Header image courtesy of @ungracefulguide (via Instagram)
Arguably Cambodia’s most attractive heritage city, as well as the third-largest conurbation in the country by population, there’s a host of compelling reasons to visit the north-western outpost of Battambang (ក្រុងបាត់ដំបង). Though founded in the 11th century, it was not until much later that it became a significant trading post—with rail and road links, and eventually an airport—and the city’s distinctive architecture was established. First during the French colonial era, then under the modernisation program of King Norodom Sihanouk.
Bridges, hotels, markets, street art, and statues all help to animate the tidy streetscapes around the Old Town of Battambang—recently shortlisted by UNESCO for inclusion on their World Heritage list—which lies alongside the Sangke River (ស្ទឹងសង្កែ), and remains extremely well preserved.
Visitors may find the majority of their time here meandering down its many side streets; along with Kampot (ក្រុងកំពត), this is one of the finest locations for idling the weekend away at the abundant cafés, boutiques, galleries, and casual restaurants tucked into shophouses around the centre, a world away from the hectic grind of Phnom Penh (រាជធានីភ្នំពេញ).
But while admiring the low-rise buildings on display, with their shutters, lattice-style balconies, and contemporary outlets below, it would be a shame to overlook Battambang’s outlying attractions, from natural wonders such as the “bat caves” of Phnom Sampeou (ភ្នំសំពៅ) to man-made wonders including temples, Cambodia’s only vineyard, and the famous Bamboo Train, which still runs along tracks amid the nearby countryside.
Wandering around the Sangke River on your first visit, what’s immediately striking is how immaculately Battambang is preserved and presented, especially compared to Siem Reap, which offers plenty of beautiful architecture but little of it in such sparkling condition. The standout buildings in Battambang’s city centre are the government buildings and public institutions including the National Bank of Cambodia building and, set back from the riverfront, the Governor House, which was designed by an Italian architect for the last Thai governor, who departed in 1907.
The stately, yellow-dominated look of the townscape is maintained in other buildings too, such as lengthy rows of terrace houses and the standalone Vy Chhe Hotel, as well as the city’s finest exhibition space, Battambang Museum, with its inspiring collection of Angkorean relics, as well as historical exploration of the ancient relics of nearby Laang Spean Cave (ល្អាងស្ពាន).
Statues play an important role in enhancing the city’s many public squares, from the unmissable Naga for Peace & Development—a tribute to international co-operation between Japan and Cambodia—to several statues downtown which depict iconic figures from the town’s past. Statues of workers who built the city adorn the streets near the French-designed central market, 1936’s Phsar Nath (ផ្សារធំបាត់ដំបង), but the most unforgettable vision is installed in a roundabout, a site of reverence for Khmers—a giant herder boy named Ta Dumbong who supposedly usurped an invading king using a magic stick.
The stick lost its powers, hence the name bat (បាត់) meaning “lost/disappeared” and dambong (ដំបង), or stick, giving rise to the city’s name. Once it fully re-opens, Phsar Nath itself is well worth exploring for its somewhat faded, angular art-deco architecture and myriad stalls, which were the scene of a dramatic blaze in August 2020 after an electrical fire.
There are many more spectacular buildings in the centre—Seng Hout Hotel from 2008 billows with greenery and flora, and typifies the tasteful architecture of more recent years which blend appealingly with its more timeworn structures—while a host of temples, including Wat Kandal (វត្តកណ្ដាល), along the eastern side of the Sangke River range from the traditional to the flamboyant. However, do make time for Wat Banan (រមណីយដ្ឋានប្រាសាទបាណន់), 15 kilometres from the centre, which dates back to the 11th century.
The temple is impressive enough in its own right, but what really clinches its must-see status is the location, on top of a 400-metre-tall mountain—an elevation made slightly more accessible by a steep staircase rising from a marketplace below on ground level. Once you negotiate the narrow steps to reach the giddy heights, the views of nearby rural scenery are the best you can find in this part of Cambodia.
Battambang packs plenty of culture into its relatively small city centre. For starters, it’s the birthplace of the country’s leading circus franchise Phare, the spectacular acrobatic troupe which originally began as a training school and NGO in Battambang in 1994 as Phare Ponleu Selpak. The show continues to perform here, as well as in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
The city is also well known for its art exhibits—from Sangker Gallery to Romcheik5 Art Space—and a plethora of street art which adorns walls around the Old Town and even in bars such as Here Be Dragons. The local enthusiasm for creativity culminates each year in the S’art Urban Art Festival, which celebrates the scene with a series of workshops, artwork showcases, a hip-hop battle, a giant puppet parade, and music and circus acts.
The two best-loved excursions outside the city centre are the Bamboo Train and the Bat Caves at Phnom Sampeou (ភ្នំសំពៅ), both lying out of town. The former is more of a wooden plank on wheels than a train, and runs on a track formerly used to carry goods which starts at the village of Odambong, four-kilometres outside the centre. Though this is a rudimentary form of transportation, the feeling of shuttling down the rural track at 50-kilometres per hour, the wind whistling though your hair, and taking in the tranquil scenery—powered by nothing but a noisy motor engine—is undeniably exhilarating.
The minor inconvenience of disembarking, then dismantling the “norry” to let other passengers pass, on this one-track line is all part of the experience. The bat-cave experience needs to be done late in the afternoon to allow yourself time to explore the landscape and appreciate its history. During the savagery of the Cambodian Civil War, these caves were used by the Khmer Rouge to murder innocent victims, while now they have been inhabited by millions of bats who emerge at dusk in a phenomenal display of nature to feed in the nearby hills.
Every time I have been in Battambang, I have inevitably gravitated to Jaan Bai (“rice bowl” in Khmer) for its consistently excellent fusion cuisine, on-point design, lively artworks, and friendly service in a central location. A social enterprise run by the Cambodian Children’s Trust, which trains underprivileged local youth, this is a great food experience for a great cause. Just around the corner, The Lonely Tree Café’s restaurant is housed in a beautiful attic space, up a narrow staircase above a clothing and craft store, and flaunts a similar vibe in a more secluded space, with charity also front of mind.
Kinyei Café’s casual Western-Mexican food and sustainable fair-trade coffee makes it a desirable hangout along Street 1½’s colourful terrace, while an old favourite—not least for its view over the busy streets below—is the art-deco White Rose, another always-packed, street-corner gem with a reliable take on local fare. If riverside views and people-watching are on the agenda, try the comfort food at The River Bar & Restaurant for an easy lunch option.
While not exactly known as a bustling hub of nightlife, the bar scene here is nonetheless varied. Perhaps most famously, Miss Wong is an equally plush offshoot of Siem Reap’s “Old Shanghai” chinoiserie-themed haunt, unmistakably signalled by its bright red lanterns outside. The Balcony is the city’s most perfectly situated bar, with its imperious view over the river from an out-of-town wooden house, and a friendly atmosphere is guaranteed, along with fine cocktails. While back in town, Here Be Dragons is another sociable spot graced with vivid artwork underneath a backpacker hostel of the same name, with a streetside garden space. At weekends, make a beeline for Pomme (which also shares a namesake outlet in Siem Reap) for cheap drinks, lively musical performances, and casual seating arrangements (think beanbags).