Backflips, Buildings, and Bats in Battambang, Cambodia

After our stop in Phnom Penh, we headed out to the city of Battambang. This certainly isn’t an undiscovered place – there were plenty of other tourists around, and it’s actually the second-largest city in the country – but compared to Phnom Penh and later Siem Reap, it felt a lot less crowded and much more laid back. We enjoyed a couple of days seeing the sights and enjoying the relaxed vibe of this ex-French Colonial city.

Getting There

We booked a seat on what we thought was a bus through our hostel in Phnom Penh. But, just like in Myanmar, it turned out to be a minivan. This one was a lot nicer though, with padded leather seats and a lot more legroom. It even had a large screen TV that played music for the first half of the journey and then showed Fast and the Furious 6 for the second half (the sound was too low for us to hear most of the dialog, but based on the action we aren’t sure we missed much). The highway was in pretty bad shape at times, and the driver was pretty aggressive in passing, so the ride wasn’t the smoothest, but we got there in one piece.

Where We Stayed

The cheapest accommodation we could find online with decent reviews actually turned out to be more like a hotel than the guesthouses or hotels we have been used to. Our room in the Emerald BB Hotel had a nice king-sized bed, a tv, big bathroom, and even a balcony… although there was no furniture to sit out on and enjoy it with.

What We Did

Tour Colonial-Era Architecture – When Laos was a French colony, Battambang was one of the French provincial capitals, and they set out to improve the city’s infrastructure with many buildings and new streets. Many of these influences can still be seen today. We downloaded some free PDFs from the Khmer Architecture Tours website that allowed us to do a self-guided walking tour of some of the best examples. The most iconic structure is the “shophouse,” which is a two-story building with businesses on the ground floor and residential above, with a balcony for the residential forming a covering for the sidewalk in front of the business. There is a large stretch of these buildings in the downtown core. We also thought the central market, an Art-Deco style structure, was impressive.

Hang Out by the River – We had read that there were aerobics classes in Battambang similar to the ones we found in Phnom Penh, so around sunset we walked around the park areas on either side of the river. We never found the classes, but we did enjoy watching the kids playing on the playground and the adults using the exercise equipment scattered around. The most fascinating attraction was a small path made of stones set on edge that people would walk over barefoot. Maybe to build up strength in their feet? Certainly not something we ever saw in a park back home.

The Circus at Phare Ponleu Seplak – The most famous attraction in Battambang is the nightly circus performance at this local arts school for disadvantaged youth. One of the arts the students can train in is circus arts, and they put on a circus show for tourists starring the students and some professionals. We found the show to be very entertaining. It didn’t have any of the circus animals; instead, a group of six male performers did a wide variety of acrobatic stunts, from simple clown tricks to high-flying jumps. The whole performance was backed by music from some of the music students of the school. The show was only an hour long, but we were on the edge of our seats the whole time.

Screening of the film The Killing Fields – After our visit to the Khmer Rouge sites in Phnom Penh, we wanted to learn more about that dark time. We had heard that the film called The Killing Fields was a good resource but we weren’t sure how to watch it. Then we saw that one guesthouses in town showed it nightly in their private movie room. We headed over there one night and watched the film, which we felt did a pretty good job of adding more information to what we already knew.

Tuk-Tuk Tour of Surrounding Sights – Our second day in Battambang, we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us around to some of the different sights we had read about outside of town. (A tuk—tuk is a carriage that is drawn behind a motorbike).

Our first stop was the Bamboo Train. The French left a series of rail lines through the countryside, but they are no longer used for trains that you would normally think of. Rather, they are traversed by the locals using bamboo rafts on top of two rail axles, powered by a small motor. Traditionally, farmers would use these as a shared taxi to ferry goods around, but it has turned into a large tourist attraction (we only saw tourists riding). The most fun part is seeing what happens when two trains meet on the single track. There is no way around, so instead one train has to be completely dismantled and placed on the side of the track so the other train can pass!

On our way to the next stop, we took a quick break for a wine tasting at Cambodia’s only winery, Prasat Phnom Banan Winery. The guidebook warned that the wine was not very good, and unfortunately we had to agree. We tasted their “red,” a grape juice, and a ginger juice. The wine smelled ok but the aftertaste was a bit strange.

We then headed to Phnom Banan, where we climbed 385 steps straight up the hill to the ancient temple of Prasat Banan. The temple was built around the same time as the temples of Angkor, and definitely shares some similarities, including the layout of the five towers. They aren’t in great shape, but we enjoyed wandering through them anyway.

Our final stop was the area around Phnom Sampeau, where we sampled a few different attractions. Our driver couldn’t take us up the hill, so again we had to walk up. The first stop on the way up was the Killing Cave, a cave with a natural opening in the roof through which the Khmer Rouge threw their victims to kill them. A small memorial with the bones found in the cave still remains. At the top of the hill are multiple Buddhist temples. We relaxed up here and enjoyed the view, being careful to give the monkeys a wide berth. After we walked down the hill, we waited at the base for sunset, when a giant line of bats emerged from a cave in the side of the hill. This went on forever, and we even stopped on the way back into town and could see the undulating line of bats making its way over the countryside.

Where We Ate

Battambang has a nice selection of cafes in the main downtown district. We visited two of the highly-recommended ones: Jaan Bai and Lotus Café. The most interesting thing we got at Jaan Bai was fancy cocktails. Della got the house specialty called “The Crocodile” which seemed to have everything but the kitchen sink in it! At the Lotus Café, Eric got a traditional Cambodian dish called “lok lak,” which is basically just chunks of stir-fried beef. We also had some very good spring rolls here.

There is also a nice Night Market in Battambang by the river. One area of the market has some small food stalls which serve up some cheap meals. We were able to get noodle curry bowls for $1.50 each, and it was pretty tasty!

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Final Thoughts

The guidebooks say that there isn’t a lot to do in Battambang, but we were able to find plenty of diversions to occupy our few days there. We enjoyed both the sights we saw and just the vibe of this small city. Especially compared to some of the other places in Southeast Asia, Battambang was just the right amount of relaxing.

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