Charm and calmness in Battambang
The most memorable aspect of Battambang for us was how chilled out it is compared to other Asian cities. None of those swarms of roaring mopeds and their clouds of choking smoke; no legions of tourists pushing through packed markets at night. Cambodia’s second city has a quiet charm of its own.
Especially unexpected was the remaining French-colonial architecture and the thriving contemporary arts scene. There’s an understated creative energy here that you really wouldn’t expect in this part of the world.
When we’re on holiday, we love wandering around peaceful lanes and discovering trendy boutique cafes and tiny, enchanting galleries, which is a big reason why we loved this up-and-coming cultural city of Cambodia. There so many quaint cafes and art shops to discover! One of our favourites was Choco L’Art Café, which not only serves fantastic coffee but also has French cakes and pastries that would put Parisian desserts to shame.
The lush landscape is quite flat and there are countless lanes to cycle around. Battambang is a place where you can take your time and relax, but if you fancy speeding things up a bit, take a ride on Norry, the mad bamboo train. This novel way of moving goods across 3km of countryside has become a popular tourist attraction. Flatbed carts made of rickety bamboo speed along straight rails at up to 40kmp/h, making for an exhilarating ride through the Cambodian fields and forests.
Another ride not to be missed is the infamous boat to Siem Reap. This journey can take up to ten hours, but in the wet season and on a good day, you’ll only have a numb bum for five hours. In return for this gruelling journey down the river, you’ll get to see life on the water, with floating villages, floating schools and even floating churches. The fascinating experience was well worth the discomfort!
When to go
When anyone pictures the weather in this part of the world, they naturally think hot, tropical and very sunny. This is definitely the case during Cambodia’s peak season in the drier months, between November and February, so if you want to wander around the temples in comfort, we’d recommend a trip at this time of the year.
If you’d rather have a wetter, muggier visit, the rainy season lasts from March to September. You’ll be stickier than sauna full of sticks, but you’ll also see the jungles at their greenest!
Where to stay
There are plenty of decent hostels, homestays and guesthouses in Battambang, and 21st century standards along with the arrival of the internet means you don’t have to slum it in south-east Asia any more.
Because Battambang is less famous than Siem Reap and more off the well-trod tourist track than Phnom Penh, you’re likely to snap a high-quality room at a lower price than these places. Whether you’re happy with a shabby but clean place for USD3 a night or have ‘expensive tastes’ and would rather splash out on USD15 a night, there’s something for everyone’s budget in this town.
Where to eat
One thing we did find that was on par with Thailand’s incredible offerings was the cuisine. Battambang presents a delicious array of fare to choose from: our personal fave was the fish amok, which is Cambodia’s national dish, like a soufflé-slash-curry made with coconut and galangal. Divine!
The farmland around Battambang is considered the country’s ‘rice bowl’, so it’s no surprise that the markets and restaurants serve such wonderful, fresh food. Add to that the glorious French influence on its cuisine and you have a recipe for inventive and toothsome food.
Battambang also has the best coffee in the country, so as we’re both shameless gourmands AND a caffeine-addicts, we’d rate it as the best city for food and drink in Cambodia. As you’d expect from this part of the world, the food is cheap, easy to find and exceedingly tasty.
This arty, chilled-out city is best appreciated for its tranquil charm, so it’s worth knowing that Battambang is not renowned for its nightlife. Unlike the lively areas of clubs and bars in neighbouring Thailand, this city tends to become fairly quiet after 9pm and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything more dynamic than a karaoke night.
How to get around
Along with the heat and fact that most of the sights you’d like to see are scattered around outside the city, it’s wise to hire a tuk-tuk driver to get you about. For half a day of sightseeing in this way, you can expect to pay close to USD15. Hiring a bicycle costs as little as USD2 for the day, while scooters (motos) are only USD7 per day. Don’t forget your helmet!
How to get to and from
Battambang is easily reached from other parts of Cambodia with buses being the most convenient, easiest, and cheapest option.
Various companies offer comfortable, air-conditioned transport and tickets can be purchased here at 12Go.asia months in advance – or at the last minute, if you prefer so.
There are direct buses and vans between Phnom Penh and Battambang taking under 6 hours with multiple departures throughout the day – check Mekong Express or Thero Express, for instance. Mekong Express is slightly more expensive but generally has higher votes (thought Thero is also ok); USD16 vs USD12.
Buses to Sihanoukville cost about USD28 – Virak Buntham Express runs big buses along this route and we recommend either to opt for a big bus or to connect via Phnom Penh as the direct journey is somewhat longish – 11 hours.
Siem Reap is only 3 hours away by minivan (USD10) or you can opt for a longer slow boat which is totally local transport though there are more expensive tourist ferry rides, too (up to USD30 by tourist boat).
If buses aren’t your thing or you’re feeling frivolous, you could pay for a taxi to each of these places. A four-seater costs USD40 to go to Siem Reap and only takes two and a half hours. To Phnom Penh expect to pay USD60 for a journey of four hours, while Sihanoukville costs USD140 and takes up to twelve hours!
The people of Cambodia are renowned for their friendly nature and you will certainly meet countless happy souls in this city, which we found incredible given the dark history of the Khmer Rouge in this country. Despite their haunting past, you can be assured of a warm welcome and wide smiles from the locals in Battambang.
Cambodia is a very safe country, with little or no violent crime. Crime exists in the form of petty theft (pickpockets at busy transport connections and markets being one risk) or scams pulled to fool the unwary and the ignorant. Our advice is to stay alert and be streetwise: don’t give money to people in the street or hand over your passport without obvious need. It’s all about common sense.
With all this in mind, your trip to Battambang should be a memorable one for the right reasons. This little-known gem of Cambodia will seduce you with its charm and have you aching to stay.