Battambang is Cambodia's second most populous city and a popular tourist destination due to the many nearby ancient temples, Buddhist shrines and the infamous bamboo railway. It is also the capital city of the Battambang province. It is popular with tourists because of it's blend of modern city, small-town friendliness and some well-preserved colonial architecture, which works together to give the town a unique charm. Battambang's ever increasing variety on food and coffee is a refreshing change from more remote destinations in Cambodia, and has the potential to be as funky as Thailand's Chiang Mai, minus the hordes of tourists. And yes, you can have your latte and your piccolo like you never left home.
Battambang was established as an important trading city with around 2,500 residents in the 18th century. They lived mostly along a single road parallel to the Sangkae River. In 1795 Thailand, then Siam, annexed much of northwestern Cambodia including the province of Battambang and Siem Reap. The Siamese Abhaiwongse family ruled Battambang as governors for six generations until 1907 when the province was ceded to the French to be part of their French Indochina colony.
Following the colonization of the French in Battambang the colonial administration developed an urban layout which enlarged the size of the French colonial town. In the first time development, they constructed a grid pattern of well-defined streets, put in the urban structures and built three main streets parallel to the Sangker River, connected the both side with two bridges in 1917. Military purposes and prison infrastructures were erected inside the compound. 19 years later, a second urban development plan was created with a newly constructed railway linked from Battambang to Phnom Penh. The urban structure was extended to the west of the town, featuring some important urban axes orienting on the railway station. Many outstanding buildings like residential villas and significant public buildings were constructed during that period. According to the third urban development plan for Battambang, a large extension was planned for the north, east and south of the city. The urban layout was technically planned and required long-term thinking to create an urban axis corresponding to the existing urban layout from the former period. Battambang grew as a modern provincial capital, and became the most developed part of all provinces in Cambodia.
Several large infrastructures and public facilities were built under the modernization program of the Cambodian government under Prince Sihanouk. Several provincial departments, the court house and other public administrations were set up on both sides of the river. Textile and garment factories were built by French and Chinese investors, the Battambang Airport was constructed, and the railway line was developed to reach Poipet. Numerous schools and a university were built. A sports centre, museum and an exhibition hall were constructed to serve the cultural needs of the growing population.
Battambang is known for its statues which seemingly decorate every public place. Most are of animals (mythical and real) and divinities.
The most famous of these statues is on the main road in from Phnom Penh and is of an ancient Khmer King holding a stick which he used to quell rebellions in the Battambang area. The name of the town / province comes from this legend.
The town also has a number of fine early-20th-century French colonial buildings. Most of the colonial buildings can be found along the waterfront (St 1), especially just south of Psar Nat (which is quite impressive in itself). Famous Art Deco buildings are the Central market, the swimming pool Victory (riverside) and the train station. Along streets 1, 2, 21/2 and 3 are charming examples of Chinese, French and Italian architecture, with peculiar mirroring of houses constructed on one side in brick, square pillars and on the other one in concrete, round pillars. Street 3 has some charming French shop-houses.
· The Governors Residence is the most impressive colonial building, a legacy of the early 1900s with balconies and wooden shutters and grand reception room with a 5m ceiling. It was designed by an Italian architect for the last Thai governor, who departed in 1907. The interior is closed but you can explore the grounds at leisure.
· Battambang Museum (admission US$1) displays fine Angkorian lintels and statuary from all over the Battambang province, including Phnom Banan and Sneng, and it has multi-lingual signs.
· Phnom Sampeu, a hill with the Killing Caves of the Khmer Rouge, a few others caves adorned with Buddhist statues, and a monastery with two Buddhist Stupas on the hilltop. Entry is US$3 - also covering Wat Banan - and it takes about 1 hr to climb the circuit to the monastery on top, with a short-cut leading back down to the shops and restaurants which line the approaching road. Just before the ticket office, you can see a cave about 100 metres or so up the rock face. At around about 5.30 or thereabouts every evening, you can witness a steady stream of bats exiting the cave. It takes about 40 minutes for all the bats to leave. There must be tens of thousands of bats that make this journey every night. Some locals say over 1 million bats, but who knows? Whatever the number is, it's an amazing sight. From the main road, you should be able to see the bats forming various formations in the sky.
· Wat Banan, the so-called mini-Angkor wat, an impressive flight of stairs lead up to a dilapidated Angkor-style temple which is still in use as a Buddhist shrine. Once at the top of the temple follow the trail on the south side of the hill. It will lead you down and eventually to a breathtaking cave. Huge sky light ceilings and plenty of bats.
Secret Cave: (12°56′57.89″N, 103°08′11.15″E)
· Wat Baydamram, a temple where hundreds of fruit bats live in trees under the protection of the Buddhist monks.
· Wat Ek Phnom, another Angkor-type temple ruin, about 15 km north west of Battambang. The road runs along lovely small rivers flanked by trees and small villages making it a generally nice area. Approaching Wat Ek Phnom, you suddenly encounter a giant Buddha statue in the Wat, which is certainly picture-worthy. The grounds of the Wat also have an Angkorian era temple which is in relatively good shape and with some interesting carvings. Entry US$1.
· Wat Samraong Knong, roughly translated as 'Wat in the forest' is an extremely old pagoda on the eastern side of the Sangker River. The eerie old Wat was used as a Khmer Rouge prison, and there were many executions on the premises. A new pagoda is now being built, and there is a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, with graphic illustrations just to the north.
There are several opportunities to explore villages just south of town. The cultural village of Watkor, just a few kilometres south of the town centre has several "ancient wooden houses" from the early 20th century. Further south are the agricultural villages of Kompong Seyma, and Ksach Puoy. For info call District Administration Battambang: ☎ +855 1288 1516, +855 1666 6111.
· Battambang Circus, Phare Ponleu Selpak (10 min journey in tuk-tuk from the centre of Battambang-most drivers know the the circus), ☎ +855 53 952 424, Performances every Mon and Thurs starting 7pm. The shows are fun, energetic and exciting and include a range of circus disciplines. The ticket price helps support the NGO school which works with disadvantaged children and teenagers. After the show, you can have dinner there for US$6. Show US$14.
· Bicycle Tours : Bicycle tours with Butterfly Tours takes you on a half day or full day trip to various sites around Battambang. The tour is an initiative run by university students and priced reasonably - around $15 for a half day tour. The guides are students of English at the university level and provide an interesting local insight into life in Cambodia. ☎ (855) 89297070 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
· Soksabike Tours : Soksabike is a social enterprise dedicated to sustainable tourism in Battambang. They offer half day and full day bike tours around the countryside where guests can learn about the everyday life and culture of Cambodia. The money for the tour is distributed to families in the community along the way and goes to pay the salaries of the guides, all local university students. They use high quality mountain bikes and include a coffee at one of the best cafes in town. ☎ (+855)12542019 Email:email@example.com
· Visit local industries by asking a tuk tuk driver to bring you around the local countryside. See the locals weaving silk material with old wooden looms, making rice paper for spring rolls, visit a crocodile farm and hold a baby crocodile, see and smell fish paste and fish sauce being made and in the dry season visit the mushroom farms. Only the crocodile farm charges $2 to visit while most of the others will have items for sale, they make very little money so consider buying something and bring small change as they will have none. This tour will only take a couple of hours so it is possible to hire the driver for the whole day for $20 and include other sights. Tuk tuk drivers at The Lux Guesthouse (see below) are familiar with this tour, ask in particular for Peter ☎ 097 920 1988 firstname.lastname@example.org
· Rent a bicycle and cycle along the river. Upstream (south) or downstream (north). Both directions are flat and mostly paved, and it is possible to cycle along the river bank for a considerable distance, of up to 20 km each way. Also worth trying are the unpaved roads, they are easy to cycle along, have nearly no traffic and there plenty of children to say hello. A good address for renting regular and better bicycles is The Battambang BIKE rental and repair directions="60 street 2,5" email@example.com ☎ +855 17 905 276
· The Bamboo Train: (The term "train" being used loosely - A large bamboo platform mounted on train axles powered by a small go-kart engine). A trip to the train can be booked in most hotels or arranged with a motorbike/tuk-tuk driver. Currently it is regulated by Battambang's Tourist Police, with a standard rate of US$5 per person, minimum 2 people or US$10 for one person, with discounts for larger groups. It is worthwhile asking the driver to stop at scenic places. It is easy to cycle there (5.5km from Old Town, Google Maps) PLEASE NOTE: There have been plans to upgrade the tracks for the Poipet<->Pnomh Penh trains, which will mean the end of the Bamboo train. Currently (July 2016) there is no set date, but it's apparently (still) right around the corner.
· Green Orange Kayak, ☎ +855 77 204 121. Go on a beautiful Stung Sangker river voyage from the small village of Ksach Poy to Battambang, past riverside terraces and traditional bamboo houses. Get away from the dusty roads and learn first hand about traditional fishing and farming techniques. Half day trip, 13 km. US$12.
There are plenty of places to eat but after 19:00 some places close and lots of streets become dark, so eating early around 18:00, is recommended.
Good French-style bread costs 1,000 rial a medium-size baguette up north, between the French cultural centre and the giant statue marking the entry in Battambang from the main interprovincial road. The bread that street sellers have elsewhere in town is of a much lower standard for the same price, similar to that found in Phnom Penh a baguette-shape, but sprinkled with sugar, however some people do not notice any difference between the bread sold in the north and elsewhere in Battambang. It is generally of decent quality all across the city.
You can find insects (beetles, river snakes, etc) fried with sweet soy sauce opposite the Post Office at night or across (from the Phsar Nath market part) the Stung Sangke bridge which is located at the corner and also sells fruits and other amenities.
In the daytime, you can find street food at Phsar Nath or better, at Boeung Chhouk market near the inter-city bus area. Every night you will find a long row of food stalls opposite the Post Office by the river. Less touristy, cheap and some stalls have menu in English.