While travelling in Cambodia, we were excited to visit Battambang (pronounced as Bat/dam/bong), especially after hearing our fellow travellers rave about it. Founded in the 11th century by Khmer Empire, despite being the second largest city in Cambodia, Battambang is fairly laid back compared to it’s neighbours Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
While in Battambang, we learned that the city is being used for filming ‘First they killed my father’, a movie based on the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge, directed by Angelina Jolie. It is planned to be released in late 2016.
Aside from hitting the big screen soon, Battambang has some good restaurants, cafes and bars. For a coffee run, try the Kinyei Cafe on the famous Street 1.5, it serves good food and freshly baked cakes.
To investigate the nightlife in Battambang, we popped into the vibrant and very friendly Buffalo Alley bar where Charlie was instantly employed as an impromptu English teacher by the staff. After a couple of good cocktails and a teaching and laughing session we also had the pleasure of meeting the editor in chief of the expat community paper Battambang Traveller.
Overall, we had a great time in Battambang, but we would suggest choosing your accommodation carefully as it will impact greatly your experience.
A guided tour of Battambang and its surroundings
The city is easy to explore on foot, but if you want to see the countryside and nearby attractions, we recommend hiring a Tuk tuk for a day or renting a motorbike. After the luxury of a private driver while exploring the Angkor temples in Siem Reap, we decided to hire a guide in Battambang and do a complete guided tour of the area.
Although we love exploring independently, in Cambodia we felt that our money could serve better by booking a tour with a local guy rather than hiring a motorbike. The tour took all day and cost us $20 plus a tip for the driver.
Our Tuk tuk driver was really great, friendly, chatty and knowledgeable, especially about all the local plants growing along the way. He also did a little detour to show us some extra interesting sights.
The tour was very relaxed and well timed with lots to see in between sights and weren’t rushed at all.
Even though we explored Battambang on foot a day earlier, it was nice to be taken around the city in a Tuk tuk. The traffic was easy and the ride was very enjoyable.
Apart from a number of beautiful temples in the city, we stopped at Sala Khaet – The Lord Governor’s Palace. At first sight it seems as if the palace was built by the French, but it was actually designed and built by the Italian architect in the late 1800’s. Regrettably the building is not open for the general public, but it sure is a nice mansion to look at from afar.
After admiring the palace, we were taken to see the mighty statue of Ta Dumbong at the eastern end of town where locals come to worship him. He’s at the center of a rather confusing local legend which features a magic stick that the statue displays today.
All you need to know is that the town’s name comes from the legend so the statue has become a place of local pilgrimage. It’s a bit of a shame he’s in the centre of a roundabout, we guess it makes crossing the busy road a test of true faith!
Ingenious Bamboo Train in Battambang
Our first stop out of the town was the world famous Bamboo Train. Charlie had been wanting to ride this ingenious train since he saw it featured on the BBC website and was chuffed to bits to have finally been able to experience the journey.
The Bamboo Train is located 4km from central Battambang. It’s basically a collection of small bamboo motorised platforms which run up and down a 7km long disused rail line. You can jump onboard for a return trip at $5 each which takes around 45 minutes including a stop at the far end to turn your ‘train’ around.
We both really enjoyed the experience. For the full effect, you get to sit at the front on a couple of pillows to minimise the bumps on the tracks and the driver stands behind you. Lots of fun!
But what happens if there is another train coming towards you? Well, you simply need to get off the ‘train’, lift it off the rails and let the other ‘train’ pass. Luckily for us, the people on the set in front of us kindly let us pass. It’s quite a job to lift that bamboo platform of the railway.
The whole system was born out of necessity at a time when road transport was scarce and expensive. People started to utilize the disused rail tracks across the county as a way to move goods and people around with less effort and expense. It’s an amazing example of ingenuity out of adversity.
We read in the news and also were told by our lovely tour guide that this is the last year the bamboo train is running as the real train line is being developed in the area. So if you are heading to Battambang, don’t miss this attraction. Soon it might be moved elsewhere or dropped altogether, which would be a shame.
Cambodia’s only winery
Wine was something I really missed while travelling around SE Asia. I was so excited to learn about Cambodia’s only winery, Prasat Phnom Banan Winery, located about 6 miles south of Battambang.
I was also excited about the tasting session. For $2.50 per person you get to try the local wine, whiskey and juice. I have to admit the wine was not my favourite drink from the selection. But the whiskey was bloody amazing and I am not a lover of strong spirits. It was strong, but so smooth. If we were on a vacation and I was travelling home after this, I would have bought a bottle to take with us.
The other two drinks were grape and ginger and honey juice. We loved the gingery drink and despite it having a very robust ginger aftertaste, it was effortless to drink. Fortunately, we bought a bottle to take with us which soothed our sore throats after the tour.
Muslim Fishing Village
On the way to the the Banan Temple we past some of the local fishing villages where the local muslim community live. It was very quiet here, just the goats… Our guide seemed fascinated that the villagers don’t eat pork and also pointed out that they don’t keep any pet cats or dogs.
On the way we also met a bunch of fruit bats (Megabats) dangling in the trees. It was somewhat a little creepy, fascinating nonetheless, to see rather large creatures circling over our heads and then landing on the trees in the sunshine.
After seeing 17 temples within 3 days at Angkor in Siem Reap, we honestly thought we are done with seeing temples for a little white. But what the heck, it’s only another 358 more steps to climb after all!
We’d been given around two or so hours by the driver to have some food and explore the temple. After delicious lunch at the local stall we set off.
The climb was agonising as our feet and knees were still hurting from exploring Angkor, but we made it! It was so peaceful at the top, we loved it. No one in sight, definitely a bonus.
Beautiful panoramic views across the rice fields and the remains of the abandoned baray looked pretty in the distance.
Phnom Sampeou Mountain (Killing Cave)
After all the climbing, we were happy to be back in the Tuk tuk, this is where booking a tour pays off. It was a chilled drive through some intense green rice fields and a bumpy road. My camera was jumping up and down making all my photos blurry = big frown.
We were heading towards the Phnom Sampeou Mountain crowned with Wat Sampeou and home to natural caves, some of which were used during the blood curdling Khmer Rouge regime known as Killing Caves.
Here people were pushed through a gap in the top of the cave down onto the rocks below. You can see some remaining bones of the many victims as you descend into the grottos.
The mountain is located around 12km outside of Battambang and is busy with tourists, mainly because most of the organised tours end here for a spectacular bat show.
Once you get to the base of the mountain, you’ll need to purchase a ticket ($1 per person) to be able to see the sights. Afterwards, to reach the top of the mountain, you can have a trek up on a paved road or hire a motorbike-taxi for $2 per person.
While the climb isn’t extremely strenuous, we recommend jumping on a bike, there’s no shortage of motorbike taxi’s at the base. Alternatively, to reach the pagoda, you can take the 700 steps near the ticket office.
Bat Cave – the ultimate destination of the tour
The culmination of our tour was absolutely spectacular. We were advised by the guide to come back to the base of the mountain at around 6 pm just before dusk.
Unsurprisingly, the locals have the area peppered with lots of bars/restaurants for the comfort of the visitors. We chose one of the bars and waited for this daily natural occurrence with a welcome cold beer.
As the sun set, a slim stream of bats started emerging from the cave. Uniformed, the flow grew steadily into a massive rush of millions of bats flying into the fields toward the lake for a hearty feast.
It was an awesome way to end our day in Battambang. The rumor has it, that some of the bats get tangled in the fish nets and then appear on the stalls for sale in the local markets.
After the tour we were safely taken back to our hotel for a good night’s rest before catching a bus and heading to the border to cross back into Thailand early in the morning.
Have you been to Battambang? What did you like the most? Let us know in the comments below…