Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, is tragically overlooked as a travel destination. With most people plying the route between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, few venture west to discover this laid-back, rural centre which is in the heart of Cambodia’s rice bowl. The easy-going town is also home to homely, affordable accommodation in Battambang, with a number of quality budget and boutique guesthouses.
The town itself is elegant if slightly aging, but features some of the country’s best colonial architecture, which meanders along the banks of the Sangker River, although signs are that it is emerging as Cambodia’s fourth major tourist destination after Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.
Brief guide to Battambang
Home to the largest collection of statued roundabouts (most rural Khmers cannot read and therefore chose statues as road markers), Battambang’s largely unnumbered streets (there are only five in total) are home to quaint Chinese shop fronts, grand French buildings and wide, tree-lined boulevards, lending it a languid yet cosy atmosphere without the effrontery of its more popular cousins.
And Battambang is easily reached from Phnom Penh (290kms), Siem Reap (180kms) and the Thai border at Poipet (150kms), with the road south to the capital the most attractive scenic drive in the country.
Connected to the great Tonle Sap Lake, the boat trip to Siem Reap is among the most picturesque journeys in all Cambodia, while Battambang attractions such as the ancient Angkor ruins of Phnom Banan and Ek Phnom are Battambang’s answer to Angkor Wat, although best seen before a visit to Siem Reap.
An army of friendly local, knowledgeable, English-speaking moto guides will offer valuable insights into the region’s storied past, while also providing bargain Battambang transport around a town that can be just as easily explored on foot or by bicycle. For true rural adventure, take a trip on western Cambodia’s most iconic attraction is the ‘nori’ train, a bamboo platform that can be put together or dismantled in seconds for travel along largely disused rail lines.
Battambang has a long and colourful history, with its proximity to Thailand causing it to be on the frontlines on centuries of battles, with its more powerful neighbour governing as late as the Second World War. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge made the region west to Pailin its stronghold, capitalising on the fertile farmlands, rough jungles and valuable diamond mines.
The outlying plains are still littered with landmines and it is not advised to go wandering on country paths without a guide. Most of the NGOs in the area are devoted to unexploded ordinance clearing and the workers, who gravitate to the few western bars and restaurants in town, are a great source of information.
The countryside around Battambang, gloriously colourful in the wet season, is lush with a myriad of fruits, sugar palms, coconut trees, vegetables and roaming livestock. This also provides some fantastic local dining in Battambang, with region famous for its fresh produce.
The best thing about Battambang is that it not a major tourist attraction. This means that visitors can feel as if they have the entire town to themselves at any time, and its sleepy pace of life and gentle local people are a shining example of rural Cambodian life.