The second largest city in Cambodia due to its proximity to a number of ancient temples and shrines, Battambang is a hidden gem that is just starting to be discovered. Lying off the beaten track compared to its big cousins Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, and considering its modern conveniences and the charm of its people and its colonial architecture, it makes for an excellent hideaway for travelers looking to lay low for a while, all without sacrificing the conveniences of the tourist trail.
As suggested in the opening paragraph, despite its place out of the main tourist flow, there is enough things to see and do in the surrounding area to keep the active traveler interested for a period of time. With plenty of cultural relics, beautifully constructed buildings, and cool places to chill out while recovering your energy for another bout of travel through the countryside, Battambang is the quick stopover that may become an extended stay before you even know what’s happened!
Starting along the waterfront, explore Battambang’s Psar Nat, Khmer for the central market of this city. Inside, you will find vendors selling a variety of locally spun clothing, foodstuffs and trinkets. Explore for a while, admiring the handiwork of local residents, and get in touch with the local food by ordering a meal at a street stall.
Adequately fed, head along Street 1 on the Sangkae River, admiring the various colonial age buildings that were constructed by the French authorities based in this region of French Indochina from 1907 to 1953. Particularly of note is the train station and the governor’s residence, which like many of the mansions in the downtown area, was made in the art-deco style, a truly breathtaking technique of building that endures to this day.
If you are looking to explore further into the cultural history of this area, duck into the Battambang Museum for a spell. Here, the director, after paying the $1 admission fee, will be more than happy to describe the multiple Buddhist statues that this humble institution houses, constructed through hours of painstaking dedication of the part of the sculptors.
The following day, get out of Battambang and explore some of the temples, shrines, and ruins this area is known for. Start first with Wat Banan, located 20 kilometres south of town, described by many as a mini Angkor Wat. Still in use as a Buddhist temple, the decaying but still impressive towers will make you feel special, as your group will likely be the only people here, along with kids hustling for tips in exchange for relaying information about the temple’s history. Agree on a price first to avoid conflicts later if you decide to accept their services.
Wat Ek Phnom should be next on the agenda, as it possesses a giant Buddha for your photographic pleasure, backed by a serene pond to complete the scene. The grounds of the temple itself are in much worse shape than Wat Banan, should tread carefully as you pick your way over the crumbling masonry on site.
Finally, Cambodia’s bloody recent history cannot be avoided, so pay homage to past victims of the Khmer Rouge regime at Phnom Sampeau, known as the Killing Caves. Here, members of the Khmer Rouge disposed of their enemies in some truly gruesome ways, including getting bludgeoned to death then tossed in a deep hole within the caves. Today, a memorial to these poor souls is a crudely constructed chicken-wire enclosure, where the bones and skulls of the departed are contained where they can be seen by the public.
The biggest non-cultural attraction you’ll hear about in the Battambang region is the Bamboo Train. Not actually a proper train, but rather a platform rigged up to a set of train axles, this attraction propels you several kilometres along rickety but functional rails. At one end, there is a local market where you can but local handicrafts and products, and along the way, there are some marvelous views, so don’t be shy about asking your operator to stop in certain spots.
There are many biking tours on offer in Battambang, as the flat countryside makes cycling a cinch. Led by native Khmer, they show you a side of Cambodia that you would hard pressed to find on your own, as their skills in their native language prove invaluable in securing the most authentic experience possible!
If all of these suggestions have tired you out, then it is time to retire to a restaurant or cafe along the Sangkae River, and laze the day under the Cambodian sun, sipping on some of the best coffee in Cambodia at the Kinyei Café, or noshing on some of the cheapest French Food in the world at Au Cabaret Vert Restaurant. Wherever you choose to hang your hat, you’ll have a relaxing day that will prepare you for the rigours of the road in the days ahead.