There’s a bamboo bridge in Kompong Cham that leads to the tiny island of Koh Paen in the middle of the Mekong. Every wet season, the river washes the bridge away. Every dry season, the villagers rebuild it.
I felt compelled to see this bridge.
I took a bus from Kratie to the nearby town of Kompong Cham with the main purpose of visiting Koh Paen, and getting off the main tourist track and away from the Banana Pancake Trail.
The bus was supposed to take 4 hours so of course – it took 6.
I’ve realized there is a very dependable formula for determining the length of a bus ride in Asia :
(time you were told) x 1.5 = actual time
It’s just the way it is, and I plan on it. No reason to stress, the scenery is pretty, and though the Cambodian buses are usually far from comfortable, I am beyond thankful if at least the aircon is working or the windows open. Because sometimes they aren’t.
I don’t usually take taxi suggestions for where to stay – because the places tend to be overpriced as the driver takes a kickback.
But in this case, I realized upon arriving that Kompong Cham is teeny tiny, and there aren’t many choices.
One of the moto taxis awaiting the arrival of the bus had awesome English and seemed like a legit guy so I asked for his recommendation for a guesthouse under $5. He took me to a place next to the river (Ponleu Rasmei as per the nameplate), and waited while I checked it out. 3rd floor, fan cooled, PRIVATE bathroom (!), and even better – my own balcony!
My moto translated for the guesthouse manager, who spoke no English, and I paid them each their due, was given an extra set of padlocks, and went upstairs to nap off the heat of the day.
While an awesome budget find, the place lacks wifi. Or, I lack the language ability to ascertain whether there’s wifi.
Luckily, there’s a nice little coffee place a few doors down across the street – Destiny. It supports an NGO, and had fast/free wifi, friendly service, and great shakes and food (at reasonable prices).
The town, Kompong Cham, is definitely not on the tourist short list.
Aside from the manager at Destiny, I didn’t seen any other foreigners. Which is really interesting for me! But also slightly lonely – I would love to meet some Khmers, but aside from staring at me, no one is very interested (language barrier is a much bigger issue in non-touristy areas). Except for the teenage boys, who shove each other until one of them shouts an embarrassed ‘hello!’ and then covers his face in his hands while his buddies giggle and cheer. And the toddlers, who all smile big and wave nonstop while yelling ‘halloooooo halloooooo!’
Sometimes women my own age will try to talk to me, the usual questions – where are you going, where are you from, why are you in Cambodia, are you alone?- but then eventually the words run out and they turn to their girlfriends and laugh, and I’m not sure whether it’s at me, for being a sweaty and unusual looking foreigner so out of place.
While tiny, Kompong Cham has some surprisingly great restaurant options – especially for vegetarians. Mekong Crossing has amazing salad (Western style, with lots of veggies and light on dressing) and myriad vegetarian options.
I rented a bike (with basket and lock) for $1 from Mekong Daze bar. It’s a must for visiting Koh Paen – the island linked to Kompong Cham by the famous bamboo bridge – and for touring around the sleepy little town itself.
Sunrise over the Mekong in the morning
Finding the path to the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen was quite confusing. Or maybe it’s just me – I’m so bad with directions.
To find it, follow the road along the Mekong until you see an opening in the barrier that follows the entire length of the walking path along the road. Or just ask anyone “bamboo bridge”.
The bridge itself is amazing. Built entirely of bamboo every dry season, every monsoon it is washed away.
It is strong enough to withstand the weight of any vehicle, even trucks.
Its springy surface of flattened bamboo makes for an uneven, off kilter ride, and combined with the lack of side rails to prevent you from falling into the river, it’s quite the scary experience. Add the motorbikes rushing past and the horse carts charging by (yes, horse carts are a very common sight on Koh Paen – awesome!), it’s one of the more unnerving bridges I’ve crossed. (Bridge fee is 1000 riel with return)
Once on Koh Paen, the terrifying bridge crossing just a memory (until you have to go back!), it’s impossible not to relax. The 5 hours I was there, I didn’t see one other tourist. Success.
As usual in the more rural villages, small children greeted me with a chorus of ‘hello!’s, and even the adults smiled and waved. A girl on her way to school biked with me for a bit, asking the usual questions. She was shocked when I said I was 24 and not married. She told me she was 17 and wanted to study instead, that’s why she wasn’t married yet.
The island is quiet and full of interesting sites, including temples, schools, rice paddies, and livestock everywhere.
After finishing up a morning of biking, I recommend lunch at Khmer Food restaurant (lovely tofu salad for $2 right on the Mekong). It was one of my favorite salads in all of Asia. Simple yet delicious and with great spices.