Battambang is Keepin it Real
Shadows spill across shop house lined alleys
slicing the golden light in sharp perpendicular lines.
I walk out into the city with few expectations
most tourists warned me there’s not much to like.
In the morning heat
as sweat beads on my brow and pools behind my knees
I become instantly enchanted with everything I see.
On small neighborhood alleys children play jacks
schoolgirls gossip in an unbreakable chain.
Fried bread and pastries sit on platters
behind decaying French old world facades.
In the market vendors unload rambutan and hack fresh fish
some even splatters in my face.
I get no special attention, no solicitation
people continue with their business.
Every building I pass begs for a photo
I happily oblige.
Beside noodle stalls and laundromats
I find art galleries and gastropubs… could there be a hipster scene?
A tourist I am
I venture out to the country
and ride the rickety rails
of the infamous Bamboo Train.
Atop the hill at Phnom Sampeu
I walk through temples that once held prisoners
stand in caves where Khmers were thrown
into early graves.
At the bottom of the hill we wait
for sunset beneath a limestone cave
out come millions of hungry bats
to the rice fields they fly to feast.
I return to Battambang at night
and see the town come alive
watching break dancers along the river
sipping wine at a gallery opening
listening to brass music on the street.
With a beer in my hand
surrounded by local families, artists, expat families
I smile and consider
if perhaps Battambang is not a place to see
but rather a place to simply be.
How to Get to Battambang
Boat from Siem Reap
$25, 4-10 hours
Taking a local taxi boat from Siem Reap to Battambang is one of my favorite things I did in Cambodia. The boat is cramped, hot, uncomfortable, and during the dry season can take up to ten hours, but the scenery and the kind people you pass more than make up for it. Most hotels and tour desks will arrange the booking, which includes pickup from your hotel in Siem Reap. For the best views lay out a sarong and chill on the roof of the boat, you’ll get a better breeze and more space too, but cover yourself and wear a hat because the sun is intense! It may have cost me more and taken twice as long as the bus, but I would do this trip again in a heartbeat.
Bus from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh
Buses from Siem Reap to Battambang take just a few hours and run all day. From Phnom Penh buses take around 5 hours and cost between $5 and $10 depending on the company. Your best option is to simply ask at a tour office or your hotel and they will have plenty of options. Most buses are air-conditioned and the Grand Ibis even has wifi. I do not recommend taking a minibus as they’re usually way too cramped, more expensive, and the drivers tend to speed like maniacs.
Where to Sleep in Battambang
$3 dorm, $10 double private
You’ll find the young and hip who live in Battambang hanging on bar stools and drinking pints at Here be Dragons. This hostel is a haven for budget travelers who want a social but laid-back atmosphere. Rooms are simple but very inexpensive, the lounge patio has great hammocks and papasan chairs, and the roof makes a great place for sunrise yoga, they even supply mats. The restaurant dishes out local and Western food with plenty of delicious healthy options. Even if you don’t stay here it’s worth coming by and taking a cheap Pilates class on the roof, hanging at the bar, or having their yummy Saturday night BBQ. My first night I arrived to find a full 24 piece marching band playing in front of the hostel. Guests crowded around the entrance and dozens of locals were pulled over on the street perched on motorbikes.
$55 for a double, $110 for family room
If you want some relaxation outside the city, Battambang Resort sits in a luxurious garden setting, a full service spa, restaurant, and a saltwater pool. They arrange tours of the countryside, temples, and bamboo train so you can be out and about in the area then retreat to this oasis when you please. Rooms are beautiful and modern with a/c and big beds. The restaurant is also considered one of the best in Battambang, if not one of the best in Cambodia, and uses fresh organic produce from their own garden.
$70 for a triple to $200 for a suite
Worth the splurge is the fully restored 1930s Colonial home turned boutique hotel La Villa. Originally built by a local tradesman you can soak up some Battambang architectural history simply by staying here. The rooms have beautiful antique furnishings, patterned floor tiles, and art deco details. The place feels small and intimate with just seven rooms. The onsite restaurant, a beautiful glass encased dining room overlooking the garden, serves a complementary breakfast and quality grilled meats and Khmer curries for dinner. With a pool and cocktail bar you may never leave.
Where to Eat and Drink in Battambang
When it comes to bars, cafes, and restaurants, Battambang has just about the coolest scene of any city I’ve ever traveled in. Most places serve as so much more than a place to eat or drink rather a place to inspire and be inspired by an international and local community.
$.50 to $1
The bustling local market has the cheapest eats in town and arguably the best atmosphere. I loved coming here early in the morning while the locals shopped for fresh seafood and dined on hot bowls of noodle soup. There’s a great selection of fruits and food stalls offer young coconuts, fried rice, fried noodles, and noodle soup for next to nothing.
$3 to $8 for entrees
If Jaan Bai existed in New York it would easily be among the hippest restaurants and bars. I can best liken it to a less sterile Momofuku with a rotating art collection. The food is at least as good and comes at a fraction of the price. The chic modern design marries with historic details as seamlessly as the chef fuses Western technique with Khmer spice. Dishes like Kampot pepper crab and brown rice salad with delicate mushrooms and crispy homemade tofu are executed perfectly. They also serve as a training center for Cambodia Children’s Trust which helps children recover from poverty . Eat here, it’s a no brainer.
$2 to $6 for entrees
This American owned café has a great assortment of tasty, inexpensive comfort food like American style breakfast with crispy home fries, fish and chips, and big satisfying salads. They are affiliated with several organizations which train disadvantaged Khmers in arts and crafts. Patrons can purchase these goods in the café shop and scope out works by local artists.
$2 to $6 for drinks, snacks, mains
Lotus is a bar, a gallery, an event space, a movie theater, and an all around cozy place to hang. The space is an old shophouse that has been beautifully restored with a modern interior, showcasing local artists. I was floored by the quality of works on display here, many done by young graduates of the local Phare Ponleu Selpak nonprofit that trains Khmers in the arts. By day it’s light and airy, the perfect place to catch up on blogging and snack on hummus and crudite. At night the vibe transforms into a hip gathering place with craft cocktails, beers on tap, gallery openings, and occasionally movie screenings. Every city needs a place like Lotus.
The Riverside Balcony Bar
$2 to $10 for drinks, snacks, mains
The Riverside Balcony Bar is the place in Battambang for a sunset cocktail. It’s in a renovated traditional wooden Khmer house on a quiet spot along the river. Most people come for drinks but the food, particularly the burgers, are said to be delish. I read a recent review saying this place shut down? It was still running in late March 2014 (a couple of weeks ago). Anyone have an update?
$1 to $4 for drinks and light bites
Tucked at the end of a picturesque street, Kinyei serves up espresso, smoothies, sweets, sandwiches, and salads. In addition to serving first class coffee and tasty food they also provide a creative collaborative space for people from all over the world. They occasionally have live music from local bands and display works by local artists. If you want to get to know the heart of Battambang, grabbing a coffee here in the morning is a great place to start.
What to Do in Battambang
The best thing to do in Battambang really is to simply be. Soak up your surroundings, walk down the picturesque streets, pop into cafes and art galleries, get to know the locals, and become part of the community. When you tire of that, get out and see some of these:
The Bamboo Train
$5 for a 1 hour ride
When you first arrive in Battambang you will most like take a tuk tuk to your hotel and immediately hear a pitch for a tour of the Bamboo Train, the Killing Caves, and a nearby temple. Transportation and guide services usually run about $10, not including the entrance to the Bamboo Train. Otherwise you can pay $5 for the entire tuk tuk to go to only the Bamboo Train and back. The ride is fun and a cool way to see the countryside. You take a pit stop at the end of the track where kids will mercilessly follow you around convincing you to buy their bracelets.
$3 entry fee
This scenic karst hill is out in the beautiful countryside about a 20 minute motorbike ride from the city. The most famous attractions include the killing cave at the top, which you can reach by hiking for about an hour or taking a scooter up to the top. You initially reach a monastery where the Khmer Rogue held villagers before throwing them into the caves to die. It’s a disturbing place but worth a visit to get greater insight on the atrocities of the regime. There are also some pretty temples at the top with great views of the surrounding countryside. At the bottom of the hill is a large cave where tourists and locals gather at 5:30pm when the bats inside begin to fly out into the rice fields to feed for the night. An endless chain of bats swirl across the sky as the sun sets which is a pretty spectacular sight.
$10 for adults, $5 for kids
While in a refugee camp at the border with Thailand, a group of Khmer children who participated in drawing workshops began conceiving an organization that would help other Khmers heal their war trauma through art. Today this Battambang based nonprofit organization, Phare Ponleu Selpak, operates an educational center, provides social work services, and teaches visual and performing arts. Students study painting, theater, music, and dance and tour all over the world for live audiences. Most famous is the Phare Circus performance which has performances in Siem Reap and Battambang. The students are phenomenally talented performing Cirque de Soleil style acts.
$27 for half day, $40 for full day
These sustainably run tours educate tourists on traditional Khmer village life. The day starts with an espresso at Kinyei followed by a bicycle tour of the surrounding countryside, stopping at different family homes where local goods are made. Soksabike aims to educate tourists while supporting local producers and creating jobs for Khmers in Battambang. These tours offer insight on how most people in the country actually live and tourists can interact with locals in a respectful way.
$12 for half day
Experience village life at a slow pace by kayaking along the Sangke river outside of Battambang and passing floating homes and smiling children waving hello. All proceeds support the NGO Friends Economic Development Association which provides villagers with education and projects to help provide income.
Battambang is full of funky shops, restaurants, bars, and galleries displaying local works. Be sure to check out Sammaki, an artist run NGO gallery with rotating shows and artist workshops. Jewel in the Lotus has an eclectic assortment of antiques and trinkets from Cambodia and the owner’s travels. Owned and operated by well established Khmer artists, Make Maek gallery displays paintings and installations from local and international artists. The quality of works and the beautiful space would fit in any international city. They also have community events like Salsa lessons and are a great resource for those interested in getting more involved in the arts in Cambodia.