A Quick City Guide to Battambang, Cambodia
Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia is a charming city located on the banks of the Sangkae River. Although it’s just a few hours from Siem Reap, it doesn’t seem to attract that many tourists. Most decide to head straight to Siem Reap, or if they do visit Battambang, they only give it a day.
That’s a shame because Battambang has a lot to offer. It has a bustling market, great architecture, plenty of history, a coffee-shop culture and some pretty good restaurants! Moreover, the lack of tourists makes Battambang an even nicer place to visit; the city does not feel overly busy.
You can see most of Battambang’s sights in one day but to really appreciate the city, it’s best to spend a few days there. We stayed three nights in Battambang and we really enjoyed our time there. In fact, we much preferred Battambang to Siem Reap. If it wasn’t for Angkor Wat, we probably wouldn’t have spent as long in Siem Reap and would instead have opted to stay longer in Battambang.
What to do in Battambang?
Jump on the Bamboo train!
The one thing most travellers do when visiting Battambang is riding the Bamboo train. What’s the bamboo train? It’s just what it sounds like, a train made out of bamboo! But it’s not your typical train, it’s really just a small platform on wheels.
You hop on board and your driver takes you eight kilometres along the track through the countryside. I was expecting a slow ride but we actually went quite fast. It was so much fun, even though it was a bit scary in some parts. Once you get to the end, you turn around and do it all again.
During the bamboo train ride, you can expect your driver to stop at least once, pull the carriage apart and lift it off the tracks to let carriages going in the other direction pass. Or in our case, to let a real train pass! Then he puts it back together again super quickly and you continue down the track.
We were told that the government has recently upgraded the railway line as they are planning to commence a new train service from Battambang to Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, that might signal the end of the Bamboo Train. That’s a pity because it’s a fun thing to do but also because many of the local people working on the bamboo train will no longer have a job.
Cost of Bamboo train ride: US$5 per person
Walk around the town
Battambang is a lovely place to walk around, so spend some time exploring it. It has plenty of French colonial architecture, colourful houses and shopfronts. The buildings are in varying states of decline, some dilapidated and some freshly renovated.
You can visit the Central market for some shopping or walk along the riverfront, making your way along to the old stone bridge. Take your time, get a little lost and see what you find.
Pay your respects at the killing caves
When visiting the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, you might think that this is it in terms of the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. But unfortunately, there are multiple killing fields spread all over the country.
As you climb up the hill and approach the killing caves in Phnom Sampeau, it’s hard to imagine what happened in those beautiful limestone caves. It’s so pretty, how can something so pretty be the scene of such atrocities?
But sadly, these caves were used as an execution site by the Khmer Rouge. They killed their victims at the top of the cave and then threw the dead body down into the cave. Inside the cave, you will find bones and skulls kept in a glass-covered cabinet right next to the Buddha statue. Those remains belong to some of the victims who died there; doctors, teachers, children and babies. It’s a very sad place to visit but it’s such an important part of Cambodian history that I believe a visit is necessary.
After your visit to the cave, keep climbing up the hill to the temples on top. From there, you will have a stunning view over the surrounding countryside and over Battambang in the distance. Be mindful of the monkeys who hang around the area, especially if you have food on you!
Watch the bats fly from the bat cave
After your trip up the Phnom Sampeau mountain, head down again and after a five-minute walk you’ll see the Bat Cave. Every night, just before sunset, thousands and thousands of bats fly out of this cave, heading off in search of food. It is amazing to see just how many bats there are. They come out all at once and head off into the night, flying out over the rice paddies in all directions. It’s a pretty amazing spectacle and it lasts for at least twenty minutes.
You can watch it from one of the many seats set up down below the cave. Bear in mind that if you sit down you’ll need to buy a drink or a snack from the stalls that sell them nearby. You can also get your tuk-tuk driver to take you to the rice paddies nearby where you can see the bats fly over the fields as you enjoy the sunset.
Take a cooking class
Battambang is a great place to take a cooking class because they are very cheap compared to classes in other cities. We took a cooking class run by Nary Kitchen. First, we visited the Central Market nearby where we learnt about the local vegetables and spices. We saw coconut milk being pressed freshly for the Amok we were about to cook.
Once back in the kitchen, we learnt to cook fresh Spring Rolls, Fish Amok, Chicken Lok Lak and a banana and Tapioca Pudding. Once done we ate the dishes we’d made and for once I actually thought my cooking tasted pretty good! It was a great way to spend a few hours and for $10 each, it was a bargain.
Attend the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus
If you’re in Battambang on the right day, make sure you attend the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus. Even if you don’t usually like circuses you will like this one. For animal lovers, don’t worry, this circus involves no animals, just talented performers. Each show has a theme, with music played throughout. The performers are students and graduates from the Phare Ponleu Selpak’s vocational training centre in Battambang. The association was formed in 1994 by nine young men who experienced a refugee camp during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The cost of the show is $14 per person.
How to get around Battambang?
You can easily walk around the town centre on foot. Battambang is easy to navigate your way around.
If you want to explore the countryside on your own, you can hire a bike and head out of the city. That’s definitely a nice thing to do during the wet season as you can explore the green rice fields. There are also many bike tours that you can book directly with your hotel or online.
We believe the best way to see Battambang is to hire a tuk-tuk for the day to go exploring around the countryside. There are many tuk-tuks available in Battambang and you can hire one for the day who will take you to all of the sights you want to see.
It’s a good way to do it if you don’t have a lot of time. That way you can see most of Battambang in one day, although it will be rushed. The cost varies depending on how long you need the tuk-tuk for, how many people are sharing it and how good your bargaining skills are! We were very lucky with our driver Saro, who not only spoke really good English but also acted as our tour guide, even though we didn’t ask for it. We paid $20 for the full day. We are terrible at bargaining but we still thought that was pretty reasonable.
How to get to Battambang from Phnom Penh?
From Phnom Penh, you can catch a bus or minivan. We were recommended Mekong Express Minivans. The buses were quite comfortable and stopped every 2 hours for a toilet and food break. It takes between 6 and 7 hours depending on traffic. Mekong Express costs $10. Other companies are cheaper but remember you get what you pay for! You can book your tickets online here.
How to get to Battambang from Siem Reap?
You can catch a bus from Siem Reap. It takes between 3 and 4 hours, depending on the company and vehicle type you choose. It costs around $5.50. You can book your tickets online here.
By slow boat
You can catch a boat from Siem Reap down the river. It’s a nice way to see the floating villages at the same time, but it takes a lot longer. Depending on the season, it can take anywhere from 6 to 9 hours. It costs around $20. You can book it at your hotel.
Where to stay in Battambang?
This family-run hotel is located right in the middle of town, a stone’s throw from the bus station and central market. The hotel offers spacious and comfortable rooms, free wifi and aircon. It’s clean and the staff are friendly and helpful. They’ll help you to book tuk-tuk drivers, tours and transfers. There’s a hot tub on the rooftop as well as a bar where you can catch the sunset. There are many nice local restaurants nearby. Check the latest prices here.
Located in Wat Kor Village, 4 km outside of town, the Battambang Resort features bright and modern rooms with free Wi-Fi and views of the garden or lake. There is an outdoor pool, a restaurant and bar and the resort is surrounded by rice fields. Check the latest prices here.
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