The Lonely Planet lists Battambang as one of the ‘Top 10 Things To Do In Cambodia‘, yet it remains blissfully unblemished by mass tourism. It would probably not be considered as a place on the ‘banana pancake trail’ (read — place where tourists go!) yet it’s full of affordable guesthouses, and even has it’s own version of Siem Reap’s famous Pub street.
Battambang is without question, one of the most interesting places I’ve visited in south-east Asia.
We always planned to go to Battambang, actually, we planned to get the (very expensive) slow boat from Siem Reap initially, but changed our plans when we realised we could get a $4.50 bus instead.
The journey officially takes three hours from Siem Reap, but like most things in south east Asia, there were a few unexpected stops and detours en route and it actually took about 5, including a change of bus. NB we booked our bus through Capitol, at their offices opposite the old market in Siem Reap and they were great.
We’d already booked our $3 a night room at Tomato guesthouse in town and when we disembarked, a tuk tuk driver was waiting for us with Oli’s name on a piece of cardboard. Well, kinda of Oli’s name — if Oliver was spelled Olllllllile.
As cynical travellers, we didn’t believe that the ride was free….but took it anyway. It was genuinely free, and the manager had sent someone down to collect us — gold star to Battambang. Our room was really basic, but clean with a double bed, fan and private bathroom….the drains smelled a bit, but for $3 a night, we didn’t care.
After a bit of exploring, we realised that the town was a) tiny and b) full of very inviting eateries….2 gold stars for Battambang. Within a five minute radius from Tomato is a big market, with great street food as well as several small streets and lane ways (half streets) with a plethora of cafés, restaurants and bars. Now, we needed to find something to do in between eating……
Bright and at a reasonable hour the next day, we headed out to explore the Heritage walking trail, a free downloadable guide to Battambang architecture by Phnom Penh based KA tours. It’s a pretty cool tour, and we got some great pictures as well as getting our bearings in Battambang.
One of my favourite pics is the one of the beautiful tree with red leaves overlooking the river. It was gorge.
The architecture in Battambang is really beautiful, in a very crumbling colonial way you know? The locals were super friendly, and the kids waved and shouted hello at us wherever we went — it’s hard not to be happy when you are getting that kind of royal treatment.
The Battambang loop
One of Battambang’s most touristy (I don’t say this disparagingly) things to do is a loop from Phnom Sampeu, home to a bats and monkeys as well as the killing caves, to Phnom Banan via Cambodia’s only winery (be still my beating heart).
This is totally do-able on a bicycle, BUT, Phnom means mountain, so I’d highly recommend you either get tuk tuk for the day (and therefore a guide) for $15 or do what we did and get a scooter for $7 (petrol came to about $5 on top). Signposts aren’t super clear, and I’m a crap map reader so you will need to just keep asking for directions.
Phnom Sampeau (ticket cost $3 each) is home to some killing caves, which were yet another place the Khmer Rouge used to murder thousands of innocents. There are two caves, one for children and babies and the other for adults where you can see the stupa that houses hundreds of skulls. Once again, we are reminded of Cambodia’s incredibly tragic history.
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The views from the top of Phnom Sampeau are stunning, and you even get to hang out with some very cute monkeys.
We then drove through the beautiful countryside to Cambodia’s first, and only winery. We drank an interesting, but totally drinkable glass of red wine plus a shot of ginger juice as well as a shot of apple juice for $2. A total bargain.
Time for the big finale, drum roll please…….the bamboo train! This is easily Battambang’s most ‘mainstream’ tourist attraction, and at $5 each is pricey for Cambodia, but so worth it. The train, if you can call it that, chugs along for about 30 minutes across precarious looking bridges, and winding tracks to a cute little pitstop where we bought a coconut and chatted to the locals.
The best bit about the train, when you meet another train, is that the one holding the fewest passengers has to get off and dismantle to let the other pass. Amazing!
After all that sightseeing, we were hungry with a capital H. As our accomodation, which normally accounts for around 20% of our costs, was currently less than 10% of our total budget, we decided to treat ourselves to a lot of yummy food.
One of our favourites was Kin Yei on street 1.5 which we frequented daily for tea and cake (a huge pot of tea is $1.5, coffee is around $2-3 and delicious banana bread is $1.50). The service is amazing here and if, like Oli, you like coffee you’re in for a treat — two of the team have been crowned barista of the year.
Not only that but Kin Yei is actually a not for profit organisation, which aims to support local Khmer entrepreneurs to collaborate and build their businesses. You can read more about it here.
We also had a lovely evening at Jaan Bai (next to Kin Yei on street 1.5!) which is another not for profit community based project run by the Cambodian Children’s Trust. Jaan Bai offers great opportunities for training and employment in their program, and the food is AMAZING!
We were lucky enough to be there around closing time to hang out with some of the staff, who were all gathered together at the end of their shift to enjoy dinner. Tom, who helps run Jaan Bai is keen to offer a ‘staff choice’ option at the restaurant, priced at a bargain $2. The only rule? No complaints!
Battambang was to be our last stop in Cambodia, before heading back to Bangkok and then Myanmar, and we were gutted to be leaving our favourite country.
We LOVED Cambodia, and thus far every place we’d visited had exceeded our expectations. Battambang was no different, in fact, it was probably the cherry on the cake.