Take colonial architecture, a one-of-a-kind railway and charmed modern pagoda, then throw in a budding art scene and you’ve got Cambodia’s second largest city – with an identity all its own.
Over the centuries Battambang province switched hands between Thailand and Cambodia, and was under Thai control as late as the 1940s. The people of Battambang (pronounced as Bahd-dum-bong) did resist the initial coup d’état of the Khmer Rouge but succumbed under heavy fighting, and the area became a Khmer Rouge stronghold.
This province in Cambodia’s west is a melting pot, and it’s easy to see why- in just two hours’ drive of the capital you can be in Thailand, the Cardamom mountains or gateway to Angkor, Siem Reap. Steeped in Thai and colonial history, Battambang’s sights are nonetheless distinctly Cambodian, nodding to the bounty heaped upon the province- one of Southeast Asia’s most prolific rice-producing areas- which morphs from vital wetlands around the Tonle Sap’s northern edge to verdant rice paddies dotted with karst rises yielding to the forested foothills of the Cardamoms to the south.
The capital, as with most Cambodian province capitals also called Battambang, is primarily a farmer and trader town and makes a refreshing change from the tourist town of Siem Reap as it still has a very local, untouristed, provincial atmosphere. Its narrow streets are permeated by a starry-eyed, poetic quality akin to that of riverside town Kampot. Named a UNESCO City of Performing Arts, Battambang could soon be a world cultural heritage city in recognition of its magnificent 100+ ancient temples nestled within a 30km radius of town, and some of the best preserved French colonial architecture in the country.
The Sangkae River, which feeds the mighty Tonle Sap lake, cleaves the city in two, with an ever-growing number of cafes, bars, restaurants and galleries on the western bank, together with its art-deco style Central Market (Psar Nat) endearing Chinese shophouses and smattering of French colonial-style buildings.
The name is pronounced as Bahd-dum-bong and the town sits on the west bank of the Sangker River, a tranquil, small body of water that winds its way through Battambang Province.
The boat trip to Siem Reap goes via the Sangker river and is undoubtedly the most picturesque in the country, although it’s best to do this trip in the wet season when water levels are high.
The city is also the heart of Cambodia’s ‘rice bowl’ but that’s not the only crop here. You will also see fields of mango, papaya, jackfruit, milkfruit, peanuts, corn, and green beans.
Things to do
Things to do
Soak up the chilling gloom and spectacular show at the Bat Caves
Countless lives were lost at Battambang’s Killing Caves or Phnom Sampeau, which became a detention centre much like S-21 under the Khmer Rouge. Today, however, the caverns and grottos that honeycomb the karst mountains are a haven for winged life: bats. The millions-strong colony emerges nightly in a dusky cloud to chow down on insects in the surrounding fields, bestowing benefits on local farmers and awed observers.
Visit Wat Banan, or “mini Angkor Wat”
Boasting five towers which conquer the horizon as with “eighth wonder of the world” Angkor Wat, this 11th century build is notable for the excellent condition of its facade, especially of the Buddha images in the principal tower. The view from the top are breathtaking, allowing one to see from the Sangkae river and the way over to Phnom Krapeu or Crocodile Mountain and Phnom Sampeau aka the Bat Caves.
Ride the world’s only operational Bamboo Train!
Symbolic of the ingenuity of local people who constructed it when other transport options were few, the Bamboo Train is one of a kind! Whizz along the tracks at incredible speed, passing picture-perfect rural scenes, supporting local business as you go! The train and its track are slated to be moved elsewhere in the province which will likely diminish its authenticity so get aboard while you can!
Wat Ek Phnom
This wat is an ideal taster for those yet to set eyes on Bayon temple within Angkor Archeological Park or those hungry for more Bayon style architecture. King Sorayak Varman II conceived Wat Ek Phnom as the great ‘temple of the west’ which in many respects, it still is. The life-force of the Wat proved too great even for the Khmer Rouge, who abandoned the site after a series of accidents convinced them that the spirits were unhappy.
Improve your fortunes at the White Elephant Pagoda
Famed for its lucky carved white elephants which greet visitors at the main entrance, this is an exquisite example of a 19th century pagoda. Showing touches of Thai influence, the place is Cambodian through and through, from its stupas to its saffron clad monks who are part of the fascination of the place and the city of Battambang itself.
While you’re in town…
Witness age-old rituals
Battambang is a curious amalgam of the colonial and the time-honoured; the sight of groups of twenty-plus monks making their way over the river via bridges and traditional long boats in the direction of the animated markets on their rounds to collect alms is truly one to behold. From here they make their way back to their respective wats, including the White Elephant pagoda downtown, to have their morning meal. If, like these monastics, you’re an early riser, saffron-swathed monks of all ages milling around deep water wells bathing, while monkeys shriek in the fig trees overhead is also quite a scene.
NB. Although they are unlikely to mind curious visitors watching them go about their daily business, keep a respectful distance and try not to disturb activities, especially with flash photography. Participation in alms-giving will likely be well received but remember that women cannot make contact with monks or hand them anything directly.
…And a modern phenomenon…
One of Battambang province’s intriguing idiosyncrasies is rain gambling. Eager participants hazard a guess as to how much rain will fall at a given place at a given time, with most gathering on rooftops overlooking the central bus station (Street 110). If you’re in the area, look up to see them getting updates via walkie-talkie from rain-spotters posted on other rooftops monitoring the clouds and book makers in nearby Psar Boeung Chhoeuk (Street 105).
Get to the heart of it all
The nerve centre of every city, town and village in Cambodia is its main market. In Battambang this is Psar Nat, a mustard yellow Art Deco affair built in the 1920s, which features a tiered roof leading to a central clock tower. While not as eye-catching as the Central Market (Psar Thmey) in Phnom Penh, it is none the less a visit-worthy point of interest and useful rendevous point for taking transport out of the city. Look out for the surprisingly sweet green-skinned oranges, or “Battambang oranges” which grow in the region in its outdoor wet market.
The Battambang Museum houses a limited but attractive collection of sculpted lintels and other artifacts from all over Battambang Province, including pieces from Phnom Banan and Sneng. Next door to the Museum is a small exhibition area that often has interesting displays featuring information on local agriculture and fishing practices, and local legends and folk tales.
A local NGO, Phare Ponleu Selpak, gives youths from deprived backgrounds the opportunity to channel their energies creatively learning skills such as juggling, tumbling, acrobatics and clowning, whilst raising public awareness of issues such as HIV/AIDS, landmines, and child rights. Other activities include traditional schooling, drawing, music, dressmaking, and a community leisure centre.
It started back in 1986 in a refugee camp located on the Thai border. From simple drawing workshops for children in the camps, the idea emerged of an association that would use art and expression to help young refugees overcome the trauma of war. The experiment continued after the refugees returned to their homeland in Battambang. The performance schedule is published on the Phare Ponleu SelpakCircus performances in Battambang[/caption] website.
Getting There & Away
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Getting in, out, and around Battambang
How to get in and out of Battambang, rent bicycles or motos, plus our favorite tuk tuk tours.
Battambang is a walkable city, in that most of the Western-oriented business are centered in the blocks around and to the south of Psar Nath. Pick up a free copy of the Siem Reap Canby guide, they have a small Battambang section with a good map that can help you navigate.
Getting around Battambang…transportation options from tours to on-demand tuk tuks.
That said, most of the sightseeing is outside of town and you’re best off hiring a tuk tuk for a day or half day. For a tuk tuk driver and guide, prices range between $10 and $15 for a half day and $18 to 25 for a full day. You get what you pay for, and the drivers who speak the best English and act as much as guides as drivers charge on the high end of that scale.
Nicky tuk tuk Battambang
Nicky is one of Battambang’s most popular tuk tuk drivers.
Nicky is a friendly and interesting Battambang tour guide who speaks excellent English. He can do half-day or full-day tours to show you the “real Cambodia,” including the gorgeous countryside around Battambang, as well as the most popular local tourist attractions, including the bamboo train, Ek Phnom, Phnom Banan, and Phnom Sampeou. Nicky seems to know everyone in town, so he’s also great for helping organize onward travel (he can get you a deal on a taxi). He charges $15 for a half day and $25 for a full day and can take between one and five passengers. You can find him on Facebook by searching for “Nicky Tuk Tuk Battambang.”
T: +855(0)77 714 785
Samnang tuk tuk Battambang
Tuk tuk driver and tour guide Samnang will take care of all of your touring needs.
Samnang is an incredibly friendly tuk tuk driver who speaks excellent English. He’s a skilled tour guide as well as a good driver and can come up with a tour tailored to your interests. For example, foodies can visit the home of a family that makes rice noodles for the popular Cambodian dish num banh chok, see the making of rice wine and rice paper wrappers for spring rolls, learn how local banana chips are made, see the fish market, and visit the local winery. He also does more typical tours of Ek Phnom, Phnom Sampeou, Phnom Banan, etc. Samnang’s tuk tuk is quite large and can comfortably seat four or five people. Prices range from $15 to $25 for a half or full day, depending on the itinerary. He’s very popular and lives out of town, so try and call him a day or so in advance to reserve a tour.
T: +855(0)12 687 098 (new number)
Rith is fluent in English and can give half or full day tours by tuk tuk, but he also has a 12-seater minivan, so can handle large groups. He is based in Battambang and can do tours there, but is also available for going elsewhere in Cambodia. His Battambang tours start at $15 for a half day and visit the new bamboo train, Phnom Sampov temple and to see the bats, and a full day tour starts at $25 and can go to Ek Phnom temple and the crocodile farm, and to see rice paper, banana chips, and rice wine being made, among other stops. You can contact Rith by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
T: +855(0)96 708 0701
Getting around Battambang
If you’re not looking for a tour and just want to go somewhere specific, you can easily flag down a tuk tuk. We’ve got a handy guide for everything you need to know about how to take a tuk tuk in Cambodia. If you just have one or two people, you can also use the Grab app (it’s the Southeast Asian answer to Uber) and hail an Indian-style tuk tuk that seats two, as seen in the photo at the top of the page. You will need to pay in cash whether you hail a tuk tuk in person or via the app, and they will almost certainly not have change so be prepared with small bills.
Battambang bicycle and moto rentals
You can rent bicycles for $2 per day through Soksabike, which is located in the Kinyei coffeeshop. They also rent mountain bikes for $5 per day, as well as offering a range of different bike tours around the countryside.
Open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Street 1.5, Battambang
T: +855(0)17 860 003
The Gecko rents motos for $7 per day or $5 per half day (fewer than 5 hours). Rates include a helmet.
Open daily, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
T: +855(0)89 924 260
Battambang Bike offers a range of bike tours of Battambang, including architectural tours and custom-made tours. They also rent bicycles for $2 per day, including the use of a helmet.
Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
60 Street 2.5, Battambang
T:+855(0)98 830 868; 095 578 878; 097 482 4104
Getting to and from Battambang
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How To Get There
If you arrive via the land border crossing at Poipet, a large bus will have you in Battambang in 3-4 hours via Sisophon for $5 or less. Note that all departures are in the morning.
If you want to be free to decide your own schedule, a private taxi is a good way to go, getting you there in 1-2 hours for around $30.
From Phnom Penh or Siem Reap:
Numerous bus services depart these hubs throughout the day, taking 3-4 hours from Siem Reap via Sisophon and 6-7 hours from Phnom Penh on larger public buses. You may save an hour or so by baording a private minivan but space inside is a premium so if you require extra legroom or have a lot of luggage, larger buses are your best bet.
If you want to take the scenic route from Siem Reap, you can hop aboard one of the boats which depart daily at 7am, taking you across the Tonle Sap and up the Sangkae river past floating villages and scenes of daily life on the water. Set aside the best part of a day for the journey as it can take anything from 4 hours in a speed boat to 12 hours in a slow boat, depending on water levels – boat services may not run during peak dry season March-April. Tickets cost $20+ and are best booked through your hotel or travel agents who can arrange pickup at one or both ends. Note that there is only one stop along the way so bring food and drinks with you.
The Legend of Battambang
Legend of the Magic Stick
At the traffic circle on the eastern end of the city, there is a statue of Ta Dumbong (pictured above).
This Ta Dumbong is at the center of a legend from which the name Battambang is derived. He was a cowherd who found a magic stick and used it to usurp the then-king. The king’s son ran off to the woods and became a monk.
In the meantime, Ta Dambong had a dream that a holy man on a white horse would vanquish him, so he decided it would be a good idea to have all the holy men rounded up and put to death.
When the prince, now a practicing monk, heard he was required to go into town a hermit came up and gave him a white horse. When the prince got on the horse he discovered it could fly and he flew into town. Upon seeing this holy man on a flying white horse Ta Dambong realised his dream was coming true, in an attempt to kill the ‘holy man’, he threw his magic stick at him, but seeing this fail he fled the area.
Neither he nor the magic stick was ever seen again.