Battambang is drop dead charming. A laid-back, easy going riverine city, it provides the much needed breather from the hard nosed commercialism of Cambodia‘s glittering tourism jewels like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville. Smiles are prompt there, and they come straight from the heart, without any trace of hustling. It is a province known for production of finest rice, sugar sweet coconuts and juiciest oranges. Battambang is loved by locals and travellers alike and many explorers end up staying there longer than they had planned. I am one of the lingering Battambang fans and my stay had extended till my travel budget had nearly run dry. There is something about the city, which is so exquisitely relaxing that most (including yours truly) forget that Battambang does not have much to offer except for a nearly virginal Khmer countryside, hill top temples and the infamous Bamboo Train.
It also has a smattering of quirky cafes, lovely restaurants and stylish boutiques and the placid brown Sangkae River meanders through it. Some of Cambodia‘s most chic hotels can be found at Battambang and my hot favourite is the stylish Bambu Hotel. The lovingly restored colonial villa is a real delight and I have lazed away many sunny Khmer days by its turquoise pool. Its rooms come decorated with Franco Khmer motifs, stone inlaid bathrooms and lovely rattan furniture. Creamy frangipanis shade the privacy of the guests from prying eyes and bougainvilleas clusters add shocking bright pops of colours. In the evenings fireflies glimmer into the velvety dusk and Battambang relaxes you until you melt. The secret behind its relaxing vibe lies in the city‘s lazy riverine ways, small but lively expat community and small town friendliness of the locals. Despite being Cambodia‘s second largest city, the residents of Battambang do not hustle the travelers and the tuk tuk driver invites you to his daughter‘s birthday party.
One of my nicest travel memories is my tuk tuk driver‘s daughter‘s birthday party and the impromptu invitation had touched my heart. We had spent a long, bumpy day exploring the lush green Khmer countryside of Battambang province and a peaceful golden sunset had welcomed us back to the city. It had been a lovely evening with peach coloured sky, mild breeze and rich amber hue of sunset tinting the colonial French buildings. The river front with its lanes filled with French colonial mansions had been crowded with citizens out for walks and traffic had been surprisingly heavy for such a laid back town. I had been hungry and exhausted, with the hotel being still far away when the tuk tuk driver had turned around and invited me warmly to his private family affair. After that, he driven me straight to his modest home where a local feast had been in the making and guests were dunking beer cans in buckets of ice water.
It was indeed a total family thing and children had played excitedly under the mango trees and strings of drying laundry. A noisy power backup had spewed fuel fumes and everyone had come out to welcome us both. That night had been long and gossip filled, with us exchanging glimpses of our individual countries and food had overflowed the tables. Local Cambodian life is tough and my first glimpse of Khmer reality, stories of power cuts, local liquor addictions etc made me see Cambodia without its Angkor veneer. My hosts however despite their modest means were kind and welcoming and I had shared an amazing meal of chicken dishes, vegetables, rice and red ants with them. Khmer songs had boomed from loudspeakers and Indian soaps had played on the TV. I had gone back to the luxurious silence of the Bambu Hotel very late that night and my head had spun from too much of local beer, food and Khmer local gossip.
The next morning had been a tough one and I had nursed a vile hangover in the hushed quietness of Jaan Bai restaurant. Located in the quaint old town of Battambang, Jaan Bai serves the most delicious and creative cocktails and Khmer pepper crabs. It used to be one of my favourite hangout places, where I used to relax with a book and a drink after day‘s work. All around Jaan Bai, old well trodden lanes would be lined with restored French villas and quirky boutiques, stores and even homes would spill out of them. A bustling fresh produce market would hum at one end of it and green fields would lie beyond. Evenings were particularly lively there and entire city seemed to pour into the river front promenade which was a step away from Jaan Bai. You might feel, after reading my post, that Battambang really must be a “dinner plate sized” everybody knows everybody kind of a place with nothing worth a stop.
The truth is, it is indeed all of that, and unless, relaxation is not one of your travel priorities, you might as well look over the small Cambodian riverine city. But, if you want to break away from the mad rush of one tourist point to another and unwind, let your hair down and experience the slow local Khmer life, then Battambang will always tempt you to come back. Cambodia gets real at Battambang and it is a kind of reality which sends you home with lovely sublime memories.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE