Battambang (pronounce BattamBANG!) Having left the tourist trap that is Siem Reap on 15 June I arrived in Battambang and thought ‘Oh crap, this is a mistake’. I had read about Battambang’s French colonial architecture with its faded charm, and somehow expected a sleepy town, a little bit off the beaten track with a laidback vibe. Instead, my first impression was of pure mania and a lot more fade than charm. However, I’m glad to say my first impression was wrong. Within hours, I was really enjoying Battambang, and began to see why people would linger here for longer than planned. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very gritty little city and if you’re a hygiene freak you’re not going to love it but I’d take it any day over Siem Reap.
So, here’s what I now know about Battambang: You only need spend a few hours rambling around the ‘walking area’ of town but it’s full of charming little cafes and bars. Accommodation I stayed at the Holiday Hotel. I was apprehensive while booking as I’d read some mixed reviews but I can say this much about it: It’s a clean, simple, no-frills, 3 star hotel. There were NO ANTS. The air con is fine. It cost me $17 per night for a spacious double room. There is no bar or restaurant. The staff were lovely. When I arrived I found it funny that they didn’t have a brochure full of trips and a free map to give me. But I quickly realised I didn’t need that stuff – everything is done word of mouth, they organise your trips and tuk tuks and it’s all done very well with no fuss.
The Sanctuary Villa, Battambang
I also stayed at The Sanctuary Villa (4 star) for a few days as I wanted a bit of luxury by the pool and they were offering a really good low-season deal.
It’s a couple of KM outside Battambang. You do need a tuktuk in and out of town as there is nothing outside or around the hotel but if you fancy a few days’ rest in a beautifully Zen-designed interior with gardens you may like it.
Food and drink
I had breakfast at the Sunrise Café. Great range, good prices, home-baked muffins and pastries too.
Bric a Brac is a high-end artisan, textile and gift store, a B&B, and a bar which serves fine wines. (A lot of Cambodian venues sell one red and one tepid white so if you’re craving a good wine you’ll be in very good hands here.)
Its owners, Morrison and Robert, have also written a massive award-winning Burmese cookbook and they employ local apprentice weavers who work traditional looms. I don’t think they serve food every night but when they do it’s incredible as Robert’s a fantastic cook.
Woodfire café is a lovely, relaxing spot for a drink or a bite to eat. As a solo female, I was very comfortable on my own there and would gladly read a book and chill out over a beer in the evening. There are also lots of restaurants and a night market along the river. Night time in Battambang… …ends at about 9.30 when all the tuk tuk drivers have gone home! Seriously. Mind you, I was there mid-week so it’s probably more happening at the weekend and along the river. Do NOT miss the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus. I went to the puppet show and it totally exceeded my expectations (ticket $14). It’s probably not what you would expect from a circus or puppet show. I would call it physical theatre with lots of acrobatic and juggling skills. They also have a charity-funded visual arts school for young people and you can buy some of their work if you wish.
Tour of the surrounding countryside You must give yourself a day (or long half day) to get out of town on a tuk tuk tour of the countryside. That’s the real highlight. Get your hotel to organise a driver/guide who is known to them. You will be in very isolated countryside and if you are travelling solo you need to know you are safe. My driver/guide cost $20 – he picked me up from the hotel at 8.30 a.m and I was back by about 3. My guide was excellent and I got him from the Holiday Hotel.
He told me all about the Pol Pot era and showed me the rice fields where he worked in a labour camp as a child under the Khmer Rouge. Your tour will probably include: The bamboo train (5$ per passenger in a group. I was solo so I had to pay $10. My fault for being the world’s worst haggler. Anyway, everything’s cheaper when you travel with a group and split costs); Wat Banan temple; Buddhist monastery; various farms; Muslim fishing community along the river, their fishing boats and mosque; Phnom Sampeau; the killing caves; new temple and surrounding countryside. It’s a very steep climb up to viewing points and temples. I got a motorbike with guided tour for 3$. There are lots of small shops/cafes at every stop along the way. Tons of opportunities to buy clothing and textiles!