Battambang, a sleepy city in Northwest Cambodia might not be at the top of a lot of travellers’ itineraries. It’s home to lots of colonial architecture, some crumbling temples and some pretty wacky statues and street art, but despite this, visitors to the country on a limited time frame would understandably skip it in favour of Angkor Wat or the pristine beaches of Koh Rong.
Since we’d heard so much from travellers about how we’d fall head over heels in love with Cambodia and get stuck there for as long as our visa’s would allow, Matt and I had allocated an entire month to Cambodia, and personally, we ended up finding we could have done it in three weeks.
Don’t get me wrong, I still loved Cambodia, but we just wished we’d spent a week longer in Vietnam, where there’d been more to see and do, or dedicated more time to Laos, which we could have seen more of.
We arrived in Phnom Penh, then travelled south to Kep and then gorgeous Kampot, where we stayed a week, mostly in rubber rings on the river, or next to it in hammocks. Then we headed to Koh Rong, where we intended to stay a while, only to find that the island had ben swallowed by a storm, which didn’t stop for a whole week. Fleeing the grey, sodden coast, and the grotty monster of a resort Sihanoukville (if you’re curious about this place, just save your money and head to Magaluf instead), we night-bussed it to Battambang, where we intended to spend three days before heading to our final destination, Siem Reap to explore Angkor Wat.
Much like Kampot, Battambang charmed me. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly: other than the sheer plethora of random, fun and interesting things to do, and the window into authentic Cambodian culture, history and local life that the city and it’s outskirts provided. The sad fact is, a lot of tourist destinations in Cambodia – Sihanoukville and Siem Reap primarily – have been lost to tourism. But Battambang still retains it’s identity.
If you’re winding down for a few days in the region (and I highly recommend you do!), I’ve compiled a list of few slightly odd but still non-the-less lovely activities you can do there.
Eight interesting things to do in Battambang…
(that you probably can’t do elsewhere…)
Explore Phnom Sampeau
Without a doubt the most impressive feature in Battambang, Phnom Sampeau is a large, rocky outcrop about 10 km outside of Battambang, offering sublime views and a plethora of caves, shrines and religious artefacts for you to explore. You can cycle or catch a tuktuk to the base, and then climb up, or take a moto-taxi.
Halfway up the hill, lies the Killing Caves: a seemingly bottomless crevasse where civilians were thrown to their deaths by the Khmer Rouge in the seventies. A display cabinet filled with bones and skulls sits as a grizzly reminder deep inside the side of the hill.
Atop of the hill is slightly cheerier, with an endless labyrinth of temples, statues, stairwells, war remnants, cute monkeys and even cuter kids.
Not to be missed, however complicated it is to find, is a steep, painted stairwell down into a cave, which opens out into a cavernous open space enclosed on all sides by tall cliffs and jungle. We found a heap of Buddha statues and tiny shrines inside here, and sat for a good few minutes with our jaws hanging somewhere down by our feet.
Watch millions of bats migrate at sunset
Time your visit to Phnom Sampeau to coincide with dusk and you’ll be treated to a crazy, hour-long stream of bats fleeing from their cave home and into the open air, where they glide around in a fascinating swarm all through sunset. We were told this happens slap-bang at the same time every evening, so ask a local or your driver when it will be, grab a 20p beer and a corn on the cob, sit back and watch out for falling ones!
Ride a bamboo train
Not so much a train as a bamboo board, mounted on a set of wheels and powered by a dinky engine, Battambang’s bamboo railway hurtled us a few kilometres through the lush Cambodian countryside at a pretty surprising speed… and then back again the way we came. I think at one stage, it was used as a method of transporting rice (Battambang is famous for being Cambodia’s number one rice exporter), but now it serves no other purpose than as a nice little money maker for those who drive it. It’s a lot of fun though!
Visit a crocodile farm
If you’re sensitive about animal rights, it’s probably best to look away now.
Cambodia has a few odd quirks that travellers will become acquainted with pretty quickly. Shooting ranges where you can pay to fire an actual grenade …at an actual cow (apparently), the infamous happy pizzas, strange statues shaped like durians, bananas, rice sacks, you name it… and these bizarre crocodile farms being a few!
Since the rivers and lakes in Cambodia are no doubt full of the terrifying little dinosaurs, locals have captured a few and begun to breed them in order to make money through tourism and sell parts of the animals to Chinese medicine companies.
The one we chanced upon in Battambang had crude, hand painted signs pointing the way through back lanes, and actual crocodile pits you could easily fall into, since the walkways had no railings. The family who ran this one had a bucket of poor little baby ones in their home which they’ll happily let you play with, and fed them a heap of fish heads so we could watch the frenzy.
Please, bear in mind however, that if the owners of a farm want to charge you anymore than a few dollars for entrance, turn away! They provide an interesting ten minutes, but are still a total gimmick!
Get a blind massage
Another one of Southeast Asia’s great hidden secrets: Seeing Hands massage! Despite it sounding a little bit naughty, it’s actually just a really nice, cheap and cheerful massage shop ran entirely by blind people. I got a pretty bad migraine one day in Battambang and all I could think about was lying in a dark room for an hour while someone pummelled the pain out of my back, shoulders and scalp. Fortunately, we found a parlour on Street 121 in the centre of Battambang (near The Lonely Tree cafe).
For less than £5 ($6-ish) an hour, exclusively blind masseuses will massage your whole body behind the privacy of a curtain. Communication can be a bit limited and if you’d like to concentrate on a certain place, the best thing is to just be really vocal and guide their hands.
I guess it’s true that if you deprive someone of one sense, their others become stronger, which explains why these guys are so good with their hands. And of course, your money is going to a great cause, since these people would otherwise struggle to find employment.
Visit Wat Tahm-rai-saw
Wat Tahm-rai-saw is definitely worth a visit whilst you’re out exploring the Governor’s Residence and the rest of central Battambang’s French Colonial legacy. Just like a lot of other things in Battambang, it’s decoration scheme is a little left of centre, but nevertheless tells some important stories from Cambodia’s history.
Eat at Jaan Bai
The biggest surprise Cambodia had in store for me was the food! I’d never heard a lot about traditional Khmer cooking before entering the country, but the Khmer curries turned out to be me absolute favourite. They’re all so sweet, fresh and aromatic, with a heap of fish!
Jaan Bai, meaning ‘rice bowl’ is a pretty arty, fashionable social enterprise in the middle of Battambang which offers up small taster plates and cocktails. At first it may look a little too fancy for the shoestring backpacker, but your money goes to a good cause. It works with the Cambodian Children’s Trust and employs vulnerable teenagers and twenty-somethings.
Take a long boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap
Our ten hours on the little wooden boat that departs Battambang for Siem Reap each day via twisting canals, past remote fishing communities and across the Tonle Sap lake deserves a blog post all of it’s own, which has been lying in my drafts for far too long now. We still remind each other of the ride and laugh out loud.
Provided you have the time, patience and stamina (it can take anywhere between four and twelve hours – veering more towards twelve!), and your bum can withstand the uncomfortable seats, it’s a fascinating, colourful journey.
And provided they don’t overfill your boat (standard Southeast Asia) and overheat the engine, or you don’t become entangled in thick river weeds. Or run aground in the shallow water of the Tonle Sap lake in the heat of Summer. Like we did.
Where to stay in Battambang
We’d heard exceptional things about My Homestay, a family-run establishment owned by the rich, generous Mr Kun and his wife, and it didn’t disappoint. They live in a gated compound on the outskirts of Battambang and we felt like royalty for the three nights we stayed on the premises. On the morning we arrived, they offered us a huge traditional Khmer breakfast, despite us not having paid for accommodation the previous night.
Sometimes we’d get knocks on the door late at night whilst lying gawping at the Cambodian TV channels on the mounted TV opposite our bed, and in he or his wife would come with a flask of tea or a bag full of fruit from the market.
The price was a little more than we usually budgeted per night: $25 for the room, which isn’t exactly on a shoestring, but My Homestay is totally worth it with the impeccable service, free breakfast, pickup from the bus station, wifi and supper each night!
There are probably dozens more things to do in Battambang: the Wat Banan temple ruins being a popular one that we chose to skip. It’s probably worth visiting, but do you really want to pay the $3 entrance fee to ‘mini Ankgor Wat’ if you’re on a budget, and have already spent, or are planning on spending, three days and well over $30 exploring the real one?
What else have visitors of Battambang discovered in the city? Is there anything I’ve missed?