Jul 12

Our Guide to Eating and Drinking in Battambang

Riverside Eating, Battambang, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Cambodian cuisine is one of the most misunderstood cuisines in Asia. And unfortunately visitors’ understanding of the food isn’t helped by tourist restaurants passing off Thai dishes as Cambodian because they know diners are more familiar with the balanced flavours of their neighbour’s cuisine than the confronting sour, bitter and pungent notes of their own.

A few tourist restaurants aside, Cambodia’s second city of Battambang, set in an agriculturally-rich region, is one of the best places in the country to sample the most authentic renditions of Cambodian dishes — at roadside stalls, fresh markets, local eateries, foodie tours, a stylish restaurant, and even a boutique hotel restaurant or two.

Due to its sizable expat population and creative young locals, Battambang is also the spot to find Cambodia’s best coffee, along with good burgers and icy beer in arty bars, and everything from French pizza to fantastic Indian food. Thanks to Tara Winkler of the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok, and restaurateur John Fink, owner of Quay in Sydney, Battambang now boasts a sleek restaurant serving pan-Asian sharing plates and potent cocktails.

Here’s our guide to eating and drinking in Battambang:

Breakfast in Battambang

Battambang’s typical breakfast is kuy teav, a pork noodle broth, and you’ll spot it being slurped at markets and stalls all over the city. The best is at Mrs Te Lieng and Mr Lee Mun’s soup joint in Wat Kor village on the outskirts of town, where the couple have been dishing up bowls of the steaming stuff since 1995. The version with succulent pork slices served atop the noodles is the most barang (foreigner) friendly, however, locals prefer the addition of offal, including liver, intestines, lung, and heart. Add chilli, lime and fresh herbs to taste from the selection of condiments on the table. The deep fried breadsticks or youtiao — also known as ‘Chinese doughnuts’ — served on the side, are for dipping in the soup. If you’re staying at Battambang Resort, owner Phary takes guests on a breakfast bicycle ride to the eatery as an alternative to the hotel buffet. For a Western breakfast, expats like Cafe Eden (85, Street 1) for its pancakes, crepes, bagels, and enormous huevos rancheros, however, a warning: while service is well-meaning it is excruciatingly slow.

 

Markets in Battambang

After breakfast, make a beeline for the markets, which are best in the morning. Fertile Battambang province has a reputation for producing the country’s finest fresh produce — Cambodians swear its coconuts are the finest, pineapples the juiciest, oranges the sweetest, corn the tastiest — so it’s no surprise the town is home to a couple of the country’s best markets. In the heart of town, Phsar Naht market is most compelling in the early morning for fresh food and the early evening for street food. Our favourite market is the larger, busier Phsar Boeung Choeuk, which is a distribution point for suppliers (look for different sections dedicated to pineapples, corn, coconuts and so on), as well as the market where locals do their eating and shopping.

Coffee in Battambang

Coffee lovers shouldn’t miss Cambodia’s best coffee at cute Café Kinyei, a social enterprise aimed at providing training and employment for young locals, on dusty Street 1½ in the heart of the old city. Set in a renovated colonial-era Chinese shop-house, the compact café is decorated with rustic wooden furniture and flowers on the tables. This is where you’ll find smiling 19 year-old Sakana, Cambodia’s 2013 Barista Champion, making her award-winning Cambodian Cappuccino with pineapple syrup, palm sugar and frothy coconut milk. The café also serves up Battambang’s best cheese toasties.

Lunch in Battambang

Nicknamed ‘Noodle Guy’ or ‘Chinese Noodle’ by expats, Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh (145, Street 2) is a simple, no-frills eatery with a stall-like kitchen with boiling pots and woks on gas stoves at the front of the joint. This is where the most unlikely of noodle masters, wearing low-slung shorts, singlet and flip-flops, makes hearty handmade dumplings and silky hand-pulled noodles to order.  Order a serve of each. Don’t even think about ordering anything else.

For something more contemporary, along with air-conditioning, good wines by the glass and great music, try Jaan Bai (Street 2), which means ‘rice bowl’ in Khmer. In a chic, renovated, colonial-era shop-house, the casual restaurant features local art on the walls and bookshelves holding issues of Anthology and Kinfolk. The exterior is covered in murals by Battambang artists and boasts an alfresco area furnished with astro turf and wooden pallets serving as coffee tables and seats. The succinct menu features a few dishes by Chef David Thompson, an advisor to the hospitality training restaurant, such as a fiery Thai jungle curry, and is made with seasonal produce that’s been grown in CCT’s own organic gardens. Try the pulled pork buns and squid sliders (if they’re on the menu) and don’t miss the Kampot pepper crab, a Cambodian specialty from the south.

Local Favourite Battambang Eats

If you speak Khmer or have a Khmer-speaking guide or friends, ask them to take you to the local favourite, a riverside restaurant called Mlob Chan or The Shade of the Nutmeg Tree, for a quintessentially Battambang experience. There is no menu and guests simply request their favourite dishes or order ahead, as our friend did. Locals like to linger for hours here, eating slowly and drinking beers as they swing in the hammocks in the rickety alfresco bamboo pavilions that overlook the river. After they’ll snooze or play cards, ordering more snacks if they’re still hungry. We were firmly focused on the food: a massive spread of plastic plates piled high with morning glory and garlic; wok-fried chicken with preserved lemon and garlic; prahok with kroeung; whole goby fish grilled in salt, eaten with a sauce of young tamarind paste, chilli and garlic; fresh green beans, baby eggplant, cucumber and cabbage; and a mountain of rice, all arranged on a colourful mat on the bamboo floor. It was simple, fresh and flavourful.

Street Food in Battambang

Forget the Nutella pancakes, Battambang’s food stalls serve up some of the most authentic street food you’ll find in Cambodia and the best way to experience it if you’re visiting or are new in town is on a snack tour with Phary, the owner of Battambang Resort. Come late afternoon, Phary leads her food-loving guests on either a bike ride or tuk tuk tour (your choice) to graze at half a dozen food stalls and small family-owned eateries that dot the dusty riverside road. We love it so much we’ve done it a couple of times.

The tour generally starts at a wooden stall where owner Sal makes nom krourk (fried rice and coconut cakes) in a mould over a charcoal fire, which she serves with a sweet, light vinegary syrup of palm sugar and fish sauce. The next stop is usually a ramshackle bamboo shack precariously perched over the river (each monsoon it slips a little further toward the water) where you can sample son vac (fish paste grilled in banana leaves), which you should wrap in lettuce and eat with the cold noodles, basil, saw-tooth coriander and tangy sauce provided. We also order pong tia koun or boiled baby duck eggs, which we scoop out and eat after first drinking the warm flavourful juices from the shell that we created by adding salt, pepper and lime juice.

A little further down the road at Ponleu Preh Chung or The Shining Moon, where Mrs Vat Ongn has been crafting a repertoire of desserts for over 20 years, you can try an array of sweets if you like. I love the heavenly banh ja’neuk or glutinous rice balls stuffed with mung bean paste, drowned in coconut milk and tapioca, with sesame seeds sprinkled atop. It and a similar dessert are nicknamed ‘killing husband’ for their tendency to get caught in the throats of drunk spouses.

If you have room, Phary can include a few other spots on her itinerary too, however, the highlight for us is the final stop. Outside a corrugated iron shed, Mr Pra Dina is usually found piling raw beef skewers that he has been marinating in a big plastic tub of kroeung onto a row of barbeques. We like to watch him fan smoke over the coals as dozens of locals begin arriving on motorbikes to join us in the patient wait for the smoky beef skewers, succulent from the pork fat placed between the beef pieces, and aromatic and sweet from the lemongrass kroeung. They are well and truly worth the wait

Takeaway in Battambang

Around sunset, smoke starts to rise from the stalls set up in the evenings outside Psar Naht market, where you’ll find grilled salted fish, various barbecuing meats and offals on smouldering coals, and hearty soups and stews in massive pots. Take care, as this is takeaway-central. Locals cruise right up to the stalls on motorbikes and in vehicles to buy their dinner. The best stalls are those that are busiest, but look out for two adjoining stalls selling soups and curries.

We like the stall ran by a very focused woman called Roth, who has had her stall here for a decade. Her specialties are char kroeung (a kroeung-based dry curry-like dish made with chicken, duck or cat fish) and home-cooked samlors (soups), including samlor machou youn (sweet and sour vegetable soup with pineapple, tomato, watermelon and tamarind, and vegetables); samlor machou, a typically-sour countryside soup made with green papaya, spicy basil and smoked fish; sgnor, a clear chicken broth fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime; samlor trayong chek, made with banana blossom and tamarind; and samlor machou kroeung that looks like a watery curry but is actually a rich, flavourul koeung-based soup. Don’t leave without buying another Battambang specialty, prahok chamhuy, a steamed prahok fish paste, with pork and eggs.

There are several stalls offering all things grilled — frogs, fish cakes, chicken wings, pork ribs, quails, sweet Cambodian sausages, and whole chickens — glistening from a marinade of kroeung, oil and red chilli. You will also spot large grey-coloured goby fish and smaller catfish, both caught from the river, blanketed in a salt mixture featuring kaffir lime and lemongrass, and being continually turned on the barbecue. The culinary adventurous shouldn’t leave without sampling khnob — barbecued prahok, mushroom and tamarind wrapped in banana leaf.

If you need help, go see English-speaking Dang who, with his baseball-capped wife, sells succulent rotisserie chickens and ducks, sold with bags of fresh greens, cucumbers and fragrant herbs. Their stall is the only one sign-posted. Try to find petite Mao Vanna too. For over 20 years, this lovely little woman has been selling three specialties from her tiny stools, topped with trays of amok trey, Cambodia’s national dish that has a texture that falls somewhere between a souffle and mousse. It’s made from fish and a curry paste that’s been steamed in banana leaf and in Battambang it’s always made with goby fish (note: for Cambodians, there’s no such thing as chicken amok or beef amok or tofu amok – these are dishes purely invented for tourists). Also try her other two specialties: char kdao, a kroeung-based duck dish with hot basil, and char kgney, a light chicken and ginger stir-fry.

Bars in Battambang

One of the loveliest spots for sunset drinks has long been atmospheric Balcony Bar in a big traditional Khmer timber house on the riverside about halfway to Wat Kor village, which recently reopened under new management. Another good spot for sundowners is Café Eden (see above), where the narrow first floor balcony offers good peoplewatching — come sunset the riverfront is busy with locals jogging and power-walking, monks strolling and kids playing games. The Bambu bar (see below) is a popular happy hour destination, with stools filling with an equal number of expats as hotel guests; you’ll often find gregarious owner Pat perched at the bar shouting drinks. Art curator Darren Swallow’s stylish Lotus Bar (Street 2½) is great for cold beers (and they also do good burgers), especially on Friday and Saturday nights when they host anything from avant-garde sound performances and live music to experimental film screenings and exhibition openings in the gallery upstairs. The best spot for serious cocktails remains Jaan Bai (above and below), where technical advisor Tom has injected some creativity into the heady Asian-inspired cocktails.

Dinner in Battambang

The best restaurant in the centre for dinner is Jaan Bai, which stays open late and is even buzzier at night than it is by day. If you’re looking for a change from Cambodian, try the cheesy French-style ‘pizza’ that affable Frenchman Michel serves up in his simple shophouse pizzeria, BTB Pizza (Street 2). But if you haven’t had your fill of local food yet, then stroll over the bridge or take a tuk tuk to Battambang’s best boutique resorts to tuck into some of the city’s most delicious Cambodian cuisine.

Across the river at Russey Restaurant at colonial-inspired Bambu hotel, you can try generous portions of expertly cooked Cambodian favourites, such as a rich samlor kako, a hearty Cambodian soup made with kroeung, prahok and a variety of vegetables, such as sweet pumpkin, and one of the finest renditions we’ve had of lok lak, a beef pepper dish that is thought to have been probably brought to Cambodia by the Chinese in the 13th century. The restaurant’s signature dish ‘Beef Battambang’, however, is a richer, more sophisticated version of sach ko ang jakak, the grilled kroeung beef and pork skewers, and it’s often served at weddings. The restaurant also offers delicious Western and Asian dishes in case you have a craving.

A ten-minute tuk tuk ride out of town you’ll find some of Battambang’s finest Cambodian cuisine served on the leafy Lotus Terrace restaurant at the charming Maisons Wat Kor, a small boutique hotel of traditional timber houses. Here, Cambodian owner Kim Nou has worked with his chef to develop refined renditions of Khmer dishes, including some not typically found in Cambodian restaurants. Some are cooked with French techniques or presented in a European style. Pretty on the plate, they are packed with big flavours. Hope that the fried frangipanis are served and the intense, ginger-infused beef broth is on the menu. Book a table early in the day or a day ahead for the set tasting menus change nightly. If you’re not staying at the property, organize a tuk tuk driver through the hotel or ask your own driver to return or wait.

For more on Cambodian cuisine and Battambang, see our 10-page story ‘Land of Plenty’ in the May 2014 issue of Delicious magazine; ‘On the Map: Bohemian Battambang‘ in the March 2014 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia; ‘Battambang Bada Boom’ on Jaan Bai in the January 2014 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia; ‘Cambodian Culture Club‘ on Jaan Bai in the January issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

Jun 17

Why You Should Avoid Orphanage Visits in Cambodia

Tara Winkler, founder and managing director of the Cambodian Children's Trust (CCT). Photographed at Jaan Bai restaurant, Battambang. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

As we waited at Siem Reap airport for our flight to Bangkok a few days ago, I overheard American tourists on their phones telling friends back home about their Asian adventures. A highlight of their trip, they said, had been visits to orphanages in Cambodia. I don’t care if they heard me groan. These have to stop.

It was another similar conversation I overheard between young Asian-Australian travellers in a Battambang hotel a few months ago that motivated me to interview Battambang-based Tara Winkler, the co-founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust. CCT is the NGO that launched the hospitality training restaurant, Jaan Bai, which we’ve been writing about since it opened last October. Here’s why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia…

Grantourismo: Q. Orphanage visits are on many travellers’ to-do lists these days, especially in Cambodia. What does orphanage tourism involve?
Tara Winkler: A. Orphanage tourism is becoming increasingly popular in developing countries like Cambodia. It simply means tourists visiting orphanages as part of their travel itineraries.

Q. Orphanage tourism is closely linked to voluntourism — they both come from a desire to give back to the places visited.
A. While voluntourism is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, it can cause serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia — problems that most people are not aware of. Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create. We need to think before visiting an orphanage. Children are not tourist attractions.

Q. So orphanage tourism is big business?
A. Absolutely. Because there are so many tourists who want to come visit orphanages, it has become very lucrative for orphanages to exist and to be open to tourist visits. This has led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily. The number of orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphans has declined. It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and well-meaning foreigners are the customers.

Q. What’s wrong with orphanage tourism exactly?
A. The majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope that they will find a path out of poverty to a better life. Yet these families do not fully understand the negative impact that living in an orphanage can have on their children. At best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.

Q. Why is that?
A. Part of the reason for this is the rotating roster of carers and visitors to orphanages. It is important for children’s development and mental health to have long-term, stable relationships, rather that short-term periods of bonding followed by separation. So to answer your question, because orphanage tourism provides an incentive for these orphanages to exist, it is not a good thing at all. With the best of intentions, people who visit orphanages are being more harmful than helpful to children.

Q. Are there any legitimate orphanage visits that can be made by tourists?
A. I would say ‘no’. Certainly, there are ‘good’ orphanages that have the children’s best interests at heart, but having people enter a child’s private space is inherently disruptive and does not benefit children. You wouldn’t visit a group home for vulnerable children in Australia or the US, so why do it in Cambodia?

Q. What are the alternatives to orphanages in a country like Cambodia where UNICEF estimated there were 600,000 orphans? Are residential care centres and children’s villages better?
A. Residential care centres, children’s villages, and orphanages are all types of institutionalised care. The best place for a child to grow up is in a family environment, not in an institution. That’s why all the children that CCT works with live in a family, whether it is with their biological parents, aunties and uncles, grandparents, or foster parents. Cambodia has a long tradition of caring for vulnerable children within kinship care, and to this day, the majority of Cambodia’s orphans live within the extended family. The rapid increase in residential care facilities threatens to erode these existing systems and places children at risk.

Q. If altruistic travellers want to help to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, what are some better to do this?
A. A great way is to support social enterprises run by charities that support children. In Battambang, we run Jaan Bai, a restaurant that trains youth from our programs, with all the profits coming back to CCT to support our programs. There are similar social enterprises throughout Cambodia, like Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh and Marum restaurant in Siem Reap, which support Friends International’s work with children living on the street. In Kampot, Epic Arts Café supports Epic Arts’ work with people with disabilities.

Q. Why was CCT established and what does it do exactly?
A. CCT was established in 2007 when Jedtha Pon and I, with the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation, rescued 14 children from a corrupt and abusive orphanage in Battambang. Since then, we’ve grown to support more than 300 children and their families through our communityeducation and social enterprise programs. These programs work together to ensure children and their families have the comprehensive support they need to thrive. We enable children in Battambang to break free from the cycle of poverty and become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.

Q. How does the CCT differ from an orphanage?
A. All children supported through our programs live in a family. We believe strongly that families are the best place for children. There have been a few cases where we have reunited siblings and parents and children who have been separated when the children were living in orphanages, and it is incredible to see the difference this makes in their lives. They are doing so well.

Q. What about travellers considering a volunteer program?
A. Think before volunteering overseas. When travelling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might inadvertently be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train and empower local people. Then, instead of taking jobs from local people, you’ll be empowering them and helping them to become more employable.

Q. Any tips for travellers who wish to donate money or gifts?
A. Think before donating to charities that institutionalise children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Support organisations that promote family based care and empower the people they are working to help. Think before sending donations of goods to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.

Q. In other words, do some thorough research first.
A. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the ways in which we are helping are not inadvertently causing more harm than good.

Q. Are there any specific organizations, projects or businesses you recommend travellers visiting Cambodia donate to or support?
A. In addition to those I mentioned already, PEPY Tours in Siem Reap is a great organisation that runs culturally immersive learning tours and does a lot of education around responsible tourism.

Cambodian Children’s Trust
www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org

You can also donate to Cambodian Children’s Trust here

Jun 07

Things To Do In Battambang

Ek Phnom, Battambang, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

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 (info@sopheaknatravel.com; 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.

Jun 06

Behind the Scenes at Jaan Bai Restaurant in Battambang

Jaan Bai, Battambang, Cambodia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

In October 2013, we went behind the scenes at Jaan Bai restaurant in Battambang to cover the opening of the Cambodian Children’s Trust‘s new social enterprise hospitality training restaurant, which has been supported by Australians Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok and restaurateur John Fink of Quay restaurant in Sydney. We spent a lot of time in the kitchen. This is a story I wrote about the experience.

 

The second the chef turns off the gas, spoons are swiftly whipped from shoulder pockets of stained chef jackets, dipped into the pot of pungent curry, and promptly popped into mouths. Eyelids close, brows arch, eyes roll, and lips curl up at the corners in delight.

Yet there’s one nose of the dozen or so in the restaurant kitchen that twitches and scrunches. “Too spicy!” the young Cambodian cook declares, when I look at her. Screwing up her pretty face, she flaps a hand in front of her mouth, yet dips the utensil in again.

While the girl’s colleagues lean against kitchen benches and freshly painted walls, jotting down recipe notes into small spiral pads, scrappy pieces of paper, and even a kitchen napkin, the aspiring young chef with the big smile and shiny black hair spoons more fiery sauce into her mouth, which she frantically fans, rapidly sucking in cool air. “Too spicy!” she exclaims again, continuing to dip her spoon, until the sauce has all but disappeared.

Chef David Thompson’s uncompromisingly authentic Thai food — gleaned from old family recipes in heritage ‘cookbooks’ (in fact, funeral memorial books) that he has long collected and long-lost dishes which he has travelled Thailand to seek out — has that effect on people. While the young cook, used to gentler Cambodian curries, makes her notes about Thompson’s famously fiery jungle curry, her friends gather around the legendary chef for the next lesson.

Thompson turns a colossal live crab over on a bench, its back down and legs wriggling in the air, before stepping aside. Cambodian chef Mohm Meah, the young woman who will head this new kitchen, has just spent one month training at Thompson’s Bangkok restaurant Nahm, voted number one on the 2014 edition of the highly regarded Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, collated by Restaurant magazine.

Without hesitation Chef Mohm takes the cleaver and with a loud “THWACK!” kills the crab instantly. Thompson throws the crab into the wok, shell and all, along with ingredients Chef Matthew Albert has been preparing.

Albert is a former head chef of Nahm London, another of Thompson’s enterprises and the world’s first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant. He is soon to helm Thompson’s new Singapore restaurant. In the interim, he has been here a week teaching the young staff in this Cambodian kitchen.

Sparks fly and flames shoot into the air as Thompson continuously shifts the wok over the burner, ensuring the crab is smothered in sauce and evenly cooked. Feeling the blazing heat scorch my cheeks, I step back through the glass doorway onto the footpath outside. The young cooks, who have encircled the chef to watch his every move, don’t flinch.

We are in the kitchen of Jaan Bai, which means ‘rice bowl’ in Khmer, a day before the opening of the stylish new hospitality training restaurant, bar and gallery in the Cambodian city of Battambang, the capital of an agriculturally rich province regarded as the country’s rice bowl.

The stainless steel of the new kitchen gleams in the late afternoon light, its clean lines and sparkling glass wall in stark contrast to the gravelly street outside that sends dust our way each time a tuk tuk or motorbike crunches by.

Around a two and half hour drive from Siem Reap and five hours from Phnom Penh, the riverside city, which feels more like a country town, might seem like a strange place for a chic new eatery in a renovated French colonial-era shop-house.

Perhaps more surprising is that the restaurant has such high profile advisors. Not only Thompson, a celebrated Australian chef who has made a career from cooking some of the world’s most authentic Thai cuisine, but also John Fink who is also in the kitchen, photographing and videotaping the action while tasting dishes and testing drinks. Fink is the owner of Sydney’s Quay, one of Australia’s finest restaurants, on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for five years running.

Jaan Bai is the brainchild of Battambang-based Australian Tara Winkler, founding director of NGO Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), established with Cambodian Jedtha Pon in 2007, after the two rescued 14 abused children from an orphanage. Since then CTT has assisted hundreds of vulnerable kids through foster care, family outreach, and a youth centre.

“We want to expand CCT’s work to include social enterprises that provide training and create jobs for underprivileged youths,” Winkler tells me, “And in time, help generate funds for CCT, reducing our reliance on donations. We decided on a restaurant as our first social enterprise, thanks to Fink, Thompson and Rolando Schirato from Vittoria Coffee, to create a public face for CCT, help boost the local economy, and bring more visitors to Battambang.”

It was Winkler, a friend of Fink’s, who got the restaurateur involved, and Fink who persuaded Thompson to contribute expertise to Battambang’s first training restaurant. They came for the launch and plan to return regularly to assist with the restaurant’s growth.

“Cambodia is a post-colonial, post-war country populated by some of the warmest and happiest people I have ever met in the world,” Fink explains. “Before that horrendous time with the Khmer Rouge, Battambang was a creative and cultural powerhouse, and there’s an East Berlin-feeling of enthusiasm emanating from the artists rebuilding their lives and careers.”

Home to the country’s largest performing arts school, the quirky Phare Cambodian Circus, and several art galleries, Battambang is an emerging arts destination. Jaan Bai’s exterior has been decorated with vibrant murals by local artists and their paintings hang inside.

“It is simply the right thing to do,” says Thompson. “I mean these kids need a hand. History and politics has been cruel to the country and to them and their families. And yet they remain un-embittered and have a genuine gentle and hopeful attitude. I find that remarkable. I hope I could display such fortitude.”

Rolando Schirato doesn’t have the high profile that Thompson and Fink do, but as a senior executive of Australia’s 50 year-old Vittoria Coffee, he’s hugely respected. While tastings are underway in the kitchen, front-of-house is  busy. The builder is still working on the electrics, a cocktail trainer is organizing the bar, volunteers are decorating shelves, and Schirato is setting up a shiny new espresso machine.

The coffee machine is one of two that Vittoria Coffee has donated. The other will be installed at a new barista school CCT is planning to open at Sammaki Gallery, thanks to Vittoria Coffee. The company has donated Jaan Bai’s first year of operating costs, helped set up the restaurant, and provided training to staff, locally and in Australia.

Schirato befriended Winkler after approaching her about volunteering. “We spoke about projects we’d been involved in,” he explains, “including one where Vittoria helped a rural Australian town build a community centre and cafe to build youth skills, in particular barista training. Tara hoped to do something similar in Battambang. That’s where it started.”

Also at the bar, restaurant manager Tom O’Sullivan is teaching eager young Cambodians to pull beers. O’Sullivan has a background in social enterprise cafés in Melbourne, Australia’s coffee capital, working at Kinfolk and managing The Mission Café.

“I realized the potential hospitality has to empower individuals and create positive change,” O’Sullivan tells me. “At Kinfolk we raised money for projects in developing countries. To have the opportunity to work with CCT in a developing country really exposes you to the need. It’s pretty motivating.”

O’Sullivan collaborated with Fink to develop the concept when the restaurateur visited Battambang in April 2013. He was ill in hospital at the time.

“I knew John was serious about making this work,” O’Sullivan reveals. “He was my first visitor, bedside, 40 degrees, no air-con, flies, no partitions between us and other patients in ICU, notepad was out, and we had our first brainstorm. A week later John emailed the notes. That was the catalyst for our business plan.”

O’Sullivan also accompanied Chef Mohm to Bangkok. A strong you woman, Mohm raised her young siblings and their cousins after her parents and aunt and uncle died, sacrificing her education to work to support them. It’s her turn now. While Mohm learnt how one of Asia’s best restaurant kitchens works, O’Sullivan discussed kitchen design and menu development with Thompson and Albert.

“If it wasn’t for them we’d probably have microwaves stacked from floor to ceiling,” he confides, “David and Matthew were key to us using local produce (grown in CCT gardens) to create a seasonal menu that captures the best of South East Asia, whilst leaning on some Western influences.”

The idea behind a modern pan-Asian menu, rather than Cambodian or even Thai cuisine, was to diversify trainees’ skills, making them more employable, as much as to please the different target audiences: Cambodians, expats and tourists. After Schirato, Fink, Thompson, and Albert leave, it will be O’Sullivan who manages the restaurant on a day to day basis and trains staff.

“I hope to train employees to the point where they can get a job anywhere in the world,” O’Sullivan says. “I’ve quickly learnt who the trainees are who want to learn. They’re the ones with little note pads, which they’ve made themselves, who write down things like: ‘make sure I say thank you coming jaan bai to the guests’ and ‘I really like new job, want to try very hard new job’.”

The whole of Battambang seems to be at Jaan Bai’s opening the next night, including CCT workers, kids and families. There is a Cambodian band, live painting, espresso cocktails, tasting portions of dishes, free-flowing cold beer, and dancing well into the night.

A few days later I ask O’Sullivan how he felt seeing people streaming into the beautiful restaurant and trying the fantastic food. “In the days leading up to the opening I’d worked 15 hours a day,” O’Sullivan confides. “On the day it was crazy.”

“But at 7pm we opened the doors. Guests were watching the CCT kids perform a welcome dance and I was pretty emotional,” he admits. “I had to go into the kitchen and pull myself together, wipe away the tears, and get on with the night. That’s why I do it. We’re finally open and I know this space is going to have a positive effect on so many people’s lives.”

Jaan Bai
Street 2, Battambang
Cambodia
www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org

This is a longer and slightly different version of a story published in the January 2014 issue of Southeast Asia Globe.

Jun 04

City, Sun and Sand – European Summer Escapes

Portas Vells, Mallorca, Spain. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Summer is upon us in the northern hemisphere — the time to start thinking about European summer escapes. If you structure your seasons by calendar months, as Australia does, summer would have begun on the weekend on the first day of June. If you follow the sun and farmers almanacs as much of the northern hemisphere does, then it will begin on summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point on June 21st. Although in Iceland, summer started in April!

Not that we really have any sense of summer in the tropics. We essentially have one long hot season that lasts from March to September that shifts between sizzling, scorching, sweltering and sticky and we increasingly get more rain as we move toward the wettest monsoonal months of October and November. Things begin to cool the closer we get to our few months of ‘winter’, which is more like autumn.

Because I won’t be experiencing it this year I’ll be looking forward to the European summer in spirit, as it was such a big part of our lives during the years we lived in Dubai. My recent story on underrated cities in Europe that we love had me reminiscing about the many long, relatively dry, sultry summers we spent in Europe — eight glorious weeks each year soaking up history, culture, art, and music, gorging on divine food washed down with wonderful local wines, then retreating to a beach or island for some down-time.

One of the things I miss about living in that part of the world is the abundance of no-frills flights that enabled us to bounce around Europe. I’ll never forget when we flew from London to Brussels for just 99p and from there to Venice for just a fraction more. We spent the money we’d saved on flights on a water taxi direct from the airport to our door.

We’d often start our summer trips in capitals like London for a taste of the big city before jumping on a European low cost airline to a smaller destination in Spain or France or Italy for beach time. Because I’m not the kind of person who can go to a resort and lie in the sun all day every day anymore, I need the stimulation that comes from being close to a city or town: busy streets and buzzy local markets, good restaurants and bars, museums and galleries, concerts and festivals — all the things that make European cities so fabulous, especially in summer.

So this time I’m compiling a list for you of some of our favourite cities and towns that make for easy European summer escapes due to their airports — essential if you have limited time – and have great beaches on their doorsteps or a short drive away.

PORTO
Most people probably don’t associate Portugal‘s UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Porto with beaches. For those, their thoughts lead to the Algarve. Port wine would be the first thing that comes to mind, then the beauty of this hilly, atmospheric city, with its austere cathedral and elegant buildings decorated with blue and white azulejos tiles, and perhaps its proximity to the Minho and Douro valleys and their distinctive wines. But the city also boasts beautiful nearby beaches, some accessible by foot along the riverside esplanade, others by public transport. Foz is the closest, a one-hour amble along the waterfront, where the Duoro River meets the sea. A few kilometres north are the surfing beaches of Matosinhos, with well-regarded surf schools as well as cafés, bars and restaurants at this port town. On the southern side of the river, the beaches of Vila Nova de Gaia, such as Lavadores, Madalena, Salgueiros, and Miramar have creamy soft sand, seafront esplanades, wooden boardwalks, and more beachfront eateries and drinking spots.

FARO
On Portugal’s southern Algarve coast, pristine Ilha da Barreta remains fairly off the beaten track and feels remote, yet it’s just a short boat ride away from Faro. In the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, which is teeming with birdlife and popular with birdwatchers, there’s almost 10 kilometres of empty soft-sand beach. There are umbrellas for hire, great snorkelling, nature walks, and an eco-friendly restaurant with a solar-powered kitchen. If you’re looking for a livelier base, Tavira, a one-hour drive down the coast, is charming. It has a special place in our hearts, as it was our first beach escape on our inaugural European summer holiday after moving to the Middle East many years ago. These days, the Portuguese say that Tavira is what the Algarve was like before tourism. Expect cobblestone streets, riverside cafés, whitewashed buildings with pretty balconies and azulejo tiles, plenty of domed-churches, castle ruins, and red and blue fishing boats bobbing in the river. You can access a handful of beaches by boats that leave the port, but our favourite was unspoilt Tavira Island, also part of the Ria Formosa nature reserve. Pack a picnic lunch.

PALMA DI MALLORCA
Palma, the capital of the Spanish island of Mallorca, has dozens of beaches on its doorstep, such as Magaluf, Palma Nova and Torrenova. But they are terribly crowded and eating and drinking options consist of fast food joints and Irish pubs. Rent a car, however, and you can do road trips to stunning, unspoilt stretches of sand. It’s a slow but scenic drive along winding roads and then a sweaty scramble to the beaches of Cala de Deià, Cala de Sa Calobra, Platja Formentor, and Cala Sant Vicenç, but they are some of the prettiest, with crystal clear water and enchanting settings. There are even more alluring, yet more remote, wild beaches accessed along rough mountain roads, such as Cala Torta, Cala Mitjana, Cala Estreta, and Cala Mesquida. A little easier to get to are Cala Mondrago with two clear-water coves backed by sand dunes, and the five kilometre long, white-sand Es Trenc, which feels tropical. Take picnic hampers and some shade, as there are few facilities at some of these beaches. More accessible is lovely Cala Santanyí near the whitewashed fishing village of Cala Figuera; the bay at Porto Colom, which boasts pine-shaded beaches and is dotted with beach house rentals, and Porto Cristo, where swimming pontoons float on a shimmering bay surrounded by craggy cliffs.

PERPIGNAN
One of our favourite French cities, Perpignan is fabulous for foodies and festival-lovers, however, it’s also handy to some beautiful beaches, which are a very short drive away. A warning: before you get to these alluring stretches of sand there are some bad town beaches along the way, backed by ugly apartment buildings, with few appealing attributes, so avoid them.. Of the stunners, 23 kilometres south of Perpignan, Argèles has soft cream-sand beaches bordered by promenades and leafy parks overlooked by stately old villas and restaurants with terrace seating and sea views. It can get crowded in summer, however, when you should spread your towel out on comparatively quieter North Argèles instead, which attracts holidaymakers from the nearby camping grounds and beach houses. Or drive 40 kilometres north of Perpignan, to La Franqui, where you’ll find two long, wide, white sand beaches — one skirting a cute village and the other running between the sea and an inland lake, which feels like it could be in Australia. Both are popular with wind-surfers, which means things can get breezy, so take a shelter.

NICE
The glamorous, jet-setting capital of southern France’s Côte d’Azur, Nice has enough to keep you entertained for weeks. For starters, there’s the labyrinthine Vieux Nice (Old Town) to explore; the Cours Saleya to stroll on flower market mornings; and compelling museums to see, including the wonderful Musée Matisse (the legendary artist lived here from 1917 until his death in 1954); magical Musée Marc Chagall (another favourite painter of mine); and fascinating Palais Masséna (for insights into old aristocratic Nice). Then there’s the palm-lined Promenade des Anglais, which wraps around the Bay of Angels, to amble, and an abundance of brilliant beaches — public and private — to test out. Between 20 to 40 minutes away by bus and a little less by train and car from the centre are a few of the best beaches, including pretty Villefranche, with good swimming with still water, clean coarse sand, and restaurants near the beach; Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, which has a quiet cove, clear water, and posh crowd; and, close to Monaco, Cap d’Ail, surrounded by dramatic cliffs, with two private beaches with gravelly sand, although absolutely gorgeous jade-coloured sea.

FLORENCE
Most travellers to Florence come for the history, art and architecture. The Tuscan city is crammed with treasures — the outstanding Uffizi Gallery with its Renaissance gems, paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Rubens that can occupy you for days, Michelangelo’s David, frescoes by Giotto, the splendid Duomo with Brunelleschi’s cupola and Ghiberti’s wonderful ‘Paradise’ doors on the baptistery, the medieval Ponte Vecchio, and Palazzo Pitti with its Medici collections. But little do most foreign visitors know, but there are some gems not far away from the city on the coast too — some of Italy’s finest beaches, including 18 beaches classified as ‘Blue Flags’, the highest rating for environmental sustainability and water quality. The closest stretches of sand are in the upmarket Versilia area which is as well-loved for its lively nightlife as it is for its lovely long, wide beaches, which include Viareggio, Marina di Carrara, Forte dei Marmi, Pietrasanta, and Camaiore. These are old and established too with private beaches with changing rooms, showers, sun-beds, deckchairs and umbrellas, and plenty of cafés, bars and restaurants overlooking the promenades that are as much a part of the experience as the sun and sand.

Getting there and around
There are countless low-cost airlines operating these days (we used flybe a lot, for instance), so it’s easy to find cheap flights to Europe’s seaside cities. For moving between the cities, trains are also fantastic. If you’re not straying to beaches too far away, you can use public transport, which will take you to beaches around Nice and Porto. However, if you’re travelling a bit of a distance, as you would need to do from Perpignan and Florence, it’s best to hire a car. We used Europcar for many years, generally picking the vehicle up from the airport upon arrival. Keep in mind that accommodation on the beaches in Europe can be booked out months in advance, so reserve something early. Grand hotels and B&Bs can be atmospheric but we always prefer settling in for a while into holiday rentals, whether its apartments or beach houses.

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