Cambodia’s second-largest province by population, Battambang is widely known as a contemporary art incubator and a protector of colonial architecture. Spirituality, superstition and memories of an often-tragic past are more pronounced in Battambang than anywhere else I’ve visited in Cambodia.
Some people describe central Battambang, once a crucial French colonial outpost, as an oversized Kampot. Another river city, life runs parallel to the banks of the Sangkae and seeps out over pancake-flat rice fields into stilted villages, fruit orchards, crumbling temples and over bamboo bridges, culminating in the modest peak of Sampeou mountain. Give me a bicycle and I could easily spend a month here and never get bored!
We spent five days in Battambang in May 2016. Here are nine things to do that you shouldn’t miss…
See contemporary art at Romcheik 5
With more artists per capita than anywhere else in Cambodia, Battambang prides itself on being a creative city. There are plenty of galleries and studio spaces in the heart of town, but Romcheik 5 – a relatively recent addition to the scene – is by far my favourite. Located over the bridge and down a dirt road, Romcheik 5 functions as both an artists’ commune and a display/performance space. Four young Khmer creatives live here with their families, and a permanent display of their work can be viewed upstairs. The downstairs gallery is set aside for special exhibitions.
For more Battambang gallery listings, see this post by Grantourismo.
Have afternoon tea at The Lonely Tree Café
Not only does Lonely Tree have one of Battambang’s loveliest interiors, it also has a great food and drink menu. When an afternoon storm is rolling its way over Battambang, Lonely Tree’s covered balcony is where you want to be – sipping on a cold beer and digging into a slice of homemade key lime pie. My other Battambang favourites include The Riverside Balcony Bar (for incredible pizza) and Nary’s Kitchen (for Khmer food).
I wrote a feature post about The Lonely Tree, which you can find here.
Go on a self-guided architecture tour
Battambang has a lot of beautifully preserved French-era buildings alongside the typically colourful array of Chinese shophouses and Khmer abodes. Free maps produced by Khmer Architecture Tours (Central & South – PDFs) include all the highlights and are easily covered by bicycle in an afternoon. Just be aware that some of the sites – notably The Royal Bungalow, pictured below – are off limits to the public and only visible through locked gates.
Watch tassel making at Bric-À-Brac
After decades spent travelling through Asia, Australian craftsman Morrison Polkinghorne set up his passementeries studio/shop in central Battambang. Bric-À-Brac sells a wonderful range of keepsakes and souvenirs, many of Morrison’s own making and others sourced from local brands, including Penh Lane. Bric-À-Brac is also home to a boutique hotel and in the evenings, a footpath bar – but the real treat is seeing Morrison and his staff working at one of three custom-built looms, weaving tassels and brocade trimmings.
Visit the Chinese temple
My favourite building on the architecture tour, Battambang’s Chinese temple is the oldest structure inside the city’s conservation area. It boasts some incredibly vivid murals inside. You can read all about the history of the spirit house on the KAT Central map – or strike up a conversation with the watchman who will happily let you in and show you around.
Stop in at a heritage hotel
Located on the opposite bank of the river, Bambu Hotel (pictured) is a beautifully restored colonial-era villa. While we preferred to stay closer to town, it was worth dropping in for a poolside drink if only to admire the hotel lobby’s tiled floors.
Drink coffee at Kinyei Café
Find a piece of art to take home
Tep Kao Sol is one of a dozen shop/galleries in town that sells framed and unframed prints and postcards bearing line sketches and watercolour illustrations of Battambang, Angkor and other recognisable Cambodian subjects. They also stock DIY art supplies, including recycled paper.
Take a classic ‘greater Battambang’ day trip
When it’s time to get out and explore greater Battambang, most guesthouses and hotels offer a standard itinerary. It typically includes a jaunt on the bamboo railway, wine sampling at a local cellar door, and a stop at one of two pre-Angkorian temples located on the outskirts of town. With sunset at Sampeou mountain thrown in, this will take you the better part of a day. Booked through your hotel, it should cost $15-$20, or you can go direct and bargain with a tuk-tuk driver – they all carry laminated maps and picture guides. We were lucky that our driver spoke good English and could narrate some of the more obscure sights for us. If we had our time again, we would skip the cellar door/vineyard.
Other popular Battambang activities include guided bike tours of the surrounding countryside and Khmer cooking classes. Have you been to Battambang? What would you recommend?