Kompong Cham, set on the side of the Mekong, is one of those empty, sprawling places that you find in Cambodia and Laos that you can't quite believe is a city. On the face of it, it seems to be no different to one of those large villages in the middle of the Surrey countryside that surprises you slightly by having a couple of car dealerships and some other amenities such as banks until you remember that, as quiet as it is, it's still the biggest thing on the map for twenty miles in all directions so inevitably hosts these things on behalf of all the even-smaller villages.
On the other hand, you still have to respect the fact that it has "city" written on the tin and it can become more crowded and urban in its feel in the evenings or around a market place.
Dropped off by the bus, I walked down to the riverside and found a cheap guesthouse for a couple of nights. Possibly this was the worst place I stayed at throughout my travelling. The bathroom light didn't work, which was no problem in the morning when I 'showered' as there was enough sunlight coming through the small window, but did make it more complicated to use in the evening, especially as it was a squat toilet where the flush was simply scooping a bowl of water from a bucket. This is certainly not an uncommon flushing mechanism and one that I have used scores of times, just that it's not so easy in the dark.
On the second night, none of the electrics worked, which included the fan. It was so hot that I had to draw back the loose scarf that was operating as an impromptu curtain across the window to get some fresh air in, even though it would be untrue to suggest that there was a breeze. I also had to lie without the blanket and was still too hot, although no blanket and no curtain meant I got bitten apart by mosquitoes.
My room was on the second floor, level with the rooftop of the building the hotel backed onto, just a couple of feet away from my window. On that second night, as I lay in bed with no clothes and no cover trying to get to sleep, I saw a Khmer man at my window. I think he had gone up onto the rooftop for a smoke and was leaning over the balcony at the back without noticing what he was looking at, but he was practically leaning into my room. I called out to him and he cried "Sorry" as he ran away and back downstairs.
Next door was another guesthouse with a restaurant I often used which was run by a French guy and his Khmer wife. She was a big fan of the English football and knew all there was to know on the subject. She told to me that her four favourite teams were Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. I tried to explain that you cannot have four favourites, which I think she understood. She said she would try to give up three of them, in the unconvincing manner of a smoker who swears they will give up cigarettes: genuine in her intentions but already knowing deep down that she will not be able to achieve it.
Checked in by lunch time, I walked south along the river's edge to a bizarre, long bamboo bridge which links the main land to a large island in the middle of the river called Koh Paen. Each year, come rainy season, the river rises and the bridge is replaced by a ferry. I assume the bridge is simply washed away. And then, each year, as the waters recede, the bridge is rebuilt again.
The bridge itself is a remarkable construction, shaking and juddering as each motor vehicle rides across it. On the other side you initially come to an open sandy area, which must be covered by the high water levels of the rainy season. Here, locals sifted the sand for something I know not what, or moored their boats. Walking up the hill, the rough path takes you along a rural village community where all the children were eager to jump up and down to say 'hello'.
Walking back afterwards, I had some dinner and retired to my room for some sleep, putting all my bags on the bed to avoid the large cockroach walking around, including my boots in case it might get any ideas about climbing inside them.
In the morning, after some breakfast, I engaged the services of Mr Kim, a local motorcycle tour guide. I wasn't over the moon when he came to proffer himself as I left the guesthouse, but when he came up to me fifteen minutes later to politely present me with his business card, I figured that this was a more professional and respectful effort, so I agreed a price for the day.
There's not a lot to see inside Kompong Cham itself, most of the sights lying in the surrounding area, so we first headed 7km west of town to Cheung Kok, a village ecotourism project run by a French NGO. Mr Kim took me around, first to a large hut where some women were weaving kramas from cotton. These are like ladies' scarves that, depending upon how you wrap them or knot them, can be made to serve an astonishing number of uses, as was demonstrated to me. Uses included head scarves, sarongs, a very clever vest or a baby carrier. Another, older, woman on the other side of the hut was taking the cotton from the large spools onto smaller spools to be used on the loom. She was eighty-two years old, which is exceptionally old for Cambodia. I often noticed that I very rarely saw any old people in the country, partly due to war, partly due to poverty that gives an average life expectancy of under sixty.
Next we were off to see a woman who had made some crafted items from coconut shells and then for a walk around the paddy fields. Afterwards it was back to the entrance where I was invited into the giftshop. I intended to make a donation even though I didn't want to buy anything, but I was intrigued by some of the coconut pots and pans that I saw. Remembering again Mark Watts' request that I keep an eye out for interesting cooking items, I bought a few things. Unlike the stuff I bought near Huang Shan in China (local verdict: "Even for us, this is cheap"), all the Khmer people who saw me carrying these items during the rest of the day were very interested and very impressed.
On the bike again, we stopped briefly back at the main road to photograph a couple of live pigs I saw being roped to a motorbike. Few people have cars in south-east Asia, but most people have a small motorbike. Therefore, these things have to transport not just people but goods. I have seen many big boxes, a large plate of glass that was just begging to be smashed by Buster Keaton, a mattress and on two occasions saw an entire refrigerator being carried along.
The next tourist stop I wanted to see were the two hills, Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei (Man Hill and Woman Hill). The former has a large collection of wats, stupas and other such like, plus a few monkeys ambling around. The wildlife that I noticed most, albeit too late, were the ants. Leaning slightly against a tree to take a picture of a nearby building, I suddenly noticed that it was covered in huge red ants - the sort that were big enough that you could pick them up by an individual leg between forefinger and thumb.
Perhaps mistaking me for another tree, dozens of them swarmed up my right leg. Jumping around was not enough to get them all off and half an hour later I was still picking them out of my hair and from my back as they bit me. I told Mr Kim, who had been away getting lunch at the time, what had happened and he asked me to take him back to show him the tree. He found the nest in a large, enclosed leaf which he poked open with a stick, and then told me that he normally likes to eat them and didn't mind if they crawled all over him.
Phnom Srei was much taller and reached by a-hundred-and-something steps. The views of the surrounding countryside were great although mostly blocked by the foliage. Mr Kim asked me afterwards what I had seen and told me all sorts of landmarks that were visible. I have to say, the only notable thing I saw was a factory.
Next, we went to Wat Nakor on the outskirts of town. The outer area of the temple was made from very old, crumbling stone of the type that I would see so much more of around Angkor a week later. Inside was a brighter, more modern (but not 'new') hall of worship decorated with brightly-coloured murals and paintings.
Close by, outside, was a charitable collective run by the local monks which takes in orphaned children and teaches them basic skills including reading, writing, cookery and how to use computers. It all seemed very impressive to me. Each evening, between six and seven, the children put on a show of traditional dancing for visitors. It was not much after 2pm now, but we decided to come back later to see it.
Heading back into town, we went to the post office to try and get the coconut cookery items sent back to the UK. I wasn't entirely convinced by anything that took place in front of me, either the wrapping or the administration. As I waved goodbye to it, I had no real belief that anyone would ever see it again. Even if they do, the four-piece gift set will surely have morphed into a forty-piece set.
Back on the bike, we crossed the giant modern bridge over the Mekong to the old French lighthouse that sits on the eastern bank. A pink, square-shaped building, the inside is hollow except a fire escape-style set of iron steps that go back and forth and around and around to go to the top. Leaving Mr Kim outside with the bike, I confidently headed up in search of some good views to take photographs. The first set of steps were a doddle . . . until I stopped before the second set to look down and contemplate how high I was and how steep the ladder-like steps were. Suddenly I had no appetite to go any further and didn't even like the idea of using the steps to come back down. Slowly I descended and went back to the bike.
I had something to eat while Mr Kim went off to attend his English class. Coming back at six, he collected me and we went back out to Wat Nakor to see the performance. When we arrived, twenty minutes late, the children weren't doing anything tonight because there were no visitors to see it . . . until I arrived. Three chairs were brought out for me to sit on, flanked by Mr Kim and the head monk. The children were hastily assembled and a half-hour show was put on for my entertainment. Some of them were quite shy, particularly, I guess, because there was only one person in the audience. A few couldn't keep a straight face, especially if they made eye contact with me. I didn't entirely help the situation by giving the occasional silly grin back at them or even sticking my tongue out.
It was great stuff, some of which you can see in the photographs and videos that accompany this trip. Afterwards, I was invited to put something in the donations box, which I did gladly by giving a few of them a note each to roll up and push through the round little hole at the top.
Back at my guesthouse, I arranged a but ticket to take me on to Siem Reap. The next morning, after a night sweating out half my own body weight under the auspices of the peeping Tom, it was Mr Kim who was the rider appointed by the guesthouse to give me a free ride (well, they paid him) to the bus station where I boarded and rode out of town.