Battambang is synonymous with relaxation. Mostly overlooked by majority of Cambodia travelers, the country‘s second largest city has over 250,000 residents and a very laid back vibe. At first sight, Battambang appears like a sleepy, small town where nothing much happens and even the brown Sangkae river, which flows through is supremely placid. However, this little gem of a Cambodian destination is perhaps of the best kept Khmer travel secrets and it offers a treasure trove of activities for those who take pains to go there. Reaching Battambang from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh takes around 4 hours by road and the roads are not the most easy on your seats. The charming city is also accessible by boat from Siem Reap and depending on the season, it can take around 4 to 12 hours. Thus, it is not surprising that tourists often give Battambang amiss which in return helps it remain delightfully hustle free.
To a traveler, Cambodia‘s second largest city comes across as very refreshing and one can stroll around it without any hassles. Battambang‘s quirky cafes and award winning restaurants are delights to explore and they make great afternoon hangout places. This kind of hassle free unwinding is one of the most precious gifts in the aggressive tourism world, and it is truly said, that Battambang relaxes till you melt. Happily, this relaxation also comes along with Battambang‘s lovely French colonial architecture, bucolic countryside and the infamous Bamboo Train. All these and more make Battambang a very likeable place and arm yourself with the following highlights to make the most of this sweet Cambodian city. Incidentally, Battambang produces the sweetest coconuts and oranges and its residents are one of the nicest people of Cambodia.
1. Stylish Stays – Battambang has one of Cambodia‘s most chic boutique hotels. Happily they also come at affordable prices and my favourite is the Bambu Hotel. Located on a quiet street a few blocks away from the riverfront, Bambu comes with lovely Franco Khmer designed rooms, gorgeous pool, pretty garden and an award winning restaurant. Tearing away from your room or the pool is not easy in Battambang and the affordable luxury aims at relaxing its guests.
2. Restaurants Galore – Battambang‘s lively but active expat community boosts its good food scene. The city is abound with stylish restaurants serving Khmer, Western and French cuisines, artsy cafes, quirky cafes, local eateries and cheap food stalls. Jaan Bai is Battambang‘s latest IT restaurant and this ventures actively supports training the local underpriviledged youngsters and donating their profits to Cambodian Children‘s Trust. Most popular for their amazing cocktails (their dragonfruit caipirinha is to die for), Kampot pepper crab with chilli jam and clever Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese tapas sized dishes, Jaan Bai is one restaurant with a heart.
3. Explore the unspoilt Cambodian hinterland – The lush green unspoilt countryside around the city makes Battambang a great place to explore on bike. Hire a bike for a half or full day tour from Soksabike and explore the bumpy rural roads and what lies beyond them. Ride by quiet streams, watch the curious country people go about their daily lives, give way to silent monks and take a break at the small community fresh produce market. People are friendly and the air is thick with green smells. Rice green paddy fields are punctuated with crowds of lilies and gawk in amazement at locals relishing spicy snails, fried insects and grilled frogs. I had hired a tuk tuk to explore the country side and it had been equally enjoyable.
4. Stroll around the old town – Battambang has some of Cambodia‘s most beautifully preserved French colonial architecture and they are photographers‘ delight. Amble down quiet lanes and along the busy riverfront to see some beautiful old villas in egg yolk yellow, warm peach and soft teal. Enjoy their genteel state of quaintness and the large wooden shuttered windows. Battambang‘s French colonial beauties are best photographed during sunset and don‘t miss out the fresh produce market which lies at one end of the old town.
5. Bat Caves and Phnom Sampeu – Bat Caves and Phnom Sampeu make interesting day trips from Battambang. While the former includes a startling stream of bats flying out of caves at every sunset, Phnom Sampeu comes with a bone chilling Khmer Rouge past. A sizeable mountain, Phnom Sampeu has many hill top shrines and caves, many of which were unfortunately used as killing caves. It is believed that as many as ten thousand people were thrown to their deaths there and one of the caves has a metal cage full of bones of the victims. A watchful Buddha statue looms over it and today it has been turned into a shrine.
6. Khmer Cooking Class – Though, my experience at Khmer cooking had been at Phnom Penh, Battambang‘s Smoking Pot restaurant offers one of Cambodia‘s best culinary class. The 3 hours class starts with a trip to the local market, preparing various dishes and is finished with the well earned lunch. The owner and chef Vannak is most well known for his bamboo infused fish amok and chicken loc lac.
7. Battambang Circus – Battambang is home to Phare Ponleu Selpak, Cambodia‘s most loved circus. Performed by group of talented youngsters, Phare Ponleu Selpak raises awareness of issues such as HIV, landmines, child trafficking etc. Run by a well known NGO, the circus provides the underprivileged youth the opportunity to channelise their energy into juggling, acrobatics etc. Loved by locals and travelers alike, Battambang circus guarantees good times with a social cause.
8. Kayaking leisure – The placid Sangkae river that cuts through Battambang is ideal for kayaking and the local NGO, Green Orange Kayak rents kayaks for half day trips. The starting point is Ksach Poy, a small village in the outskirts and you can paddle your way back to the city. The stretch of idyllic countryside with its fresh greenery and sleepy fishing hamlets make the experience more enjoyable and it is a great way to indulge in some rural exploration, sans bumpy roads.
9. Bamboo Train – The last but not the least of Battambang‘s attraction is the infamous Bamboo Train. Fondly called sorry by the locals, the bamboo train consists of a small motorcycle engine powered bamboo platform which runs on railway tracks and carries people, animals and goods. When it meets another incoming bamboo train, one of them is disassembled and taken off the tracks to allow the other to pass. It immediately gets reassembled after the crossing and the journey continues. The tracks on which it runs is not very well maintained and locals depend largely on the Bamboo Train. This very unique mode of transportation is one of Battambang‘s most popular highlights and is a great hit among the travelers. Personally I found this open air bamboo train ride nice until it reached one end, where I and other travelers got hustled by local kids. They were selling everything from knickknacks, water bottles to visits to snake farm and somehow did not leave a pleasant after effect of the experience.
10. Visit the local industries – The best way to enjoy the local cottage industries is by getting yourself an English speaking tuk tuk driver. They are very knowledgable about the local culture and know the prettiest backroads. Explore the country side and see the locals make rice paper for spring rolls, weave Khmer silk in old fashioned wooden looms and harvest mushrooms. You can also visit home run crocodile farms.
TRAVEL TIP – Battambang is in Cambodia, which offers visa on arrival for many nationalities, including Indian passport holders. You can fly into Cambodia via Bangkok and Cambodian or Khmer Rial is the official currency. Considered as a remote destination, Battambang does not fall in the well trodden tourist circuit. However, it is easily reachable by bus and taxi from Phnom Penh (5-6 hours), Siem Reap (3-4 hours) and Pailin (2 hours). There are options of shared taxis too, and though they are more comfortable than buses, these too can get quite cramped. You can also reach Battambang by boat from Siem Reap and the journey takes 4 to 12 hours depending on the water. Though tediously long, the journey is very beautiful and best enjoyed when deliciously gifted with time.
There are plenty of chic stays along with affordable guesthouses at Battambang and its boutique hotel scene is perhaps the best in the country. Explore Battambang either on bike, rental motorcycle or by tuk tuk an don’t forget to indulge in some free wheeling in the country side. There are also small boat ferries plying down the river from the market. There are daily long distance buses leaving for Bangkok from Battambang.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE