Kampong Thom is the capital of Kampong Thom Province in Cambodia. It's about halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and thus most travellers only rush through on their way between these two major attractions.
Nevertheless, it is a pleasant and relaxed place and a good starting point for exploring the countryside and the temples of Sambor Prei Kuk.
Buses, minibuses (~8,000 riel) and shared taxis (~12,000 riel) connect from Phnom Penh. The same selection of transport should be available from Siem Reap.
Current prices for Phnom Penh to Kompong Thom are about 25,000 riel for one place in a shared taxi, US$4 for a bus. Mekong Express buses stop at the Arunras Guesthouse and tickets can be bought there.
From Kampong Cham local buses are available, they ask US$6 but the actual price is unknown.
A shared taxi (7 seats) from PP to KT costs US$5 per seat. If you want the front seat to yourself (2 seats) you pay US$10. Highly recommended.
The town is easily explored by foot. There are motorbike-taxis for hire to take you to more distant sights.
The town is not busy with tourists and tuk-tuk drivers can be very persistent - if you tell them where you are staying there is a good chance they will be waiting outside your accommodation when you wake up the next day.
There is an interesting fruit bat roost in the grounds of the Old Governor's residence (a nice colonial era building). This is behind the market on the first road off the river. If the gate to the Old Governor's building is open, you may be in luck, the house is sometimes left unlocked. All of the original furnishings are missing, but some of the bathroom fixtures remain, and the house gives off a haunted vibe. The fruit bats are in 3 large mahogany trees on the east edge of the property and is best viewed from the road (i.e. does not matter if property is locked-up). Ideally arrive 30 min before sunset and watch the bats become increasingly restless, increasing noise stretching out their wings and then depart around sunset. The Old Governor's Residence is on the southern bank of the Stung Sen River, at the main bridge turn west for 600 m.
The grasslands and rice-fields surrounding Kompong Thom of an extreme importance for wildlife conservation. These areas hold the largest global population of the endangered Bustard the Bengal Florican as well as occasional large waterbirds from the Tonle Sap floodplain (Adjutants, Pelican, Painted Stork). Other species include large numbers of wintering palearctic passerines (including Dusky Warbler, Yellow-breasted Bunting, Siberian Rubythroat) and the globally vulnerable Manchurian Reed Warbler. In March large numbers of Oriental Plover pass through the area making this possibly the best area in the world to see this species.
The areas also offer a glimpse of everyday life in the Cambodian countryside with many fishermen, ox-carts and small scale farmers. The best way to visit the grasslands is by en-listing the help of a moto-dop driver from in-front of the Arunras Guesthouse. A number of these know the area (around Rolous village about 5 km towards Phnom Penh) and speak English.
The American VIP School is a small ESL English school in KT town centre owned by an American and his Khmer wife. Native speakers wishing to donate 1 hr of their time to converse with eager Khmer students are appreciated. Normally classes are held 1 hour at night from 17:30-18:30. If interested, inquire beforehand at the American Restaurant near the Arunras Hotel.
- In the evening, a small night market pitches stalls just in front of the market hall.
- By far the best Khmer restaurant in Kompong Thom is behind the Arunras Hotel on the corner of the market. Food is excellent and this place is regularly visited by locals however there is no English language menu and the staff only speak Khmer.
- A number of large establishments on the road to Phnom Penh (marked by ostentatious architecture) are frequented by upper-class Khmer and do good Khmer food.
- Bayon, Por Chea Tepatey Rd (out of Arunras hotel, turn right and take your first right. Restaurant is at the end of the street on the corner on the right side.). Best Khmer food in town, offered at a reasonable price. The beef lok-lak and noodle soup are especially good. Also has a selection of Chinese food. Staff is very friendly and, during the day at least, usually has someone on hand who speaks excellent English. The menu also has a front-page inset with helpful Khmer phrases, including English phonetics, a history of the province and a helpful guide to Cambodian etiquette and social norms. US$2-2.50 (8,000-10,000 riel).
- Stung Sen (near the river). The most up-market tourist friendly restaurant in Kompong Thom. Mostly attracts tour groups. Food not so good.
Don't bother in Kompong Thom. There is karaoke on the top of the Arunras Hotel, although there are a number of alarmingly young working girls present.
- At the bus stop, walk away from the main street along the little side side street for a minute, there are two simple but quiet guesthouses in traditional Khmer houses with reasonable prices.
- Around the bus stop there are several guesthouses which apparently double as brothels in the evening.
The best place to stay is the Arunras Guesthouse (US$6 for a single/double room with a fan). It has cable TV (including ESPN for English football) and is clean with friendly (Khmer speaking) staff. However it's very popular, particularly with Khmer government officials, and can be full.
More up-market are the Arunras Hotel next door and the (favoured by tour groups) Stung Sen Garden Hotel. A number of cheap and dirty guesthouses also exist.
- Sambor Prei Kuk Hire a moto-taxi to take you to the complex. It's an approximately 1 hours ride by tuk-tuk through nice scenery and small villages with friendly inhabitants. The pre-Angkorian site dates back to the beginning of the 7th century and was the capital of the Chenla-Kingdom. Unlike Angkor, the temples are constructed from brick and sandstone. The complex consists of three main groups: central group, south group, north group, all covered by shady forest. A 1,000-acre site with 150 Hindu temples (today mostly in ruins). In 2017 it was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- Opinions and experiences of the site vary widely. While talked up by the guide books, Sambor Prei Kuk may be a disappointment for some people expecting temples that even vaguely vie with some of the other Khmer examples. Others may find it a amazing. US$10 for a ticket. Some report lots of kids hanging around latch on to any visitors (there's not that many) so the 'peaceful' temple in the jungle experience doesn't really happen, whilst others have no problems with the few vendors selling scarves at the entrance (who are not persistent). Tuk-tuk from Kampong Thom (including wait and return) US$15 (some drivers ask for US$20, others start at US$10). Car US$20.
- Phat Sanday is a large and remote floating village at the mouth of the Sen River (Stoung Sen). Despite Kompong Thom being the nearest town, it is about 80-90 km down the meandering river. A boat leaves Kompong Thom for Phat Sanday everyday at around 10:00. The driver will sit in the boat, beneath the large bridge waiting for customers. On asking, the price was US$15 per person. It is unconfirmed where the boat finally ends up - although possibly Kompong Chnang, on the southern side of the Tonle Sap Lake.
- Kompong Thom is the starting point for an adventurous tour to the seldom visited jungle plains of northern Cambodia. This 3-4 days motorbike ride to Preah Vihear is offered by some of the moto-taxi drivers, who will propose it to you once they spot you getting off the bus. With you sitting on the back of the bike, your driver will take you through peaceful villages and rice paddies, passing by friendly locals, spending a night with a local family and visiting the temples of Preah Khan Kompong Thom and Koh Ker on your way. A part of the journey leads you along an old Angkorian road and over its ancient bridges. The ride is hard, skidding over sticks and stones, through sand oceans and bamboo forest, sometimes fording small rivers. From Preah Vihear, you will head to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng, the place where Pol Pot is said to have died.