KOMPONG THOM, 177km from Phnom Penh (and slightly closer to Siem Reap), straggles along National Route 6 and the Stung Sen River. The town used to be known as kompong pos thom, “place of the big snake”, apparently because the locals used to take offerings to a large snake that lived in a cave on the river, though this may be yet another Cambodian myth as no one now has a clue where the cave is. Most visitors stop over just long enough to get to the temples at Sambor Prei Kuk, 30km northeast; a couple of hours is quite enough to have a look around the town itself. Kompong Thom is also a possible jumping-off point for the remote Preah Vihear, two days’ journey to the north, though access is now easier from Siem Reap via Anlong Veng. Closer, but even more of an adventure to reach, is the massive Preah Khan – go now before the tour groups do.
The town’s main landmarks are the tall Arunras Hotel, on the main road just south of the market, and the bridges across the Stung Sen, a concrete one for vehicles alongside an old metal one for pedestrians (though things don’t necessarily work like that). The recently rebuilt market is fairly ordinary, but it’s worth seeking out the traditional medicine stalls, which sell not only herbal products but the shrivelled gall bladders of bears, and dried snakes curled up like skeins of rope. Just south of here, you can check out the original lion statues from Sambor Prei Kuk, which are kept in the province’s Department of Arts and Culture, on the east side of the main dual carriageway through town. At the time of writing this was due to move to a new building on the riverfront just east of the bridges. Pleasant enough, especially if you’ve half an hour to kill, is the gaudy Wat Kompong Thom, on the main road about 500m north of the river. The wat is hard to miss, its compound crammed with exuberant pagoda buildings and stupas.