If you’re also happy to cycle uphill, head to Wat Banan (USD3 entrance fee – includes entrance to Wat Sampeou, open daily, dawn till dusk), a 13th century temple atop a limestone peak, approximately 20km out of town. There are incredible views across the surrounding countryside, reached by ascending a steep staircase of ancient stonework. As a haunting reminder of Cambodia’s violent history, anti-aircraft guns also remain at the site.
Another temple worth exploring is Wat Ek Phnom (free entry, open daily, dawn till dusk). The wat was constructed in the 11th century and is now a jumble of stones and pillaged reliefs and carvings, giving the whole place an eerie appearance like something from Lara Croft’s Tomb-Raider adventures. Situated just over 11km out of Battambang on the River Road, the remains are hidden behind a modern pagoda temple and half-built Buddha statue, giving visitors the feeling that they have accidentally chanced upon a secret ruin.
The Khmer Rouge era sights
Depressing, yet deeply important in understanding the terrifying regime of the Khmer Rouge, the Killing Caves (Phnom Sampeou) close to Battambang is another a must-visit in this area. Like many other places in Cambodia, such as the killing fields of Phnom Penh, the site is a grim reminder of the genocide that took place here in the 1970s.
We reached the location by tuk-tuk (USD3 entry – includes a ticket to Wat Banan, open dawn till dusk) and had the option of a guided tour. The caves contain grisly piles of gathered bones: thousands of victims who were bludgeoned and pushed into the deep chasm where their bodies no doubt littered the floor of the cave for years. A pagoda stands nearby, where many of the prisoners were tortured by their captors. The whole site is morbidly fascinating, with plaques depicting scenes of cruelty and describing the events that took place there. With its setting of lush jungle, wandering monkeys and beautiful birdsong, it was hard to imagine the atrocities committed at these caves less than 50 years before.
Wat Samraong Knong is another temple that saw scenes of terror during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Its name translates as “Wat of the Forest” and the verdant greenery surrounding this beautiful place certainly makes it aptly named. A fairly recent building in Cambodian terms, (it was completed in the 18th century), there is also a modern pagoda on the site that commemorates the tortured and murdered victims.
For travellers wishing to leave such horrific places behind and experience some nature, the captivating “Bat Temple” of Wat Baydamram (free entry, open dawn till dusk) should be next on the list. The temple is renowned for its neighbouring colony of fruit bats, which hang in the nearby Bodhi tree, chattering and bickering like winged monkeys. We would recommend visiting close to sunset, when the bats are most active. Refreshments and snacks can be bought from the small collection of vendors who have set up business close to the temple.
If the winged wildlife hasn’t cheered you up after visiting Battambang’s sobering sites of the Khmer Rouge regime, head 10km south from Battambang and you’ll discover the region’s only winery: Chan Thai Chhoeung/Banon (open daily 8am–6pm, USD2 for wine-tasting). Enjoy a glass of red that tastes nothing like any wine you’re used to back home (visitors leave feeling convinced that the proprietors know very little about how to create actual wine). The Banon Brandy is somewhat more palatable but whatever your tastes, the winery is so novel that it makes for a memorable, if hilarious visit.