There’s much to experience in the way of arts and architecture in Battambang in Cambodia. In recent years the charming colonial city has blossomed into an arts hub as graduates from its excellent arts school have collaborated to set up art galleries and collectives and organize group shows and arts events. Battambang’s impressive architecture is everywhere.
Our guide to the arts and architecture in Battambang
Battambang wasn’t necessarily a centre of art and culture prior to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime’s coming to power in 1975, however, it did experience Cambodia’s cultural renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, dubbed the Golden Age, which was felt right across the country and gave rise to Cambodia’s unique brand of Khmer Rock and Roll and the New Khmer Architecture movement.
Battambang had also been the birthplace of beloved Golden Age singer Ros Sereysothea, who was named ‘the Golden Voice’, while the most legendary crooner of them all, Cambodia’s Elvis, Sinn Sisamouth sang a melancholic song about Battambang, ensuring he’d always have a special place in its people’s hearts. Look closely as you amble around town and you’ll spot murals, stencils and stickers of the two of them on walls.
When the Khmer Rouge took over, the Golden Age singers, along with musicians, painters, actors, academics, and educated professionals who hadn’t fled the country, were executed or shunted out of the cities and into the countryside to work the rice fields, where most would die of starvation or disease if they weren’t murdered. A generation or artists and intellectuals were lost. For those who survived, it would be a long road to recovery.
It is the next generation of artists, most born in the 1980s and 1990s, who have been the main participants in the cultural revival that is currently underway. However, it many cases, it is the older Khmer Rouge survivors, such as the group who started Battambang’s Phare Ponleau Selpak arts school, who have been the inspiration.
While arts enthusiasts should make an effort to head out of the historic centre to Phare Ponleau Selpak in Anch Ang village, you don’t have to go far to get a taste of the arts and architecture in Battambang. Slap bang in the centre of the old town, Street 2½, pictured above, is home to a handful of arty addresses, galleries, cafés, and bars with exhibition spaces and a programme of regular arts events.
Many of the graduates of Phare Ponleau Selpak have gone on to open their own contemporary art galleries, including artist Mao Soviet and his wife Phin whose small gallery Make Maek (Street 2½), located in a whitewashed Chinese shophouse, hosts regular exhibitions and events and an artist-in-residence programme, and has a small art library.
Mao, who worked as a graphic designer, now specialises in sculpture and installations, and it’s his white sculptural basket piece that dramatically hangs from the gallery’s balcony. Mao’s work has shown in France, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. Phin is a painter and her colourful canvases focus on women’s issues and the challenges women face in Cambodia now. Ask to see their work if it’s not on display.
Diagonally opposite, curator Darren Swallow and his artist wife Khchao Touch own Lotus Gallery and Bar (53, Street 2½) which opened late 2013, and has a cafe-cum-bar downstairs with bare brick walls and colonial-style tiles and a contemporary art gallery upstairs hosting regular exhibitions. On weekends Lotus has documentary and experimental film screenings, poetry nights, avant-garde sound events, performance art, DJ nights, and live music. The events draw an interesting mix of locals, expats and tourists, who spill out onto the pavement, chatting animately as they down beers.
Also check out their funky little shop, Jewel in the Lotus, just down from Make Maek, which sells hippy clothes and hill tribe bags and quirky knick knacks including vintage cigarette boxes, retro movie posters and postcards, and Cambodian rock and roll music from the Golden Age.
A few blocks away, artist-ran Sammaki Gallery (87, Street 2½), a community arts space supported by the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), also has frequent art shows and workshops, as well as a resource centre and work space with a computer where artists, designers and filmmakers meet to thumb through books on painters and edit films or animations. Don’t hesitate to pop your head in the door. They won’t mind at all if you say “Sues’day” (hello) and see what they’re up to.
Sammaki is also home to Battambang’s first barista school, sponsored by Australia’s Vittoria Coffee, which also provided funding for CCT’s sleek Jaan Bai restaurant and bar (Street 2), launched in October 2013, which we wrote about here and here. A social enterprise eatery established to provide training and employment for disadvantaged Battambang youths, Jaan Bai has had the support and guidance of culinary luminary Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok and restaurateur John Fink of Quay in Sydney, whose involvement has ensured it’s delivering some of the best food and drinks in Battambang.
The idea behind offering the barista classes at Sammaki is that the gallery’s visitors will be able to sip a coffee while browsing the art. Although Jaan Bai technical advisor Tom O’Sullivan, who managed social enterprise cafes in Melbourne, and has been training staff in barista art among other things, said he would love to see it operating as a fully fledged cafe adjoining the gallery. We would too.
Don’t miss the vibrant mural that enlivens the exterior of Jaan Bai. Painted by a handful of young Battambang artists, you can get a close look as you enjoy cocktails on the wooden pallets stacked on the astro turf that creatively serve as coffee tables and seats.
Artist Chov Theanly painted the portrait of Golden Age great, Ros Sereysothea; Khchao Touch (co-owner of Lotus) was responsible for the ‘Morning Sun’; Long Kosal created ‘The Scream’; Nhem Pearun painted the ‘Face with Bird’; while Ot Veasana was responsible for the wild mural on the first floor exterior that you’ll have to cross the road to appreciate.
There are plans to open an art gallery in the bar upstairs, which will also function as a creative co-working space. In the meantime, there is work by Battambang artists on the restaurant walls downstairs, all of which is available for purchase. Make sure you check out the striking art installation by Mao Soviet of Make Maek in the stairwell between the dining room and kitchen.
While not an art gallery, petite Battambang Provincial Museum (Street #1; 8-11am, 2-5pm; $1) has displays of pre-Angkorian and Angkorian art, including sculptures, carvings, bas reliefs, lintels, and pottery. Frustratingly, though, it is rarely open when it’s meant to be.
Artist Collectives, Art Spaces and Arts Events
The Trotchaek Pneik collective of 12 independent Battambang artists and art lovers came together in 2008 but formed more formally in 2011. Their motto is “arts and culture as revolutionist!” Their founder, curator and performance artist Reaksmey Yean has put together some interesting shows under the umbrella of Trotchaek Pneik and as a 2013 curator-in-residence at JavaArts in Phnom Penh. Their Facebook page is a good source of information on art shows, events, seminars, and conferences across Cambodia.
Stroll Street 1½ and you might see artists and students sketching and painting on the ground floor of Battambang Art Studio, situated in a sunny yellow shophouse. The studio was opened in 2012 by Sokhom Roeun and Bo Rithy, both graduates of Phare Ponleu Seplak, as a place for artists to come and learn, work, and exchange ideas and skills. Sokhom’s work, which includes sculptural installations, has been shown in France, Japan, Thailand and Cambodia, while Bo’s art, which embraces a range of techniques and styles and attempts to capture Cambodia’s transition from traditional and modern, has been shown in France and Thailand.
Launched in April 2014, BCi Battambang‘s Arts House is an artist-ran space in an old shophouse opposite the Royal Hotel that’s been decorated with floor to ceiling street art style murals. The space quickly established a reputation for holding artsy parties incorporating exhibition openings, live music, break-dancing, and live painting. They also have open mic nights, film screenings, and run workshops in stenciling, screen printing and other creative techniques.
A number of artists in Battambang have made a name for themselves as live painters. The artists combine performance art and entertainment with the creation of paintings from scratch, beginning with a blank canvas. If there are events on while you’re in town, look out for artists such as Sin Rithy, Nov Cheanik and Prak Ke who often produce live art with performance artist Long Kosal. Long, who often appears near-naked, his body covered in white paint, is simultaneously the canvas, artist and work of art. At Jaan Bai’s opening party his precarious balancing on a stool while being painted upon transfixed guests.
Selpak Kandia was a live painting event held in March 2014 on the riverside in front of Phsar Nat market that brought hundreds of artists and art lovers out into the streets. Made in Battambang, held in April 2014, which showcased the work of local and expat artists in city-wide exhibitions at Make Maek, Lotus, Sammaki, and Jaan Bai, also featured live painting.
You can amble Battambang’s dusty streets aimlessly admiring the well preserved architecture in the compact old town, which is classified as a Heritage Protection Area. The protected area contains some 800 heritage buildings, including an atmospheric 150 year old Chinese Temple and Spirit House, the oldest building in the conservation quarter.
Expect to ogle everything from grand 19th century French-Classical edifices on the riverside, now used as banks and administrative buildings that date back to when Cambodia was a French protectorate to charming two storey shophouses introduced by Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century that serve as both businesses and private homes.
The ugly modern signage and advertising hoardings on buildings conceals delightful facades with ornate reliefs, pretty balconies, and louvered shuttered windows. Most have been fitted in such a way that they can easily be removed and many hope that will happen next year when it’s rumoured that Battambang may receive a UNESCO World Heritage listing.
A few further blocks inland you’ll find traditional Khmer timber houses that are normally seen in the countryside, because just a few centuries ago Battambang itself was little more than a village. You’ll find an abundance of these, in all manner of styles, surrounding Battambang, but Wat Kor Village has the largest proliferation including a couple of century-old ‘Ancient Houses‘ that can be visited (sign-posted; free, but leave a donation).
The star attraction for many architectural buffs is the Art Deco gem that is Phsar Naht, the old market in the centre of town. Built in 1936 from reinforced concrete, it was by the same French engineers responsible for the handsome Art Deco-era Central Market in Phnom Penh.
Other noteworthy buildings include the faded modernist cinemas and apartment buildings of the New Khmer Architecture era, including the Sangkar Cinema and warehouse, inaugurated by Prince Sihanouk in 1965; the 1960 corner apartments beside it with its double facade and decorative screen to give shade; and the groovy Battambang Cinema, built in the early 1970s. Terence adores the typeface of the cinema’s sign and I love the built-in apartments.
You can’t say you’ve fully experienced the arts and architecture in Battambang until you visit Cambodia’s largest performing and visual arts school, Phare Ponleau Selpak, which means ‘brightness of the arts’.
Since 1994 the Battambang village of Anch Ang has been home to the school, which was established by a group of Cambodians who met in 1986 in a Thai refugee camp following the Khmer Rouge period. There they participated in a transformational art workshop offered by a French visual arts teacher as a form of therapy.
Six years later they regrouped in Battambang to offer art, music and theatre classes to the poverty-stricken community, particularly the vulnerable, orphaned children, and in 1998 they introduced gymnastics and martial arts and established the circus school. Some of the original founders still operate the school and teach.
Now, there are some 1,500 students studying circus skills, theatre, music, painting, drawing, design, and animation. The main big top for the Cambodian Phare Circus, where final year students and graduates perform, is in Siem Reap, however, regular circus shows are held in the Battambang big top too, where the students learn, train, rehearse, and develop their own shows.
One-hour circus shows are held at 7pm, Mondays and Thursdays, although less frequently in the monsoonal low season, so get your hotel to check ahead (+855 (0) 7755 4413) and book tickets (adults $10, kids under 14 $5). Take a tuk tuk as it’s a 15 minute ride from the centre. Arrive around 6.15pm so you can sip a welcome drink while you can take in the visual arts exhibition.
Art and Architecture Tours
You can do a behind-the-scenes tour of Phare Ponleau Selpak in the afternoon to see the students in classes and training and rehearsing for circus performances (get a peek at the kind of exercises they do here!), and then you can return after dark to see their kooky Cirque du Soleil-style circus shows under the big top.
Instead of wandering around Battambang aimlessly gawking at the city’s architecture, print out the self-guided walking tour from the Khmer Architecture Tours website so you don’t miss something special. The map and explanatory notes will suit independent travellers who like to explore on foot.
For those who don’t cope well with the heat and would rather have some wheels, Au Cabaret Vert hotel offers an interesting audio tour by antique cyclo which allows you to slowly cruise the narrow old streets and leafy boulevards, stopping at significant buildings along the way.
Highlights of the cyclo tour include the modernist railway station, glittering Buddhist pagodas such as Wat Pipetharam, which dates to 1888, and Wat Damrey Sor, built in 1904, and the elegant Italian-designed Sala Khaet or Governor’s Residence. Built by the last ‘Lord Governor’ of the Chavfea Baen family, who ruled for six generations under Siam (now Thailand), from 1795 to 1907, it was sold to French authorities after they persuaded the Siamese to return Battambang to the Cambodians, when the palace became the French Governor’s Residence.
Sala Khaet lies in an area south of the old centre that some call the French Quarter, due to its wide avenues and colonial administrative buildings. Established during Thai rule in 1837 it was once home to Kampaeng Fort, where the Lord Governor lived with his wives, female dancers, and 56 elephants, but no men!
You’ll also find the Royal Residence or Royal Bungalow here, a striking building designed by the legendary architect, Vann Molyvann, the star of a generation of talented architects who formed the New Khmer Architecture movement of the 1950s and 60s, after they developed a unique modernist style incorporating traditional Khmer elements from the Angkor period and vernacular residential architecture.
Artist-curator Mao Soviet from Make Maek also give art tours, as does Chov Theanly, one of the artists who contributed to the Jaan Bai mural. If you don’t find him upstairs at the Lotus Gallery chatting to visitors about Cambodian art history, book a tour through Darren Swallow.
Tha and Jam of Battambang Bike (60 Street 2½) offer art and architecture themed bike tours as well as village tours. The latter runs along the riverside, passing through sleepy villages and dropping into attractions such as ‘Ancient House’. You can also hire their retro bicycles to do your own self-guided tour.
If you prefer to have someone else take care of arrangements, Asia-based Backyard Travel offers multi-day trips with knowledgable guides such as Beyond Angkor: Battambang and its Countryside, departing from Siem Reap, which includes the Au Cabaret vert cyclo tour, Battambang Bike ride, Phare Ponleau Selpak tour and a night at the circus, among other Battambang experiences. We tested it out and were impressed.
How to get to Battambang and get around
See our guide on Things to do in Battambang for detailed information on how to get to Battambang and how to get around Battambang once you’re there.
Where to stay in Battambang
Battambang is home to some beautiful boutique hotels and we’ve been able to try all of them (a number of times) on our trips to the city. You can read our reviews of Battambang’s best boutique and budget hotels in this post on Where to Stay in Battambang.
Where to eat and drink in Battambang
Fantastic local markets, street food tours, rustic cafes, and sleek restaurants, Battambang has a small but satisfying culinary scene. See our comprehensive Guide to Eating and Drinking in Battambang.