Much of Battambang’s attraction is its mix of ancient and colonial past, which lend the city a special charm. The downtown area is strewn with historic pagodas and French architecture, while outside the city temple ruins from the Angkor era lie scattered amongst some of Cambodia’s most picturesque rural scenery.
Inside the City
Along the river road sits the majestic two-storied Governors Residence, just two blocks down Street 1 from the gargantuan, modernist, Psar Nath (Meeting Market). There are also a number of Cambodia’s finest colonial buildings along the stretch of road from here to the Iron Bridge.
Around the train station, on Street 3, there are further examples of French shop houses while the abandoned rail sheds are a real highlight. Come here at sunset to watch Khmer children at play in the ruins of the colonial railway station, where a new generation has made their home.
There are a number of temples downtown, with Wat Kandal the most impressive on the east bank, while Wat Pipheteram, a block north of Psar Nath, and Wat Damrey Sar near the museum are also worth visiting if you have enough time while staying in the town.
Located on the main riverfront road, the not open very often Provincial Museum houses a decent sized collection of statues, carvings, temple artefacts and pottery from both the pre-Angkor and Angkorian periods. Rated as one of Cambodia’s better museums, the ticket seller can usually be found at the market selling fruit – telephone ahead for an appointment.
Run by the Phare Ponleu Selpak NGO, this uniquely Cambodian entertainment features former refugees from border camps with Thailand who perform what they have learned through artistic expression. Weekly shows include drama, music, drawing, dancing and circus tricks, as well as providing schooling for over 400 poor or disabled students.
Some locals claim Ek Phnom, along with Phnom Banan, was the inspiration for Angkor Wat, with the site constructed as a Hindu temple in the 11th century by Suryavarman I. The more modern pagoda of Wat Ek Phnom, with its famed murals and painting collection, sits alongside the ruins, which rival many of the temple complexes around Siem Reap for grandeur and mystery.
Weekdays are the best time to visit as Ek Phnom is deserted, adding to the aura. The drive from Battambang is particularly scenic, with a stop at the rice-paper making village on the way highly recommended, and the site can be easily combined with trips to other temples or the bamboo train.
Outside the City
The countryside which surrounds Battambang is simply beautiful, with colourful local produce lining sprouting rice paddies. Just a couple of kilometres from the city centre the horizon transforms into a sumptuous vista of stilted villages and verdant fields.
Any trip to the sites outside the city will pass by local artisans, rice paper and noodle makers and the occasional fish fermenting vat. The breathtaking countryside is best explored by moto, especially in the wet season, and these can be organised from your hotel.
Expect to pay around US$10 to hire a bike and driver for the day. An English-speaking driver will certainly add to the experience, as there is a vast history in the region. The roads can be muddy and nearly always dusty so a hat and mouth-covering scarf are essential.
Phnom Banan is the best preserved of the Khmer ruins around Battambang, although heavy looting has, like its neighbours, robbed the complex of many of its smaller treasures. The steep climb to the top is rewarded with sweeping views and industrious locals who can sell you drinks and act as tour guides, for a small fee.
The five-spired mountain top temple, from the same period and style as Angkor Wat, sits atop a cave system which the local children will be happy to show you.
The hilltop temple on the way to Pailin is steeped in legend and horror, being one of the main sites of Khmer Rouge atrocities. The ‘Killing Caves’ that lie beneath Wat Sampeau still contain many of the bones of victims that were thrown to their deaths in the great purge of Year Zero. Some moto drivers still avoid this site as they don’t feel it should be a tourist attraction or that it brings back painful memories. Children that speak excellent English will approach you to act as a guide–a couple of thousand riel is the going rate.
Bamboo Train (Nori)
One of the highlights of any trip to Battambang, the novelty value of the Nori is unmatched anywhere else in the country. The ‘trains’ consist of two axels thrown onto railway lines, with a bamboo mat and generator placed on top. With a cruising speed of 10 – 15kmp/h, these are a great way to get off-road and see the countryside.
Should you meet another Nori coming the other way, the less-crowded train must dismantle and allow the larger one to pass. A motorbike takes precedence over people. Best combined with a trip to the countryside temples – your moto driver can take you to one of the points – make sure you agree on a price before climbing aboard.
River Boat Trips
The ferry port is north of the new bridge, where you can hire a small local boat and driver to explore the riverbanks around Battambang. Taking in scenery common to the Siem Reap–Battambang ferry ride, the journey is best done in the high-water wet season when river borne communities flourish. Hire boats cost around US$20-$25, 5 hours.