We’ve spent a lot of time in Battambang in the year since we moved to Cambodia, so we know its attractions aren’t immediately apparent and it can take time and a little effort to appreciate its allure.
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 of things to do, despite 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 extend your stay.
To experience the best of Battambang you need to get out and do things. 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 roads are those to Phnom Banan (south of Battambang) and Ek Phnom (north of town), so you could also include the temples above on your 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 a snack 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 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 two of the oldest, the splendid Wat Pippitharam (also known as Wat Peapahd), in the centre, 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; 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 French colonial architecture, from grand mansions to Chinese shop-houses, and one of the joys of visiting Battambang is simply strolling the streets taking it 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 also 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.
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, but it is good fun. Built during the colonial period, the disused single railway track was only used by locals to ferry goods and people between villages on ‘norries’ – bamboo platforms that can be quickly lifted off the tracks to let oncoming traffic pass. Now it’s predominantly tourists riding the contraptions that hurtle through rice fields at a hair-raising speed. There is a small village at the end of the line where you can visit a fascinating brick kiln, buy a t-shirt (do), and get something to eat, before returning to do the journey again. The sunset ride is popular, however, if you don’t allow enough time, you won’t get to go to the end of the line. Tickets are sold at the desk at the start of the ride, where the police will also take your name.
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.
Getting there and around
Numerous bus companies travel between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, the Thai border and Battambang. You can also take the boat from Siem Reap during the wet season when water levels are high. From Siem Reap we always take a private car and driver (US$35) to Battambang, which is the fastest way. You can book all of these modes of transport through Sopheakna Travel in Siem Reap, which we use often. Email Sopheak on firstname.lastname@example.org or call on 855 63 968 895. Drivers don’t speak much English so tell Sopheak the name of your hotel, address and phone number, have it written down on a piece of paper, and keep Sophea’s number handy. Asia-based Backyard Travel, which we used for our very first trip to Battambang, also offer excellent multi-day trips, such as Beyond Angkor: Battambang and its Countryside, which takes in some of the experiences above. They also offer bespoke tours, so you could ask for activities if they’re not included.