Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city and the capital of Battambang Province. For those wanting a sense of “real” Cambodia outside the tourist bubbles of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the area is a rewarding destination for a relaxing and insightful few days.
Battambang Province is in the north west of Cambodia, located on the west bank of the Tonle Sap Lake, and borders Banteay Meanchey Province to the north, Pursat to the east and south, Siem Reap to the northeast, and Pailin to the west. Battambang Province also borders Thailand either side of Pailin. Battambang city is located on the Sangkae River. National highway 5 runs from the Thai border through the Province and the city and continues south to Phnom Penh.
Battambang city center is an attraction in itself. Graced with beautiful pagodas and French colonial architecture, it is the opposite of Siem Reap as it bustles during the day and quietens down to a whisper at night. It’s worth spending a few hours wandering the streets, appreciating the shop-house architecture, sampling in one of the coffee shops, and engaging in some Khmer-style aerobics beside the river at sun down. Streets numbers 1-3 that run parallel to the river (including the quaintly-terms streets 1.5 and 2.5) are particular worth meandering down due to their architecture, and some newly established local art galleries and cafes.
The pagodas in Battambang are arguably some of the most beautiful in the country. The story goes that the officer in command in Battambang under the Khmer Rouge loved the pagodas so much that he couldn’t bring himself to carry out his orders to destroy the religious monuments in the city. They remain relatively unscarred by the regime and the subsequent civil war. Wat TahmRai Saw (located at the end of street 2 and 2.5) is known as the white elephant temple and is possible the most visited temple due to its elaborate structure. However, Wat Kandal is also picturesque and located at the end of a quiet street on the opposite site of the river.
One of the highlights of a visit to Battambang is a trip to the circus. French NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak (trans. “the brightness of the arts”) offers a range of artistic training – including circus skills – to local vulnerable children. Four times a week, graduates of the school give hour-long performances in the organization’s big top tent. It’s a show not to be missed; full of energy and jaw-dropping acrobatics. You can arrive at the site before the show for a complimentary drink in the small art gallery where the work of other young artists is displayed and available for purchase. An evening appreciating the work of the artists at Phare is a great way to discover the talent and potential of the young generation of Cambodia.
Other attractions in Battambang are located a short ride outside of the city. Phnom Sampov is 12km outside of the city and rises 330ft proud of the surrounding flatlands, giving stunning views from the temple that sits at its peak. You can stomp up to the top on foot – although it’s a hot walk – or there are moto drivers willing to drive you most of the way up there for a negotiated fee. The caves under the mountain are known as the “Killing Caves” and are a site where major atrocities occurred under the Khmer Rouge regime. They now serve as a peaceful memorial to the victims who died there.
The Bamboo Train is quite a famous, if not slightly bizarre, attraction located about 5km outside of the town center. Cambodia has no rail service, but the local community use the tracks that are still in place, along with bamboo pallets on wheels, to transport goods between villages. Now, they also transport tourists (at $5 each) who want a 20 minute ride, between the villages as well. It’s a there-and-back return journey, with a stop to turn the “train” around and allow local kids to make a few dollars giving you a tour around the local rice mill and brick factory. Best enjoyed earlier in the day before it gets too hot (there is no shade) it’s a fun way to take a trip into the countryside.
If you’re visiting Battambang between around July and November, then make sure you take a trip to Kamping Puoy Lake. A good ride out of the city center (about 35km), the lake is just under 20km long and is famous for its covering of lotus flowers. In rainy season, when the lake is full, you can take a local boat out for a trip among the flowers and stilthouses.
There are Angkorian ruins in Battambang province: Wat Ek, Prasat Banan and Prasat Snung. After the splendours of the temples in Siem Reap, these may seem less impressive but all can be visited in a day trip from the center.
Battambang has a population of over 1million people, with only around 13% living in Battambang city. As with much of Cambodia, the majority of the population are rural rice farmers – indeed, the province is the leading rice producer of the country. It was established as an important trading city under the French Protectorate due to its easy link to Thailand and the waterways of the Tonle Sap. Battambang was heavily affected by the civil war, as the area was a Khmer Rouge stronghold with fighting continuing in the region until 1996. During this period the city was off limits to most visitors as it was on the front line in the war against the Khmer Rouge. Typically government forces would push the Khmer Rouge back towards neighbouring Pailin in the dry season only to cede most of the gains once the monsoon rains came. Battambang has not developed as a tourist destination in the same way as Siem Reap, but as a province it is still wealthier due to the success of its agricultural sector.
The weather in Battambang is the same as in most of the rest of Cambodia with a hot wet season from May to November and a hot dry season from December to May. Large parts of the east of the province are under water in wet season when the Tonle Sap floods.
If there is time in your schedule, a visit to Battambang is highly recommended. Although only a 4 hour bus ride from Siem Reap (or just under 3 hours in a taxi), few tourists ever make the journey – making it a great spot for a quiet weekend, and a chance to explore Cambodia at a more leisurely pace.