Rustic Battambang, is Cambodia's 3rd city, the country's leading rice producer, and was annexed by Siam (now Thailand) in 1795 until 1907 when it became part of French Indochina. Nestled on both sides of the Sangkae River in the northwest of Cambodia, this sleepy city is a really nice way to visit what feels more like authentic rural Cambodia, a world away from the busy backpacker hubs of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and despite definitely beginning to emerge on the tourist route, it feels very chilled compared to both cities.
Things to do in Battambang city itself:
1. French colonial architecture: Battambang's streets are full of architectural throwbacks to its French colonial past. Look above the terraces of shophouses to see shuttered windows and attractive balustrades and keep an eye out for more modernist art deco styled apartment buildings. The elegant Governor House was built in 1905 for in 1905 by the last Thai Governor of Battambang and used by the French until 1953 when Cambodia became independent.
1. The Central Market: Phsar Nath Market is a great example of Battambang's art deco architecture with a clock tower and stepped roof. Built by the French in the 30s, it has a wet market at the front for meat - head inside for clothes, dry goods and lots of hair salons and seamstresses! It's busy and chaotic walking down the narrow aisles, but it also felt very normal and local - we didn't get hassled at all like we did in the markets in Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City.
3. VV Hotel Battambang sky bar: At 14 stories high, VV Hotel Battambang is the tallest building in the city. Take the lift up to the rooftop Sangke Sky Bar for sweeping views over the river, the city and distant temples and enjoy a beer or cocktail.
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Top things to do around Battambang:
Battambang's most famous and interesting things to see and do are scattered in all four directions in the countryside around the city. The easiest way to visit them is by hiring a tuk tuk driver for a day or two(they usually have a laminated map with different tour selections) or most Battambang hotels and hostels offer various tours. If you have a motorbike or scooter you could also easily plan a route and visit these places by yourself.
4. Take a tuk tuk tour with Mr Sam -
We'd love to recommend our driver Mr Sam. First of all you'll be putting your money into the pocket of a local rather than a big tour company, and second of all, he's amazing. A fluent English speaker and Battambang native, Mr Sam escorted us for 2 days and also came with us at many of the sites to act as a guide, something not all drivers offer. He was unhurried and chilled, really funny, happy for us to suggest our own ideas for the itinerary as well as surprising us with some amazing extras like visiting a local chilli farm, trying traditional coconut sticky rice, a tree full of roosting fruit bats and deliberately taking the scenic rural roads whenever possible to show us real Cambodia. He is clearly very proud of his country and an absolute encyclopaedia of knowledge when it came to history and culture. We honestly couldn't recommend him more, please book him. All his contact details are in this photo of his tuk tuk.
5. Ride the Battambang Bamboo Train - the Norry (also spelt Nori), or bamboo train, is Battambang's most popular attraction. After the Khmer Rouge destroyed public transport in the 1970s, locals came up with their own way to use the tracks by attaching a raft like bamboo platform to metal axels, powered by a little motor. Health and safety be damned, whizzing along through open farmland at about 35mph is a lot of fun! The track is only one way, so if you meet another train coming in the other direction, who ever has the least passengers has to deconstruct their platform, get off the tracks and let them pass. You'll pay $5 cash per person when you arrive to the villagers operating the train.
Wear a hat and sunscreen as you'll be exposed for a good hour in the Cambodian sun, and be prepared for some serious souvenir sellers at the turn around point. We bought a cold drink from the adults but as always, we'd advise against buying anything from the children. The Cambodian government is really pushing a campaign to discourage giving money to child sellers and beggars as it incentivises the families to keep them out of school.
Is the Bamboo train closed? NB: If you want to ride the Norry you'll need to be quick - locals told us that the Cambodian government has signed a contract with China to build a high speed trainline through here in the next 2 years, which means sadly the bamboo train won't be able to use the tracks any more. What a shame!
6. Climb to Wat Phnom Sam Pov - 16km southwest of Battambang is Phnom Sam Pov, also spelt Wat Sampeau. This hilltop temple buildings have striking Khmer style gold roofs and are home to a group of monkeys - be sure not to get too close as they're rather grabby! If you time your visit to come in the late afternoon the buildings glow in the setting sun.
Entry to Sam Pov hill is $1, which you will pay at the bottom when you first arrive and covers entry to the whole site including the Khmer Rouge Killing Caves and the Bat Cave (see below).
7. The Killing Caves of Battambang - Phnom Sam Pov was used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison, interrogation site and place of genocide. Like in Phnom Penh, the citizens of Battambang were forced to "evacuate" their homes by the Khmer Rouge and relocated into camps in the countryside. In the caves on Phnom Sam Pov, thousands of civilians were murdered: men, women and children, struck in the head and thrown through a hole in the roof into the cave below. Today the site is serene, with beautiful views over the countryside and distant hills, and it's hard to imagine the fear and suffering that took place here, only 50 years ago. Inside the cave is a glass memorial containing the skulls and bones of some of the victims, just like in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. These killing fields were all over the country, and it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge murdered a quarter of the entire Cambodian population in just 4 years.
If you've walked up the slope from the car park/food stalls to reach the Killing Caves, you'll first walk past a colourful Buddhist temple covered in pictures depicting the Buddha's life, and an alarming collection of life size statues demonstrating the various painful punishments dealt out to sinners in the afterlife.
8. Battambang Bat Cave - next to an enormous stone Buddha statue carved into the mountain, one of the lower caves on Phnom Sam Pov has become home to millions of small bats, and every evening as the sun goes down they stream out and across the sky in an undulating ribbon for about half an hour. This bat exodus is an amazing thing to see - we've seen one before in Mulu National Park, Borneo, but the sheer number of bats takes your breath away. It's free to watch the bats, but enterprising locals have set up plastic chairs and sell cold drinks and BBQ food that you can enjoy while you watch. It was about $1 for a can of beer or a coconut.
If you'd like to see the exodus, we have a video of the bats on our Instagram.
9. Wat Samrong Knong Well of Shadows stupa - about 5km north of Battambang is another devastating monument to the Khmer Rouge's bloody legacy. Between 1975-1979, Pol Pot's murderous Regime used this temple complex as a prison, interrogation site and killing field. It is believed that 10,000 people were killed here, and like other memorial sites in Cambodia a glass case, the Well of Shadows, displays the skulls of some of the victims. It's hard to believe such atrocities happened so recently and that we learn so little about it in this country.
10. Battambang Suspension Bridge - take a walk over this narrow bouncy bridge, tucking into the side and breathing in as tuk tuks and motorbikes squeeze past. Hanging over the Sangkae river, this bridge looks like something out of an Indiana Jones film! The bridge is 12km south of Battambang on the way to Prasat Banan.
11. Kampong Pil Pagoda - close to the suspension bridge, Kampong Pil is a colourful pagoda that is worth popping into to see its large Reclining Buddha statue.
12. Prasat Banan - 22km south of Battambang is the province's own Khmer temple. Dating from the 11th century, 200 years before Angkor Wat was built, Prasat Banan has 5 towers like its Angkorian cousins, some of which are still functioning Buddhist shrines. You need to climb a steep flight of about 350 steps flanked by Naga balustrades, and while the temple is no where near as well preserved as Angkor Wat, you can still see some carvings on the towers and above the doors; if you've already been to Siem Reap's temples you'll recognise the apsara dancers.
100m above the surrounding rice fields, from the top of Phnom Banan you have 360 views of the countryside and hills, and partway down the stairs you can still find the concrete base of an anti aircraft emplacement used by the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese in the 1970s.
Entry is $2, paid at a little ticket office at the carpark before you get to the stairs up to the temple.
13. Phare Circus - Phare Ponleu Selpak was founded in Battambang in 1994 by 8 young refugees to provide opportunities for underprivileged children after the horrors of Pol Pot's regime. Circus has been a vibrant part of Khmer culture for centuries (acrobats can be seen in the carvings of ancient Cambodia's temples) until the Khmer Rouge banned art and culture in 1975.
Providing free food, education, training and jobs, Phare Ponleu Selpak has well over 1000 students and and Phare Cambodian Circus now has a second venue in Siem Reap where students and graduates perform a combination of acrobatics, comedy, dance and circus skills reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil.
Shows start at 7pm on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday Tickets start from $14 and can be booked here.
14. Wat Ek Phnom - 15 km north of Battambang is the partially ruined Ek Phnom Pagoda. Like Prasat Banan it also dates from the 11th century but is in much worse condition, and a colourful modern pagoda has been built beside it. To be honest, know we called this blog "unmissable things", but if you're short for time or a bit templed out after visiting Angkor Wat we'd say skip this one and prioritise Prasat Banan.
15. Visit traditional villages for tasty treats:
Fancy some Food tourism? 6km north on Battambang on the way to Wat Ek Phnom, Pheam Ek village is famous for making the rice paper used to wrap spring rolls. Workshops line the main road and you can stop and watch the process of making rice paper and buy the freshly made spring rolls.
For a sweet treat, head to nearby Somrong Knong (where you'll find the Well of Shadows genocide memorial mentioned above) where pre-soaked rice, black beans, coconut milk and sugar is baked in bamboo tubes over hot coals to make a chewy dessert. Once the bamboo is peeled back like a banana, the rice inside is delicious with a delicate coconut flavour.
16. Prasat Phnom Banan Winery - Cambodia's only winery is located 13km south of Battambang, about halfway between the city and Prasat Banan temple complex. Here, imported cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes are grown to make red wine and the winery also makes "Cambodian Brandy" - truth be told the wine isn't great but it's only a couple of dollars for a tasting and a unique experience in Cambodia!
Where to eat in Battambang:
We'd love to recommend our two favourite places to eat in Battambang:
White Rose Restaurant, Road no. 2: Grab a seat upstairs in this attractive colonial building - the large curved upper floor is open to the outside and tables running alongside the railings have great views of motorbikes whizzing below and other historic architecture. This popular restaurant offers and an extensive and inexpensive menu of traditional Khmer cuisine and was full of locals when we visited - always a good sign. It was also one of the only places in town where we could buy a glass of wine!! Several other establishments teased us by having wine of the menu, but it was always out of stock when we asked for it...Who knew that a glass of white would be so hard to find!
The Place, Road no. 3 (down the side of VV Hotel): This laid back rooftop bar belongs to a lively backpacker hostel and despite being guilty of never having wine available ("we don't serve wine" said the barman as I pointed to it on their menu...), they more than made up for it with very cheap draft Angkor beer, delicious fruit smoothies and a good food menu for lunch and light bites. The Place has a fun, chilled atmosphere and the comfy cushioned seats and free WIFI make it a popular place for backpackers to hang out with their laptops. They also offer a range of tours, visiting many of the places we went to with Mr Sam.
Views from White Rose Restaurant and relaxing with a smoothie and a snack at The Place
How to get to Battambang:
Multiple companies run minivans between Battambang, Siem Reap ( via Sisophon, about 3.5 hours) and Phnom Penh (about 6 hours), which makes the city a really easy destination to add to your Cambodia itinerary. We went with Vireak Buntham Express for both journeys and their little orange 16 seater minibuses were clean, air conditioned and punctual. You can book tickets in advance on their website. This is the cheapest way to get to Battambang - we paid about $9 each to go from Siem Reap and about $14 each for the minibus from Battambang to Phnom Penh. There will be a toilet stop factored in on the way.
If you're travelling in the wet season and fancy something a little more intrepid, you can apparently travel from Siem Reap to Battambang by boat! Not something we've done ourselves, so this is only based on information online, but the boat takes up to 9 hours and passes rural fishing villages as it travels across Tonle Sap lake and down the Sangkae to Battambang. Speak to your accommodation in Siem Reap or a Siem Reap travel office about arranging tickets, it should cost around $25 each. Bring lunch, sun cream and a waterproof coat or poncho and don't attempt this journey in dry seasons - we've read horror stories of boats getting stranded and running aground in the shallow waters!
If you're not on a budget, you could also travel to Battambang by private taxi. A taxi from Siem Reap to Battambang would cost about $50, and from Battambang to Phnom Penh about $75.
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