Let’s face it, if you’re coming to Cambodia, Siem Reap, the closest city to Angkor Wat, will most likely be your first, last, or even the only stop in the country. But what if I told you that there is a city that’s two hours away by car/bus from Siem Reap that packs a lot more charm than Siem Reap, and is completely off the beaten path and waiting to be discovered? Intrigued? Read along.
Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city but once you’re there you’ll see it’s more of a large town than a city. Despite the small area, Battambang is home to a buzzing art scene, French and Chinese-influenced architecture, great food, beautiful nature, and a chance for unfiltered communication with some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet.
Battambang’s center is small enough to be walked but I would highly recommend hiring a tuk tuk driver to show you around as it will save a lot of time. That should cost you around $20-30 based on your negotiation skills or your hotel can handle it for you.
So what is there to do in Battambang?
1. Support Local Artisanal Shops
Dotted around in the Battambang countryside are a few home businesses that are worth visiting and supporting, simply because of their creativity and hustle to make ends meet. I visited a family that makes rice wine, another that makes banana treats, and another that makes rice rolls. There are free samples in every shop and you can also buy some to support the families.
2. The Killing and Bat Caves
Cambodia has a tragic recent history. In only a couple of years, 3 million Cambodians tragically lost their lives in a senseless genocide by a group called the Khmer Rouge. I seriously do not know how the Cambodians maintained a goodness of heart because just learning about some of the stories of the killing made my blood boil. One of the killing grounds of the Khmer Rouge is located right outside Battambang. You can visit the place where hundreds of Cambodians were tortured and thrown inside a cave to die or already dead. Nearby, you can also visit a cave (from outside) and watch as hundreds of thousands of bats make their daily flight out in search of food.
3. Ride the Bamboo Train
The Bamboo Train is a flatbed made out of bamboo branches which is then driven at about 50 km/hr on a railroad. You could hire it to yourself ($10) or share it with others at significantly less. The ride is about 20 minutes and takes you cruising through the Cambodian countryside with rice and other crops fields to your left and right. Despite my initial doubts, it was a pretty cool thing to see and try.
4. Admire French/Chinese Colonial Architecture
In several neighborhoods in Battambang, you would be forgiven to think you have been teleported to France and you are not in Cambodia anymore. Battambang was a French protectorate for a while and that left a lot of influence on the architecture around the city. Also, the majority of tourists you will meet in the city are likely to be French! The city also has a lot of Chinese-influenced buildings, and there are many tour groups that offer architecture tours if you want some in-depth knowledge on the topic.
5. Learn About Baha’i Religion
Surprisingly, Battambang is home to a Baha’i house of worship, one of only a few around the world. The Baha’i religion started in the Middle East where it faces persecution, and its teachings are based on the collective and common teachings of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Regardless of what your beliefs are, it is an interesting place to visit and learn something new.
Battambang was certainly one of the highlights and unexpected surprises of my 3-month Asia tour. I highly recommend stopping there while you are in the country.