We’ve spent a lot of time in Battambang in northwest Cambodia over the last year, so we know its attractions aren’t immediately apparent and it can take time and a little effort to appreciate its allure. Here’s our guide to things to do in Battambang.
A two and a half hour drive or 3-4 hour bus ride from Siem Reap, Battambang looks and feels like a country town with not a lot happening, despite it being Cambodia’s second largest city. Stroll its dusty centre in the sweltering heat of the middle of the day and you might find yourself making plans to leave.
Set out at dawn for a tuk tuk drive around the countryside in the magical early morning light, do a bike ride through the friendly villages, cruise the coffee coloured Sangkhae River on a local fishing boat, or amble the riverside at sunset, however, and you will probably end up extending your stay.
To experience the best of Battambang you need to get out and about. Here are some of our favourite things to do in Battambang — we suggest you start with these:
Scramble ancient Khmer archaeological sites — without the crowds
The atmospheric temple ruins scattered around Battambang province might not be as impressive as Angkor Wat and the other Khmer Empire temples near Siem Reap. However, the fact you’ll probably be exploring them alone makes up for their modesty and state of disrepair.
The must-do is 11th century Phnom Banan, around 20 kilometres out of town, which is best visited at sunrise for the golden early morning light. Your short hike up the shaded 358 steps will be rewarded with a pretty little complex of towers with some intricate carvings, Buddha statues wrapped in citrus robes inside the main tower, and glimpses of the surrounding countryside and Sangkhae River.
Don’t miss the dilapidated yet lovely Ek Phnom (above), which the Khmer Rouge attempted but failed to destroy, which also has some detailed carvings, a giant Buddha beside the road near the entrance, and a more modern pagoda decorated with colourful murals. You can also have your fortune read at the foot of the temple by the man with the beatific smile.
Explore laidback villages and visit artisanal producers
One of our favourite things to do in Battambang is to hire a tuk tuk to aimlessly cruise around the countryside. The routes to the temples, through lush rice fields and tranquil villages give a great insight into local life and support the adage that travel is as much about the journey as the destination. You can rent motorbikes to do the same, but we prefer tuk tuks so we can sit back, soak it all up, and have our hands free to return the continual waves of friendly locals and take lots of photos.
Good tuk tuk drivers know the most picturesque routes. The most interesting are the road to Phnom Banan (south of Battambang) and the road to Ek Phnom (north of town), so you could include the temples on these tours. The roads are liveliest in the early morning and late afternoon when stallholders are setting up or shutting shop and locals are eating breakfast and having snacks at roadside stalls on their way to or from work. There are fascinating side roads and dirt tracks that snake through villages with traditional timber houses on stilts, lush rice paddies, and vegetable patches and skirt the riverbank where fishermen throw out lines.
Boutique hotels Maisons Wat Kor and Bambu Hotel both offer half- to full-day tuk tuk tours ($10-15) that include visits to the home workshops of artisanal producers who make everything from rice noodles and rice paper to incense and cotton kramas (scarves). Battambang Bikes has a countryside bike tour that includes a visit to an antique Khmer timber house in Wat Kor village while Battambang Resort can add a fishing boat cruise to their bike tour.
Feast your eyes on old pagodas decorated with faded murals
Historic pagodas or wats that survived the brutal Khmer Rouge years are dotted around the city and province — so many that there is talk that Battambang is set to get a future UNESCO World Heritage listing for its abundance of well-preserved pagodas, temples and colonial buildings.
You don’t have to wander far within Battambang before you arrive at a mural clad pagoda within leafy grounds where friendly monks can be found studying and are often up for a chat. The easiest to visit are handily two of the oldest and most handsome, the splendid Wat Pippitharam, also known as Wat Peapahd, a block north of Phsar Nath (old market) past the Seng Hout Hotel, and Wat Damreay Sar (‘White Elephant’) which boasts statues of elephants, monkey gods and other creatures that represent various scenes from the Reamker or Khmer Ramayana.
On the opposite riverbank, Wat Bovil has beautiful wooden carvings on display in its old vihear and gold and black doors on the newer vihear; Wat Kandal has some fine paintings and a replica of Angkor Wat out back; while Wat Sangker is another of the oldest pagodas. Most are surrounded by chedis and stupas (structures containing ashes) making for pretty pictures in the late afternoon light.
Take in handsome colonial buildings on an architecture tour
In Battambang town, the compact old centre is rich in architecture. There are over 800 heritage buildings, including French-Classical mansions from the colonial era, quaint Chinese shop-houses built in the early 20th century, and modernist examples from the New Khmer Architecture. One of the joys of visiting Battambang is simply strolling the streets taking it all in. Do a walk early in the morning or late afternoon, as it’s too hot in the middle of the day.
Print up one of the free self-guided heritage walking trail maps produced by non-profit Khmer Architecture Tours (based in Phnom Penh) from their website or do a tour. The French hotel Au Cabaret Vert offers audio tours on antique cyclos that stop at significant buildings, including the elegant 1907 Governor’s Residence, an atmospheric Chinese temple, and hidden pagodas. Battambang Bikes also offers an art and architecture themed tour. See: Our Guide to the Arts and Architecture in Battambang.
Hurtle through lush rice fields on the rickety Bamboo Train
It is the most touristy thing to do in Battambang and for many visitors it’s the only thing they do in Battambang, but it is good fun. Built in the 1920s by the French, the single-track metre-wide railway line offered proper train services until the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 and the lines went into disuse. In the 1980s norries — bamboo and wooden platforms the size of a double-bed that sit upon metal wheels — were built by locals to ferry goods, people, produce, and livestock between villages.
The norries are held together by gravity so they can quickly be disassembled and lifted off the tracks to let an oncoming norry pass and then reassembled and returned to the track again. While they’re now equipped with motorcycle engines, in the old days norry drivers stood up and like a gondolier used long bamboo poles to push the things along.
Now it’s predominantly tourists riding the rickety Bamboo Train, holding on for dear life as the contraptions hurtle through rice fields at a hair-raising speed. The track isn’t in the best of conditions. Breaks between sections cause the norry to judder as it clunks over them, suggesting for a second there might be a derailment, except the thing simply continues to rocket over the over-grown line, shrubs whipping our arms and face as speed past.
There is a small village at the end of the line where you can visit a fascinating brick kiln, buy a t-shirt (please do), and get something to eat (there’s a street food stall), before hopping back on to do the return journey along the line you came. The sunset ride is popular, especially with tour groups. The norry driver stops on a bridge to allow you to get off and savour the sun sinking over the rice fields.
If you want to do this ride make sure you’re jumping on a bamboo train at least one hour before sunset to allow plenty of time to go to the end of the line (30 minutes) and return in time. Tickets ($5) are sold at the desk at the start of the ride, where the policeman will also take your name. Tuk tuks charge $5-7 to take you, wait and return; allow two hours in total to be safe.
Be amazed by millions of bats emerging from a cave and savour the sunset from Phnom Sampeau
You could add a visit to Phnom Sampeau or Mount Sampeau to your trip to Banan Temple as it’s not too far away, however, you’ll need to plan your time carefully and that will cost you extra if you’re doing a tuk tuk tour. Time your visit so you can watch the pre-sunset spectacle of millions of bats emerging from a cave and flapping their way into the sky — we were told they’re off to eat their dinner of fruit from nearby trees. Sadly, the mountain is also the site of the Killing Caves, where the Khmer Rouge dumped bodies of murdered Cambodians — something to reflect upon as you savour the sunset from the top of the hill where you’ll have sweeping views of the pancake flat plains.
How to get to Battambang and get around
There are currently no commercial flights to Battambang airport. To get to Battambang from Siem Reap we like to hire a private car and driver (US$35), which is the fastest and most comfortable means of getting there. We book through Sopheakna Travel in Siem Reap (firstname.lastname@example.org; 855 (0) 63 968 895). Drivers speak little English so give Sopheak the name of your hotel, address and phone number, have it written down, and keep Sophea’s number handy. Hotels in Battambang can organize a return car and driver for US$40-50.
Numerous bus companies travel between Battambang and Phnom Penh (over 20 buses a day, $6, six hours), Siem Reap (four buses a day, $6, 3.5 hours), and Bangkok via the Cambodian-Thai border town of Poipet. From Bangkok’s Mo Chit/Northern Bus Terminal and Ekkamai Terminal. (more frequent but not direct). The two best bus companies in Battambang are Capitol (053 953 040) and Sorya (092 181 804). Capitol offers two services a day to Bangkok (7.45am and noon, $13, 8 hours).
From Bangkok’s Hualamphong station, many travellers like to take the early morning train (dep. 5.55am, arr. 11.35am; 48 baht/US$1.50; see the Thai Railways site for more details) to Aranyaprathat, from where you can get a tuk-tuk (80-100 baht) for the 6km journey to the Thai border. Insist the driver drop you at Thai Immigration and ignore the touts who will try to lure you into their travel agency to buy more expensive visas (don’t engage with them) and go directly to the official Thai Immigration Office to exit Thailand and then cross the road and walk down to the official Cambodian Visa Office to obtain your visa.
The 30-day visa currently costs US$20 for tourist visas and US$25 ordinary/business visas, however, these will rise to US$30/35 from 1st October 2014. You can organize an e-visa in advance though processing fees make these more expensive. Once you have the visa continue through Cambodian Immigration to have your passport/visa stamped. From there, you can hop on a free government shuttle bus to Poipet’s main bus terminal (10 mins away) for a bus/mini-van/shared taxi ($4-5) to Battambang or have your hotel organize a car and driver (US$20) to meet you.
During the wet season when water levels are high you can also take a boat (departing at 7am, $25, 6-10 hours) between Siem Reap and Battambang, however, this is a love it or hate it experience. Those who enjoy it like to sit on the roof with a good book if the weather is fine and soak up the sunshine and breezes and take in river life. Those who hate it complain of unsafe boats, cramped seating, little luggage space, boredom, and, if they get a boat with inward facing seats, a pain in the neck from turning to look out.
If you prefer to have someone else organize everything for you, Asia-based Backyard Travel offers excellent multi-day trips, such as Beyond Angkor: Battambang and its Countryside, which takes in some of the experiences above. We tested them out on our second visit to Cambodia, travelling from Siem Reap via Battambang to Phnom Penh, and we were very happy. Backyard Travel also offers bespoke tours.
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.