Like many of Cambodia’s provincial outposts, Battambang is teetering on the brink of disrepair. Well, on the surface at least. You wouldn’t think it from first impressions, but Battambang is the country’s second largest city behind Phnom Penh and home to a number of artists, hoteliers, restaurateurs and social entrepreneurs who have salvaged some of the most beautiful and historic buildings and put them to good use.
Central Battambang is an interesting mix of Chinese shop houses with Penang-style five-foot ways and proper colonial landmarks. City life is centred on a single road that follows the curve of the river; from there, it only takes a matter of minutes to drift into a bucolic landscape of dirt roads and fruit orchards. The heart of the city is Battambang’s incredible central market; an example of New Khmer Architecture you wont find anywhere else outside of Phnom Penh. On the city’s outskirts lie crumbling temples (many of which pre-date Angkor) and Wat Kor Village with its stilted houses and French-speaking matriarchs who still pad the ancient floorboards.
More than 800 heritage facades can be found in Battambang’s ‘central zone’, secured by the German Development Service’s ‘Our City – Our Heritage’ project. (Rumours that Battambang will receive UNESCO Heritage status have been circulating since the mid-2000s.) This includes an Art Deco cinema that has been turned into a parking garage and the oldest structure of all, a lovingly tended Chinese temple. South of the centre is the once-walled area known as Kampaeng fort, and this is where you’ll find most of Battambang’s built vestiges of French rule in the form of handsome colonial buildings. Both zones are easily explored in an afternoon on foot or bicycle using the free maps produced by Khmer Architecture Tours.
My favourite aspects of Battambang’s street style are the vibrant shopfronts that litter the city centre like confetti and the murals that depict some of the area’s just-as-colourful historic characters.