Not many people make it out to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city. Whilst it may not have the temples of Angkor like Siem Reap, the idyllic beaches of the south or the rich culture and history of Phnom Penh – it still has plenty to offer – namely, off the beaten track explorations of temples, ruins, and caves, as well as a a picturesque colonial town that has a bustling little cafe scene.
Battambang is a perfect stop for a day or two to explore Cambodia away from the crowds – we saw so few tourists during our stop, making such a change from places like Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
You’ll likely arrive in Battambang via bus, in a station just out of town, where before the vehicle has even come to a stop it is mobbed by dozens of local tuk tuk drivers holding up signs, vying for your business.
All of them offer ridiculously low prices like $0.50 USD per person to take you into town. But, as usual, with such a low price comes a catch. Once a driver has secured your business and you’re sitting in his tuk-tuk, he’ll present you with a file, full of images of all the local sights around Battambang and ask for you to consider him as a driver to visit the various places.
This super direct approach is usually quite annoying – not just in Cambodia, but everywhere where touts exist. However, you will definitely need some form of transport to visit the sights in Battambang – whether thats hiring a bike and getting around on your own, or grabbing a tuk tuk. Knowing what we wanted to see already, we were able to have a good conversation with our driver about what we wanted to do and get an idea as to how long it would take to get around, before we both agreed on an itinerary and a price for the following day – sorted!
The hub of Battambang is split either side of the Sangkae River that runs through the middle of town. Wandering through town is a lovely treat, with a mix of stunning Khmer architecture and some of the best preserved examples of French colonial buildings in all of Cambodia. Walking along the river is also great at night, when the locals set up a number of market stalls selling food, souvenirs and trinkets.
Battambang’s most famous attraction is its Bamboo Train. Known as a ’norry’ in Khmer, its essentially a rail vehicle, a simply constructed bamboo flatbed that is lightweight and runs along fairly warped rail tracks with a motor. The track, built in the 1970’s, now only runs between Battambang and Poipet, and is managed by the Tourist Police, offering visitors the chance to experience the bamboo train for themselves!
As the bamboo train is exposed to the elements, we visited in the coolest part of the day – first thing in the morning. We paid our fee of $5 USD each, and sat atop a cushion on the train as the conductor started the engine. I was expecting a slow chug-chug down the tracks, taking in the sights around us. Boy, was I wrong. The train FLEW – reaching speeds of over 42 km/hr – that doesn’t sound that fast, but on a rickety bamboo platform, speeding down warped tracks and over crumbling bridges, it was both terrifying and exciting at the same time – we had to hold on for dear life!
The most amusing part was when we would see another bamboo train approaching in the distance – the tracks are only one way. The rule is – the lighter load jumps up and the train is removed from the tracks, and the other continues their journey and the carriage is then rebuilt. We had this happen four times on our two trips down the tracks!
As per usual, an attraction like this – where it exists only for tourists – is not without its negatives, and we found when we completed the one leg of our train trip we were dropped off in a small village to ‘wait’ for the train to go back – even though it was just sitting there. This was an opportunity for the local stallholders to bombard us with pleas to buy whatever it was they were selling, for about 15 minutes. We also were told upon the end of our train ride that we had to tip our driver – HAD to, no choice, wouldn’t let us off the train without doing so – even though when they’d taken our payment they said that it was ‘for the conductor’. It appears that this payment goes straight into the pockets of the tourist police, and not those actually running the trains all day, every day.
We then made our way to Wat Ek Phnom, the sight of an ancient Hindu temple built in Angkorian style. The temple is partly collapsed, but most of the main structures are still standing – the best part, that unlike Angkor Wat – there were no other tourists around so we were free to explore, climb, pose and photograph!
The sight of Wat Ek Phnom is also home to a large, white stone seated Buddha, and a modern Buddhist pagoda – its walls and ceilings covered in hand-painted, intricate murals. I love paintings and artwork so I always marvel at such large pieces.
We called it a day after our visit to Wat Ek Phnom, with the heat of the day really starting to kick in and the pool at our hotel calling our name, however there are many more sights around Battambang including:
Phnom Sampeu: Location of the killing caves of the Khmer Rouge, a monastery and Buddhist stupas atop a hilltop, where tens of thousands of bats fly out of the cave each evening. We opted not to visit as we were planning to visit the killing fields in Phnom Penh instead.
Wat Banan: A ‘mini-Angkor-Wat’ temple, still used as a Buddhist shrine today. We’d just visited Angkor Wat so we were templed out…
Wat Samraong Knong: An old pagoda by the Sangker River that was used as a prison during the Khmer Rouge.
Farms, Villages and Rice Paddies: These are all working farms (with animals and produce) that allow visitors, usually on the way to or from another major sight that you can stop at.
Battambang is a great little stop for a day or two, to get away from the huge crowds at other destinations within Cambodia and take a more relaxed approach to sight-seeing and understanding Khmer culture. Whilst it was a little way out, we thoroughly enjoyed our off the beaten track adventure exploring Battambang!
- Getting to Battambang
We came to Battambang via Siem Reap on a large AC bus, which left Siem Reap at 8.30AM and cost $4.50 USD each. There are several buses a day and the journey takes about 4 hours.
- Getting out of Battambang
We left Battambang to head to Phnom Penh. There are a number of large AC buses several times a day, costing $4 USD each. The journey takes about 6 hours. Alternatively you can take a ‘VIP Bus’ which is basically a mini-van, leaving twice a day and costing $8 USD each – this takes 5 hours. We took this bus as we had to catch a connecting bus in Phnom Penh and it was the only option that would get us there in time.
- Getting around Battambang
As mentioned, on arrival you will likely be bombarded by tuk tuk drivers at the bus station all vying for your business. It happened to us, but we were really pleased with our driver, Rich.
We were able to have a conversation about what we wanted to see and he provided honest information about how long it would take to get around and how much time needed – he made other suggestions but didn’t push when we said no. The going rate in town is about $12 USD for a half day trip to visit a single sight – we organised for a half day trip to visit two sights for $15 USD, which we thought was fair. Rich was on time, and waited for us at each stop – a great tuk tuk driver. I’ve included his details for you here!
- Where to stay in Battambang
There is a good mix of budget and high end options in Battambang, but opt to stay on the west bank of the river – this is where the largest concentration of restaurants and markets are. The east bank has more high end options but you’ll have to walk alongside the river and cross one of its two bridges to get over the other side.
Have you visited Battambang? What other off the beaten track adventures did you get up to? Share your travels in the comments below!