Want to see a different side to Cambodia? If you’re looking for evidence of Cambodia’s colonial past, spend a few days in Battambang. Although it’s the second largest city in Cambodia Battambang still feels like a charming quiet town. Visitors to Cambodia tend to bypass Battambang in favour of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh so the town is less heavily touristed.
Battambang doesn’t look like Paris but if you look closer, past the signs advertising mobile phone companies, you can see the French influence, especially in the iron balconies and wooden shutters of the old shop houses and in the art deco design of the main market building. The colonial past also shows itself in the wide riverside boulevards, the landscaped parks along the river and the former Governor’s residence.
Downtown Battambang is very walkable and centres around Psar Nat, the local market housed in an art deco building. Streets 1, 2, 3 and the half streets in between (I love that there’s such an address as Street 1 and a half) are where you’ll find most restaurants and cafes, both obvious and tucked away.
There were a lot of closures during our visit spanning Khmer New Year but we can recommend the Chef’s Secret Restaurant on Street 2.5. Food is good and cheap (Barry particularly liked the banana and lime smoothies for $1). The Gecko Café on Street 3 is also worth a visit. Although closed for the New Year, we’ve been reliable informed that Jaan Bai, with a menu inspired by Australian Chef, David Thompson, is the best dining experience in town. It also trains young Cambodians (often street kids) and is one of the few places in town with air conditioning.
Battambang also provides a tonne of sites and activities for the tourist in you.
First and foremost is the norry, nori or bamboo train. It’s the only one left in the world and truly a unique experience. For $5 per person you can climb aboard the ‘train’, rattle your way along the tracks to the next station and back again. The train is really a bamboo platform on wheels powered by a small engine, which travels faster than I imagined it would.
The tracks are warped and old, possibly colonial so be prepared for bumps along the way. There is only one track. If you meet a train coming in another direction, the platform and wheels of one of the trains are lifted to the side and the other one continues on the way.
It’s a really fun experience but watch out for the relentless vendors and children selling bracelets during the 20 minute wait at the next station. There are apparently plans for upgrade the tracks and replace the bamboo trains with real ones but we didn’t see much evidence of that happening any time soon.
Another must see is Phnom Sampov. The walk to the top of the limestone mountain takes about 20 minutes (or you can get a motorbike to take you up). Views across the valley from the Wat are lovely. You will also find children hoping to guide you to the ‘killing caves’, where the Khmer Rouge threw 10,000 victim’s bodies into the caves. There is a memorial of bones inside the cave now.
A less poignant side of Phnom Sampov are the bats. Every evening at sunset (6pm on the dot for us), thousands of bats fly out of their cave close to the base of the mountain and wing their way to wetlands to feast. They stream out of the cave mouth, forming a long dark cloud that snakes for miles across the sky swarm across the sky, visible for some distance. We spent 15 minutes watching the bats fly out and there were still more coming when our tuk tuk driver took us back to town.
Battambang is also home to Phare, the Cambodian Circus, which is definitely worth attending to watch the amazing acrobatics. Hiring a kayak, visiting the small museum (only $1!), walking and cycling tours and cooking classes at the Smokin’ Pot or Neary’s Kitchen are among your other choices of things to do in and around town.
For places to stay, Bambu Hotel is a good choice. Their website and staff have a ton of local knowledge. Read our full review of the Bambu Hotel, Battambang here.
There’s easily enough to do in Battambang to keep you busy for more than the overnight stop many tourists give it. The road between the town and Siem Reap is in good condition. The bus took four hours, and taxi took us three and a half but may be faster outside of Khmer New Year.
Blog and pictures by Simone