Last update: August 2023
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Kampong Thom, the province lies in the heart of Central Cambodia. The name translates into “great harbor” or “great port”. Its capital Stung Saen (pop: 30,000) is about halfway between Siem Reap (150km) and Phnom Penh (170km).
While still off the beaten track for the time being, this province on the Stung Sen river is gaining popularity among tourists fast. Rather than getting caught in the Angkor Wat hysteria they opt to behold some of most significant Khmer temple sites in a more peaceful and tranquil setting. Even more so, they also come to experience what might be the purest of rural Cambodia.
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Kampong Thom is characterized by its cultural and natural heritage. Along the banks of the Stung Sen River, the region offers a blend of lush landscapes, rural villages, and historical sites. We were surprised by the ancient temples, some of them more than 400 years older than Angkor Wat.
This region is of great historical significance for Cambodia. Its connection to the ancient Khmer Empire that once ruled the larger part of Southeast Asia is evident.
The climate is tropical with hot and humid conditions throughout the year. Temperatures range from 25 to 35 degrees Celsius. Wet season typically lasts from May to October with heavy rain showers and floods that occur on a regular basis. Dry season spans from November to April and has slightly cooler temperatures.
Also, the nature of Kampong Thom is stunning. As part of the Tonle Sap biosphere, the landscape is a magic combo of both marine and rural nature that completely left us in awe. Kampong Thom is perfect to immerse yourself in the charm of Cambodia’s heartland.
The landscape seamlessly blends natural beauty with historical charm. Surrounded by lush greenery, the province is home to scenic rice fields, meandering rivers, and serene lakes. The rolling hills offer perfect views, while dense forests invite you to discover its hidden treasures.
The municipality of Stung Saen serves as the capital of Kampong Thom province. It’s not really a city, but consists of multiple villages and stretches out across a large area. All in all the town is most serene and tranquil with just a few streets that are more busy.
Typical Khmer architecture is visible from the shop houses and the aromas of street food are everywhere. What we found most endearing was the open attitude of the locals. Not yet overwhelmed by mass tourism they demonstrate genuine kindness and a charming curiosity. It was a delight communicating and interacting with the most friendly people we have met on our journeys so far.
Kampong Thom Market
1 to 2 hour activity
If you are going to visit one market in Cambodia, this should be the one. It’s not the biggest (although quite big) and it doesn’t have the grandeur of the Central Market in Phnom Penh. We liked this market in particular, because it lacks all the souvenir knick knacks and tourist trinkets. Sure, a lot of t-shirts and clothing, but not for tourists, unless you’re interested in a silk scarf or maybe locally made flip flops. In short, a real locals market.
What’s also great is the spectacular wet market. Meat vendors crouching on countertops right next to the chopping block and surrounded by gory cuts of meat. Fresh fish and seafood in ice buckets, but also heaps of pungent smelling sun dried exemplars. Multi colored fruits and vegetables stacked three feet high. Herbs and spices, bags of rice, crates filled to the brim with coconuts, everything goes. All of your senses are pushed to the max, but it’s real, authentic and exactly what you want out of travel.
Let’s not forget the smiles. Nowhere at any other market in Southeast Asia did we meet so many friendly smiles.
1 hour to whole day activity
A boat ride on the Stung Sen river is a real treat. Either go for one hour ($10) or a full day ($50) and see how the locals live on the water. Kids swimming, fisherman casting their nets, farmers washing their cattle. Isn’t this exactly what you came to find in Cambodia? Sambor Village Hotel organizes boat tours that also make a stop at the boat temple Sampow Trailok Traileak, which is a weird looking temple indeed.
Criss cross through the Kampong Thom countryside
Half day to whole day activity
Rent a bicycle or motorbike and just get lost in the countryside. Or else, ask your guesthouse to arrange a tuk-tuk for the day to take you to the highlight attractions. Once you venture off the main route 6, small roads will take you through villages, dense forests and endless rice fields. Take in the soothing views of rural Cambodia and experience village life close up.
From Stung Saen town, start your trip by heading South on road 6 to the interesting site of Kok Roka Temple, an inclining temple tower. Next is Phnom Santuk (admission $2), a hill with a pagoda on top that requires you to climb 809 steps to reach it. If you don’t feel like climbing you should approach the pagoda from the North side where you can drive up.
The Santuk silk farm on route 6 just before you turn left to Phnom Santuk is where you can witness the silk production process from worm to krama (iconic Cambodian scarf). Interesting to watch and a chance to support the local artisans. A bit further down route 6 is a neat little restaurant named Kravanh. A perfect spot for your well deserved lunch break. Very friendly people that serve excellent Khmer food for a small price.
Ancient temple site
3 hour to half day activity (incl transport)
Sambor Prei Kuk is an ancient temple site featuring more than a hundred remaining structures. Some of them outdate Angkor Wat by multiple centuries. Dedicated to the Hindu Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva the somewhat neglected state of the temples only adds to the mystique. Surrounded by luscious green forest some of the structures are overgrown by trunks and roots of large trees. Most noteworthy is the complete lack of other visitors, which gives the whole scene a magical atmosphere.
To get there go North from the Stung Sen bridge on route 6 for 5km and switch to route 62. After another 10km switch to road 219 and continue for 15km to get to the temple site. The site opens everyday from 7am to 5pm, admission $3. If you fancy it, there are several homestays in the direct vicinity.
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Your best bet is to stay in Stung Saen as it will be difficult to find decent accommodation in the countryside. Also, you’ll have access to nearby food options and amenities like convenience stores, motorbike rental and a few bars. Don’t expect any real luxury though. With a few exceptions, guesthouses are basic at best. Most of them are in the town center just South of the Stung Sen bridge and along the part of route 6 that cuts through town.
Sambor Village Hotel
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
Without a doubt the most popular choice of stay in Kampong Thom and with good reason. The bungalow style hotel boasts an outdoor pool, free wifi, inclusive breakfast, free bicycle use and Stung Sen river views. As a result they are almost always completely booked, so be quick. There’s a decent restaurant on site as well.
Santepheap Guest House
Dirt Cheap = up to $10
Budget = from $10 to $30
Typical Khmer guest house. Very basic, but clean and close to the Kampong Thom market. No breakfast included, but plenty of options within walking distance. The staff is friendly and very helpful with arranging transport, etc. Choice between fan and aircon rooms.
Long time local favorite just opposite the fish market. Indeed, expect grilled, fried fish and seafood on the menu, but not only. There are plenty of other dishes to choose from with exotic names I cannot remember. We really had a delicious meal here, which was also insanely cheap.
Expect to be totally rubbing shoulders with the locals at Prum Bayon as the place is always packed. What an experience though, drinking beers with ice cubes and toasting with the locals.
The star of Kampong Thom in Stung Saen town. At lunch the Arunras restaurant is popular with locals and as they say you should always eat where the locals go. You can go for the local food, but maybe not every dish will suit your palate. I say maybe, since I’m talking fried crickets, beetles and other creepy crawlies. Not really recommended though, it’s not that tasty, but if you feel adventurous, why not?
Don’t worry, they serve different fried rice/fried noodles and vegetarian dishes as well. Sweet and sour fish, omelets and yes even burgers and fries, which are excellent by the way. Arunras also made quite a name with their Khmer desserts and great coffee. If you’re planning for dinner, come early, the restaurants closes shortly after 9pm.
Delicious Khmer food, you really have to try Meatophum restaurant. It’s perfect to sample authentic local dishes in a clean environment. There is no English menu, but they have photos and the staff will make an effort with the little English they know. They serve their share of foreign visitors so you won’t feel out of place.
We went for the barbecued frogs stuffed with lemongrass spiced minced meat, a specialty around Kampong Thom. It came with a basket full of fresh herbs and veggies, so we also took care of our vitamin and fiber intake. Or maybe go for a Khmer beef or chicken soup with lot’s of fresh vegetables.
Located along national route 6, buses and minivans stop over at Stung Saen on their route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and vice versa. From both ways your journey will take about 3h30m.
For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Cambodia I always use the transport planning tool below from BookmeBus.com to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). Just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
Once in town, most of your exploring in the town center can be done by walking. It’s also possible to rent a bicycle or motorbike if you want to venture beyond the center or to the countryside (and you should). If you don’t want to self drive make use of the moto taxis in town or hire a tuk-tuk to take you out of the city.
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