Battambang is a small, sleepy town that’s quickly becoming a common stop for tourists on their route through Southeast Asia. Set amid the countryside, Battambang is the perfect place to get a feel of rural Cambodia without feeling too cut off from the rest of the world.
James and I arrived in Battambang in the late afternoon after a bus journey from Siem Reap and thought we had entered a ghost town. As we walked the short distance to our guesthouse, we saw hardly any other travellers – or anyone at all in fact! – and wondered if we had made a huge mistake in booking our stay here for three nights.
We soon learned that there is so much more to Battambang than meets the eye. Often missed off the Southeast Asia tourist trail, Battambang was, for us, a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn. It’s worth stopping here for a day or two simply to relax and recharge your batteries, but you may as well check out some of the sights while you’re around! Here is our itinerary for the two full days we spent in Battambang.
Eager to see what the sleepy town had to offer, James and I rented bikes and set off to explore. As we rode through the town we noticed a lot of beautiful French architecture, remnants of the city’s colonial past. We followed a road (which was still being constructed) up to Wat Ek Phnom where we saw the overpowering Buddha statue that overlooks a school. The pagoda was simply stunning, with brightly cloured paintings covering the walls and ceiling. Riding back to town, we took the main road (which had been fully constructed!) and were alarmed at just how peaceful the journey was: we saw hardly any vehicles and welcomed the shouts of ‘hello’ of local children from their gardens.
We had a late lunch at the Coconut Water Foundation café, which serves excellent food and fruit shakes. The café is on the top floor and below is a lovely boutique selling lovely clothes and trinkets. Coconut Water is a non-government organisation that practices fair trade, and all income from sales in their shop and café finances their projects which support children, families and local communities. It felt great to be supporting an organisation like this!
After freshening up at our hostel, we biked to Phare Ponleu Selpak. PPS is a non-profit organisation that works with vulnerable children, young adults and their families through arts schools, social support and educational programmes. Every Monday and Thursday, a circus is performed by local students – but it isn’t a stereotypical tourism-fed, lion taming parade; rather, it’s a story enacted by incredibly talented individuals who perform all kinds of gymnastics and acrobatics! It was a very funny, entertaining show. At $14 a ticket, it might make a budget-traveller’s itinerary, but considering that all the proceeds go towards educating disadvantaged children, we felt that it was worth every penny.
After biking back to the town centre, we stopped at Battambang’s Riverside Night Market for some delicious street food and a fruit shake. There are only about 10-15 stands, some serving traditional Khmer dishes and others selling clothing and shoes. The atmosphere was lively and friendly, and others eating were predominantly locals.
On Tuesday we wanted to see a little more of Battambang that we couldn’t reach by bike. And what better way to explore than by tuk tuk?! We took a tour with a friendly, knowledgeable tuk tuk driver who was happy to answer any questions we had.
The first leg of our tour was a ride on the famous Bamboo Train. Each ‘norry’ is essentially a bamboo palette which is placed on two sets of wheels, and there’s a motor on the back. Originally built by the French, it’s how local Khmer villagers used to transport rice from the fields and take goods to the market. And, since it’s a one way track, when two trains meet one norry is dismantled – by hand – and placed on the side of the track so the other can pass. A crazy, unforgettable experience!
Note: At the end of the track you’ll stop at a small village for 15 minutes or so, where a few families live. The kids will usher you into their shops to buy snacks, drinks and bracelets… Many tourists believe this to be a tourist trap and express negative feelings about the Bamboo train because of it. James and I bought a drink and bracelet each; the way we see it, a couple of dollars is not a lot to us, whereas it would buy their whole family dinner. We made the most of the experience: the children enjoyed playing with their animal figurines with us, while their mother told us about their day to day life.
We then stopped off at the Sangker river, where there is a bridge built for both people and motorcycles to cross.
Next, we visited Wat Banan, a Buddhist temple constructed in the eleventh century. The views of the Cambodian countryside from the top are very rewarding, especially after the challenging climb up the 360 steep steps. We were pretty exhausted when we (eventually) got to the top! It reminded me of the Angkor temples, impressive and majestic, yet with an unmistakeable modesty. Thankfully it was nowhere near as busy as Angkor either. We had lunch in one of the nearby restaurants, and then continued on our tour.
In the early afternoon we visited the Killing Caves in Phnom Sampeou. This was an eerie, saddening experience: during the Pol Pot regime, victims were bludgeoned to death by the Khmer Rouge and their bodies were tossed into holes, which are now the skylights of the caves. A golden Buddha reclines beside a large glass cabinet which holds the skulls and bones of the victims. Chilling, but incredibly important in the past of a country whose history is still so fresh.
Just before sunset, we waited at the foot of Phnom Sampeou hill to see a remarkable sight: every evening between 5:30 and 6:00 pm, thousands upon thousands of bats exit the cave in a long, thick column. The entire display lasts around 30 minutes and simply mesmerising.
We stayed at the Ganesha Family Guesthouse and had an enjoyable stay. I booked it a couple of days in advance on booking.com.
So there you have it, that’s our two day itinerary for Battambang! For us, visiting Battambang gave us a taste of what real, rural Cambodia is like – completely different to the tourist hotspots of Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn. However, this is set to change, as the government are looking to create exciting nightlife in Battambang for tourism purposes – so be sure to visit soon because Battambang’s sleepy charm is not to be missed!
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