Boat trip to Siem Reap
For a glimpse of ‘real Cambodia’, an activity worth experiencing is the notorious boat trip to Siem Reap. Boats usually leave Battambang between 7am and 8am, typically taking eight to ten hours depending on the season. Expect to pay no more than USD22 for a single ticket. When people shout ‘duck!’ on this trip, they aren’t talking about the local wildlife: remember that overhanging trees and bushes can catch you unawares on this journey.
What is lost in comfort is more than made up for by the riverside scenes as you take this gentle ride. Floating schools, markets and churches drift by, revealing a Cambodian way of life that has changed little over the centuries.
This trip can be also done in opposite direction. Whichever you choose, make sure you reach Battambang or get out of it by boat – it is an experience not to be missed.
Another signature Battambang experience is the bamboo train, little wagons that are affectionately called Norries by the locals. For USD5 return ticket, passengers embark on an exhilarating ride aboard a rickety flatbed carriage made of bamboo, which speeds along a set of rails at up to 40kmp/h. When two trains meet from opposite directions, the one with less passengers is promptly disassembled and taken off the tracks to allow the other to pass, before zipping away on its journey again.
Note that it looks like Cambodia follows their promises to revive the railway system in the country. It means that bamboo train most likely won’t be available any more soon as the railway tracks will be used by ordinary trains. So if you are in Battambang, do not lose this last chance to ride norries.
If speedy makeshift train carts aren’t your cup of tea, Battambang can be explored on foot easily, too. Walking tours take visitors around the most notable parts of this old colonial city. Itineraries can be arranged through companies such as Butterfly Tours for as little as USD9 per person. Groups meet at the central market (Phsar Nath) at 4pm and the tour lasts for 2.5 hours, covering about 5km.
A popular activity around Battambang is cycling, largely due to the flat landscape and light traffic in the region. There are now several groups operating bicycle tours – try Free Cycling Tour and Battambang bike tours – both of which give cyclists an opportunity to experience rural Cambodia and sample local produce. We tasted bamboo sticky rice and dried banana, took a tour through the pungent but fascinating fish paste producers and even had a cheeky tipple of rice wine; all of which were produced by local people as part of their livelihood.
Take the road to Phnom Banan via tuk-tuk or moto and you’ll find Green Orange Kayaks, an NGO that supports a neighbouring school through funds made from its guesthouse, café and kayak rental (USD12 for a full day). Paddling along the gently flowing river that meanders back to Battambang was an enchanting experience, not only for the beautiful foliage growing along the riverbanks but also the fascinating communities who live close to the water.
Amongst our favourite activities in Battambang were the cookery classes. There are plenty of schools to choose from, but our recommendations are Nary Kitchen, a cosy family affair in the city centre, Smokin’ Pot, one of the longest running schools in Cambodia and Coconut Lyly, another family restaurant offering Khmer cookery lessons with a professional chef.
For altruistic travellers, Cambodia also has numerous opportunities to do volunteering and help the communities there. Whether you fancy teaching English or leading activities with disadvantaged children or gaining valuable experience as a medical volunteer, there are plenty of groups to join. Business-savvy visitors can gain experience through internships (apply online through Gap Guru) while those who love art and performance can contribute to Battambang’s Phare Ponleu Circus on National Road 1.
Sak yant tattoos
A little-heard of aspect of Battambang is the presence of traditional tattoo masters who can bestow supernatural protection. These ‘kru’ are masters of Khmer magic, and tales are told of soldiers who adorned themselves with special tattoos to protect them during the wars that ravaged this country. It is said that anyone tattooed by these kru will escape gunfire, bomb blasts and blazes without a scratch! Rumours also say there is at least one such kru still living in the nearby village of Phnom Krapeu, only 15km west of the city.
It is easier to find tattoo masters claiming the fame of producing magic tattoos around Siem Reap, but Battambang most probably offers more authentic experience.