwise. They set out the food and were urging me to eat but no one else had sat down to join me yet, I wasn't about to eat alone so I told them together, I can wait. Eventually they joined and lunch was delicious, fried eggs with a Cambodian green vegetable (not sure what the English equivalent is), green beans with pork, and some amazingly juicy mango.
A few more family members joined and I was soon handed a beer, which was quite refreshing, but not necessary. There was a young boy that sat down to talk with me for a while and I was thoroughly impressed with his English. I'm not sure if he was part of the family or a neighbor that just wanted to come and chat with the foreigner, but he was an extremely intelligent boy. Unfortunately, we didn't have too long to talk to each other as he had to get back to school for afternoon classes. After taking some time to rest and shower (yes they had me shower so I could be refreshed for the afternoon) it was time to head back out for some more sightseeing.
This time Rithy, a brother in-law decided to join us as he was done with work, so I had not one but two tour guides for the afternoon, lucky me! We started with a drive out to the twin mountains Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei (man and woman) which are thus named because of competition between the two genders to see who could build a better temple. The first Phnom Pros has a five-peaked temple at the top from which you can get some decent views of the city, as well as a glimpse of Phnom Srei which lies about 1000 meters to the North. Between the two there is a vast field, one of the many killing fields that spread across this country and a few impressive Buddha statues. We made our way through the temple and across the field before arriving at Phnom Srei which houses an old temple at the top of 308 stairs.
After the mountain temples I didn't have anywhere else in particular I wanted to visit, so the boys took it upon themselves to just drive me around. We took a scenic drive along the river and through some smaller villages, stopped for a refreshing sugar palm drink and then decided to take a drive across the bamboo bridge. The bridge itself is impressive but what's even more interesting is that they have to rebuild it every year after the high waters of the rainy season wash it away.
The bridge connects the city to Ko Paen island which doesn't have much more than a small fishing village, a few sandy beaches and tobacco plantations. The ride over the bridge was pretty cool in and of itself but we spent some time watching the fisherman bring in their day's work, I can say that I'm glad to not have that job. Ultimately this turned into me buying a kilo of the freshly caught fish which the boys offered to take back to their place and cook for dinner, which of course I was invited to.
Although I was tired and easily could have went to pass out in my room I took the boys up on their offer and returned to their house for dinner. A few family members seemed surprised to see me again, but I was told to sit and relax while they prepared dinner. One sister asked me for money to buy beef (if I wanted it) which left me confused because I had just bought fish and was told that was what we were having for dinner. I told her I didn't want beef, so she disappeared, a bit annoyed. Eventually the boys came back and one asked if I wanted 'pot luck' dinner, just $5 and he could go buy it. I was again confused, but just went with it and handed over the money. He returned faster than anticipated and told me there was no food left but instead he could buy beer, if that was okay.
Just as he came back with the beers his mom entered with a platter full of food, including the fish and instructed me it was time to eat. I have no idea what all the other food talk was about but decided to brush it off and enjoy what was presented to me and enjoy my company. Before long aunts, uncles and cousins showed up and we were soon drinking and having a great night. Although it was probably a little outside the norm of what many tourists experience during their visit to the sleepy town of Kampong Cham I was beyond pleased with how my two days went. I even left with instructions that I must return and when I do so "no guesthouse, you can stay here, no problem!" Glad to know I now have a Cambodian family whom I can visit whenever I so please.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.