For most travelers, a trip to Cambodia would involve an expedition into the Angkor temples. If there is additional time, an excursion to the capital, Phnom Penh, may be scheduled before leaving the country. Tourism in Cambodia may have grown exponentially in the last decade but outside the major attractions, tourists are surprisingly sparse. During my latest visit to Cambodia, I ventured to the town of Battambang to get a glimpse of local life that’s not yet overrun with tourism. Traditionally the second largest city in the country, it has in recent years been looked upon by tourists who wish to escape the hordes found in Cambodia’s more happening cities.
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Getting to Battambang
Battambang itself has an airport but with no scheduled flights. To get there, I traveled from Siem Reap where Battambang is around 2.5 hours away by hired car. Otherwise, it is also possible to take a bus (allow 4 hours travel time) between Siem Reap and Battambang.
If you come to Battambang expecting to tick off a list of sights, then this city is probably not for you. This provincial town is a place that grows on you but don’t expect to see anything that will generate “oohs” and “aahs.” Nonetheless, there are plenty of things to do here to keep you occupied for at least two days. Here are some suggestions:
Go on a ride on the bamboo train
It may be a very touristy thing to do but there’s no denying how fun a ride on one of Battambang’s bamboo trains can be. A solution that stemmed from Cambodia’s disused railways, the bamboo trains are essentially wooden frames that sit on barbells that act as the train’s wheels. The “trains” are open-air which means that you can get baked under the sun during the journey but you’ll soon forget about that as the engine starts to roar and the train traverses at 15km/h.
As of this writing, a ride on a bamboo train costs US$10 for the whole train. The ride itself takes you to the next station and back and lasts for just over 30 minutes including rest time. A tuktuk ride to the Bamboo Train from the city center costs around $5 inclusive of waiting time.
Marvel at the colonial architecture
Like Phnom Penh, Battambang has a host of early 20th century French colonial buildings as well as Chinese shophouses that are likewise common in Malaysia and Singapore. These buildings are more concentrated in Battambang though and it’s worthwhile to take a walking tour of the area surrounding the river starting from the art deco Psar Nat (Central Market).
One of the most outstanding colonial buildings in Battambang is the Governor’s Residence. It currently functions as government building so visitors are unable to see how it looks from the inside. Nevertheless, it has a charming façade and along with the gardens surrounding it, makes for a worthy stop.
If you remember my guide around Phnom Penh, there is this organization run by university students that offer architecture tours. They have one for Battambang as well – a self-guided one. You can check out their map here.
Go on a temple tour
If you’ve not yet had your fill of temples at Angkor, the land surrounding Battambang has a couple of temples that are worth a day trip. Here are some to check out:
Perched on top of a hill, the temples of Banan require a climb of about 360 steps (some of them steep). Those who make their way to the peak are rewarded with some of the best preserved ancient temples this side of Cambodia.
There is also a picturesque lake right at the entrance before ascending the steps. Make sure to stop here for some nice photos.
Wat Ek Phnom
The most famous temple in the Battambang area, Wat Ek Phnom is located 13 km from the city. It is an 11th century temple that predates Angkor Wat. Although lying in a state of disrepair, Wat Ek Phnom is known for its detailed lintels and pediments so it is definitely worth a visit. There is also a picturesque statue of a large white Buddha in the complex that is worth a look.
Often done as a day trip along with Wat Banan, Phnom Sampeu offers a reminder to the darker Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia’s history. The caves also require a bit of a climb to get to. At the summit, you find temples decked in a golden hue.
Where to Eat in Battambang
While not exactly a foodie’s haven, the number of food establishments in the city is growing and you can find the greatest concentration of it in the few blocks immediately south of Psar Nath. My top pick in Battambang is Jaan Bai, the closest you’ve got to gourmet food in the city. Quality is good and prices reasonable. Their tasting menu consisting of seven dishes plus wine goes for just US$15 per person (minimum 2 persons). The food is not traditional Khmer but is a fusion between different Southeast Asian cuisines. There is a lot of Thai and some Malay as well in the menu offering.
Where to Stay in Battambang
Most would probably agree that the Bambu Hotel, located east of the Sangkar river, is the most comfortable place to stay in the city. The hotel is constructed like a colonial villa complete with colorful tiled flooring but the origins of the building is actually much more recent. The owner, Pat, is a valuable source of information on Battambang and in each room you get to see print outs of his guide to the city. That alone is enough reason to stay in this boutique property. You can book the Bambu Battambang here.