Battambang might lack the notoriety of Cambodian cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but it’s a very worthwhile addition to any Southeast Asian travel itinerary.
The city was founded all the way back in the eleventh century, and, since then, it’s remained the hub of the northwestern Cambodia. Battambang is as well-known for what’s in the city as in the surrounding region, but I wouldn’t sleep on what the urban centre offers, either. I remember arriving in the city and being taken aback by how well preserved the French colonial architecture is, but also how that intersected with Khmer architecture.
What I loved about Battambang is that it wasn’t a hard place to get to know well. It’s a large city by the standards of the country, but it isn’t overwhelming, and that lends itself to both an intimate and manageable visit. You don’t need to spend a long time in Battambang to get a feel for the city.
Battambang served as an important counterpoint for me to Cambodia’s more well-known cities, and I firmly believe my experiences there gave me a better understanding and appreciation for the country and region at large.
What makes Battambang worth the trip?
When it comes to travel, I’m optimistic, and, to be up front, I do think most places are worth the trip, if only for you to comprehend what you actually enjoy in a city in the first place. However, in the case of Battambang, I feel especially strongly about this, largely because so many people swoop into to the country to just see Angkor Wat, then catch a flight out of Siem Reap the next day.
Battambang is notably different from both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and deserves its own moment in the sun. The question is, how can you best take advantage of a visit?
Wat Banan Temple isn’t as frequented as Angkor Wat (naturally), but that’s precisely what makes it great. The temple has five towers in the classic Khmer architectural style, and it’s likely that during your visit you’ll only be one of a handful of tourists – it’s really a photographer’s playground.
It was completed sometime between the 10th and 13th century, and I thought it was very impressive, even after visiting Angkor Wat. You have to walk up a long picturesque staircase to get to the top, but it’s some of the more culturally relevant exercise I’ve ever taken part in. It’s roughty twenty kilometres outside of Battambang, but a good tuk-tuk driver will get you there in no time.
Phnom Sampeau is a difficult place to comprehend. On the one hand, you’ve got stunning aerial views of western Cambodia, and on the other hand you realize you’re there to see the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. The reign of the Khmer Rouge was a horrid and tumultuous time across the nation, and this place really drives that home. Sadly, many peoples’ lives were ended here, and several notable memorials can be found around the site. I do firmly believe that in order to really see Cambodia, you need to see these sites. This history, as horrendous as it is, also sheds light on the incredible resilience of the Cambodian people, and will better enable you to relish your moments in present day Cambodia.
Both of these sights are outside Battambang, but they’re both very easy to get to, and there’s ample transportation available to do so (though I’d recommend having your accommodation order a tuk-tuk driver).
Finally, it’s also worth spending a little time walking around the centre of Battambang, and taking in some of that aforementioned French colonial architecture.
In a house that’s over one hundred years old, the humanitarian photographer Joseba Extebarria has chosen to display some of his best portraits from around the world and constructed the “HUMAN Gallery.” Since opening in Battambang, the gallery has received worldwide acclaim, with many people now saying that this is the top experience in the city. Furthermore, twenty percent of the proceeds go directly to the “Wings for the Future” project, supporting the education of children in the nearby town of O’mal.
What began as a studio for 4 young artists in 2012, eventually became a burgeoning gallery and hub for art in the community in 2015. It’s now considered one of the top independent art spaces in Southeast Asia. The story of the 4 founders is also remarkable in that they were saved from the throngs of child labour by an NGO, and were subsequently inspired to establish something to lift up the community. If you’re in Battambang, see if you can find the time to come support their venture and, by extension, the city itself.
Tasting the city
The Prasat Phnom Banon Winery is Cambodia’s only winery, and they work primarily with shiraz grapes to make their version of a red.
I’ll be honest, this isn’t going to be like any red you’ve had before. When you try it, you might find it rather earthy, but it’s interesting, and I’d certainly sip on it again. They’re actually better known for their juice, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to see locals swinging through for a sip of some fresh grape juice while you’re there.
Battambang, the province, is known as the “rice-bowl” of the country, and is known for its agricultural prowess. As such, it’s a good place to eat some traditional Khmer cuisine, as it’ll be fresh, and less expensive than in larger, more touristy cities. If you’re looking for something simple, I found the food at “The White Rose” to be excellent. I would say, however, that you shouldn’t go there if you’re in a rush, or are prone to getting upset about service – just know, the food is worth the wait.
The beauty of Battambang
I can’t imagine my time in Cambodia without my memories from Battambang. While I was there, I met a lot of locals who took the time to ensure that I felt welcome in their city, and all they asked for in return was my friendship. One fellow in particular took me around in his tuk-tuk, told me about his life, and we spent the day sipping on Cambodian coffee – I learned firsthand about the history, both ancient and recent.
What I liked about Battambang is that you’ll find what you’re looking for, whatever you’re looking for. Foodies can find their own place in the city, and historical buffs can do the same, but either way, your search isn’t going to be too overwhelming.
Battambang is the stop you never knew you needed to make, but one you’ll surely never forget.
Ready to visit this wonderful city? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours in Cambodia.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x2, Chris Mitchell x3, Intrepid Travel.)