Battambang, located in the North West of Cambodia, is the capital of the Battambang region and the second most populated city in Cambodia. The city has a rich French colonial heritage and green picturesque landscape. It’s mainly known by tourists for its popular bamboo train, but there is much more to it. On our trip to Cambodia we spend 2 days in this beautiful region, but we could have spend much more.
Battambang with its easy access to the river and a rich agriculture, has been for years an important commercial hub and, during the French colonization from 1907, has been define with a new urban structure still present today. During the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79), the city was abandoned, like all the others. After the liberation from the regime, the region remained the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge soldier who were using the mountain around as a shelter and frequently trying to regain power. It was just in the 90’s that the conflict finally ended and today, the region is starting to prosper again with more investment from both Khmer and foreigner.
Today Battambang is a peaceful, beautiful city that moves at a slow pace. The traffic is minimal, the streets are easy to navigate and everything you need, in the city, is at walking distance, including food options for any taste and budget. The French colonial buildings are well preserved and people are friendly. In the surrounding you will find never ending rice fields, green hills and rural villages. It’s really hard to believe that Battambang is the second biggest city in Cambodia; it might have many modern comfort, but it’s not comparable with either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.
What to see
Walking Tour of the city
Online you can find two excellent maps for walking tours of the city, one for the NORTHERN part and one for the SOUTHERN. Those maps are really easy to follow and there are plenty of information on the buildings that you’re going to see. I love those kind of self-guided tour because you can get all the informations but go at your own speed, deciding when to stop, how long to spend in each spot etc. (I found a very good self-guided walking tour in San Francisco as well)
Day Tour In The Countryside
When arriving in Battambang by bus, you will literally be surrounded by tuk tuk drivers wanting to take you to your accommodation and drive you around for the next days as well. We were lucky enough to pick an excellent guide, Saro, and we decided to hire him for the next day. There are a few places to see in the area and you can pick the things that interest you the most or you can trust your guide. Either way, you will have an awesome time. Saro was excellent and stopping along the way at places that are significant to the history and culture of Battanbang.
We chose to go to the super popular bamboo train. The train is nothing more than a bamboo platform with an engine. The train runs on a single rail, meaning that, when you find someone coming up from the opposite direction, you will have to get off, take the platform and the wheel away, let the other pass and then put everything back. The train was originally connecting Battambang to Phnom Penh in an over 12 hours trip. Today the train is barely used by local to go the nearby villages and is mainly just a tourist attraction. The ride last about 10 minutes each way, will drop you off close to a small village with a couple of stands that sell clothes and drink plus super chatty kids selling bracelets. The train stops there for about 20 minutes in the hope that you buy something. The sellers weren’t too pushy though and they were very chatty and friendly, so I didn’t mind the wait. The drive take you through some rice field and is quite fun but to be honest, if you miss it, is not a great lost.
The ride is $5 each person and you will be asked to tip the driver, but that’s up to you.
Saro took us to a temple and to some rural villages along the river where he explained us how the cultivation change and move with the tide of the river. After that he took us to see some gigantic bats with face that look like a very small dogs. Those bats normally eat fruits from the fields and are scared away by the farmers.
Built in the 10th century on the top of a hill, the temple is reachable by climbing a long flight of steps. Like in many of the temples in Angkor, there’s a coexistence of Hindu and Buddhist elements and it reminds, in a much smaller scale, the majestic Angkor Wat. The most scenic part, in my opinion, is the stairs. The 370 steps are framed by lushy trees that offer shade during your hike and it steep verticality, drag your eyes to the top temple.
There is a $3 ticket to pay that is valid also for Phnom Sampeau.
Phnom Sampeau hill: killing caves and temple
This was our last stop for the day. We arrived at the bottom of the hill around lunch time and we enjoyed some food and a chat with Saro. He told us a bit about Cambodia and how, even after the Khmer Rouge lost power, the situation remained unsafe for years and people had nothing to go back to, they had to build a new life. He was born in the ’85 in a refugee center at the border with Thailand and lived there for about 10 years before he moved back to Battambang with his family. Even if Cambodia is finally free and in peace, the damage made by the regime is still big and its shade is still there.
The killing caves are deep caves in which the prisoners, sometimes dead other times still alive, were thrown. There are separate one for men, women and kids. Today you can visit those caves and see some of the bones of the victims conserved in a cage. Once there, you will find kids that want to take you around, explain to you what was happening and get some money for their service. This is one of the heartbreaking shades left by the Khmer Rouge: kids using a tragic history to try make a living out of it.
If you continue up the hill, you will find the temple that has been built in recent years thanks to donation from Khmer people. The temple is nice and colorful with some monkeys hanging around, but the best part is the view: you can see the green countryside surrounded by the mountain at the horizont. On the right of the temple, there is a stairway that takes you down to a natural cave. This cave wasn’t used by the regime and it’s just a nice walk in through the limestone.
To get up the hill you can either ask one of the motor taxis to take you, walk along the street around the hill or climb the 600 steps that cut through it.
The visit does not end there. In the rocky hill there is another cave that is the house of thousands of bats! During the day you’re not going to see any, but when the sun is setting, they all come out at once to look for food. The are so many bats that it takes about 40 minutes for all of them to get out! Saro lives just a few meters away from the cave and told us that he used to hunt them. By just throwing a stick in the air and he would get a dozen of bats, ready to be cooked and eaten for a tasty dinner. Now, in the village they are not allowed to do that anymore because the government is afraid that they would kill them all. Still, once a month, someone has to go in the cave to clean from the guano, used as an excellent fertilizing, and also because otherwise there would be no more space for the bats!
And like that we ended our day in Battambang: driving back to the city under a pink sky dotted with bats.
We stayed at the King Fy Hotel for $35 per night for a double room. I think that for the same price you can find far better options in the Battambang and I would not go back to this hotel. If you are on a more strict budjet you can try the Royal Hotel or the Asia Hotel which are cheaper and popular with backpackers. You can find more accomodation options here Battambang