The enchanting town of Battambang, just a few hours away by bus from Siem Reap, is often overlooked by travellers, who either skip it entirely or stop off for a whistle-stop tour. But stay for a few days and you’ll quickly discover the hidden charms the city has to offer.
Whether you want to spend time recovering from the debauchery of Siem Reap’s Pub Street, drinking Khmer coffee in one of the many cafes dotted around the town centre, or you want to explore the historic remains of the Khmer Rouge reign by cycling through the beautiful countryside, Battambang has something to offer for everyone.
Described by good-humoured locals as ‘sticky’, Battambang is a place many people visit and find impossible to move on from. Strike up a conversation with any ‘barang’ (foreigner) you see cycling around town and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you the same story: they arrived for a few days and are still here months on, teaching or volunteering with one of the many NGOs based here.
Places To Stay in Battambang
Battambang has a range of places to stay, with options to suit any traveller and budget. The bustling market, coffee-shop culture and best restaurants are all based on the river’s west bank, and with several of the most popular hotels also nearby, there is no real reason to stay further afield.
Royal Hotel: with rooms on the roof starting at $3 a night (you have to ask to see these, the hotel will normally offer a $7 room with a fan as the ‘cheapest’ option) the Royal Hotel is clean and comfortable, the staff friendly, and there is a roof terrace where you can grab a bite to eat or a drink in the evenings. Prices go up to about $15 for an aircon room with an exterior window.
If the Royal Hotel is full, they should recommend you try their sister hotel, Asia Hotel. Prices start at about $5 for a double room with fan.
Chaya Hotel: with a dorm room offering beds for those on a budget and posh private apartments costing $15 dollars a night for the flashpackers amongst you (which come equipped with their own kitchen, towel/ linen and cleaner services) the Chaya has a range of rooms and makes it easy to meet other travellers staying in Battambang.
Tomato Guesthouse: much smaller than a lot of other hotels, Tomato guesthouse has only three rooms (two with bunk beds, one with a double bed) and one dorm room. Rooms are $3 a night and the dorm $1.50, and although the rooms are a little shabby, the family that runs Tomato Guesthouse are friendly and the food they serve really tasty- the restaurant downstairs is rammed every night with locals eating and drinking the cheap beer.
Things To Do in Battambang:
Whether you want to meander through the countryside on your own or join one of the social enterprise-run bike tours on offer, Battambang is best seen by bicycle. Several hotels rent bicycles for a dollar or two a day, or you can hire slightly more rugged mountain bikes from Kinyei coffee shop on Street 1 1/2 (one road up from the river, just south of the market) for $1.50 a day.
If you want to learn more about the countryside, both Soksabike and the newly launched Butterfly Tours offer guided bike rides, where you will get the opportunity to learn how locals live, sample locally produced food and drink, and visit historic sites such as the Killing Fields and memorial Stupa. Both companies employ local students as guides, all of whom speak exceptional English and are great company for a day out. Soksabike are based at Kinyei and Butterly Tours have posters in most coffee shops in the town centre – ask at Coconut Water for details.
Phnom Samphou and The Bat Cave:
About 11km outside of Battambang town centre is a mountain, home to the Killing Cave of Phnom Samphou, and the Bat Cave. An easy cycle, or about 10 minutes by motorbike, the Killing Cave is about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and still houses the remains of those killed there during the Khmer Rouge genocide. The Bat Cave offers an amazing spectacle at around 5 pm each day – thousands and thousands of bats leave the cave as dusk falls, a steady stream flying out for around 45minutes. It is possible to combine a visit here with a visit to Banan Temple, also situated out in the countryside; arrange with a ‘moto’ driver to take you to both, or hire a motorbike (Royal Hotel and Gecko Cafe rent them for approx. $7 a day) and visit them yourself.
Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School:
Battambang’s permanent circus school, Phare Ponleu Selpak offers training in circus skills, art and music to local children and students. Performances (with an art exhibition and a welcome drink before the show) take place three or four times a week, showcasing the exceedingly talented performers’ skills. Many students go on to perform internationally when they leave. Visit www.phareps.org for up to date show times.
Traditional Khmer House (Homestays also possible):
The village of Wat Kor, in Wat Kor Commune, Battambang is home to several traditional Khmer houses, built in the early 20th Century. Located south of Battambang town along the river, the houses are a little hard to find so it can be easier to get here by Tuk Tuk if you don’t have a local guide. The only English speaking owner in the village is called Yee Sarith, who will explain the history of his home, which was built in 1906 and finished in 1907. Some traditional houses in Wat Kor also offer homestays, which can be arranged with them directly. Donations are asked for from visitors.
The Bamboo Train:
Battambang’s most touristy tourist attraction, the Bamboo Train is an old-fashioned railway track and bamboo platform, which takes you on a 20minute ride to a small village. Worth a trip if you go in a group (it costs about $5 each for a group, $10 if you go alone), the easiest way to get here is by Tuk Tuk. Beware the children in the village who will act as a guide un-asked, they will try demanding dollars from you when you leave!
Located a few kilometres to the north of Battambang, along the river’s west bank, the Crocodile Farm is home to hundreds of crocodiles. Visit early in the morning to catch them at their liveliest, during feeding time. If you want to, you can also hold crocodiles that are only a month or so old. Costs $1 if you cycle and $2 if you visit by Tuk Tuk.
If the heat gets too much, head past the night market to Victory Club, a large outdoor pool with sun loungers and massages. Popular with expats as well as locals, it is acceptable to wear western-style swimwear, but be prepared to receive a few curious glances if a group of locals turn up. There’s also a gym here if you’re feeling active. $2 to use the pool, $1 for the gym.
Trips & Tours in Battambang…
Food and Drink:
Battambang has one of the most thriving coffee shop cultures you’ll come across in Asia. Many restaurants and coffee shops are also either part of an NGO or a social enterprise, providing training and qualifications for those that work there. The best of the best are:
- Sunrise Coffee Shop – genuinely excellent bakery and coffee shop; the cinnamon roles and chicken quesadillas with homemade salsa are particularly good. Free wifi is an added bonus.
- Gecko Cafe – slightly pricier but offers tasty western dishes including pizzas for $5- $7, as well as a good selection of alcoholic drinks. Plus it’s based upstairs in an old French Colonial building- sit outside to people watch while you eat. Free wifi.
- Kinyei – the baristas here are some of the best in Cambodia, proven by the national awards they have won the last couple of years. Try their speciality, the ‘Street Latte’. Also, they serve a selection of light meals. Free wifi and friendly staff.
- Coconut Water – breakfast only. Coconut is a long-standing NGO working with vulnerable women, so you can enjoy breakfast knowing you’re supporting a good cause. Tasty shakes and free wifi, plus sells locally crafted gifts and clothing.
- Street 2 1/2 – several great options for evening meals, including Fresh Eats (an NGO run restaurant that describes itself as ‘For Children, Not For Profit’, serving Khmer dishes) Taste Of India (a little pricier than some places, roughly $6 a head, but great Indian food) and the newly opened BTB Pizza (pizzas made by an actual Italian!).
- BCI and Coconut House – both serve 50c draft beer and are popular with travellers. Don’t bother with the food though, there is better elsewhere.
- Madison Corner – the only bar open later than about 11 pm, beers are around $2.
For those wanting to eat like a local, try any of the small restaurants with plastic seats and dishes on display in giant silver pots. Places worth trying are the Khmer restaurant on the south corner of the market (just opposite ‘Pizza Hand’) and the Chinese noodles restaurant, (there is a sign in English) on Street 2, two blocks south of the market. Or head a little further south along the river, and try the Facebook Stall (it’s the only stall with a ‘facebook’ banner!) at the night market- serves amazing flat white noodles and the owner is a legend.
- From Phnom Penh: (6-7 hours bus journey). Buses leave every hour until 5pm from the bus station at the Central Market (Psar Thmei).
- From Siem Reap: (3-hour bus journey/ 6 hours by boat).
Where To Go Next:
Siem Reap (3-hour bus journey/ 6 hours by boat): Hop on a bus or spend a more leisurely boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap.
Sihanoukville: 8-hour bus journey, no night bus available. Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s premier beach destination which is a haven for backpackers.
Phnom Penh: 6-7 hour bus journey.
The main bus companies also offer buses to Kampot, Kep, Kratie, Pursat, and the border. Most hotels and guest houses can arrange bus tickets and pickups for you.
Words by Laura Richards.