Cambodia Insight - - CONTENTS -

Bat­tam­bang is Cam­bo­dia’s sec­ond-largest city and the cap­i­tal of Bat­tam­bang Prov­ince, which was founded in the 11th cen­tury. It is the for­mer cap­i­tal of Mon­ton Kmer and lies in the heart of the North­west of Cam­bo­dia. It’s a river­side town, home to some of the best-pre­served, French colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture in the coun­try.

With a rich ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage, an in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent art scene pro­vid­ing a cra­dle for many of Cam­bo­dia’s top tal­ents, and stun­ning sur­round­ing coun­try­side, Bat­tam­bang is a tran­quil respite from the boom and hus­tle of Ph­nom Penh and Siem Reap.

Bat­tam­bang is Kh­mer for “dis­ap­pear­ing stick”, re­fer­ring to a leg­end about a cowherd named Ta Dam­bong who found a magic stick and used it to usurp the then-king. The king’s son ran off to the woods and be­came a monk. In the mean­time, Ta Dam­bong had a dream that a holy man on a white horse would van­quish him, so he de­cided it would be a good idea to have all the holy men rounded up and put to death. When the prince heard he was re­quired to go into town, a her­mit came up and gave him a white horse. When the prince got on the horse he found it could fly. When he flew into town, Ta Dam­bong re­alised his dream was com­ing true so he threw his magic stick at the prince and ran away. Nei­ther he nor the magic stick was ever seen again.

Un­til re­cently Bat­tam­bang was off the map for road trav­ellers, but fa­cil­i­ties have re­cently been im­proved and it makes a great base for vis­it­ing the nearby tem­ples, such as Ph­nom Banon and Wat Ek Ph­nom, as well as the closedby vil­lages.

It’s a sec­ondary hub on the over­land route be­tween Thai­land and Viet­nam, and if the Na­tional High­way No 6 from Poipet to Siem Reap is ever up­graded it’ll be­come an even smaller hub. The net­work of charm­ing old French shop houses clus­tered along the river­bank is the real high­light here, and there are a num­ber of Wats (Pago­das) scat­tered around the town.

The small mu­seum has a col­lec­tion of Angko­rian-era ar­ti­facts, and beyond the town there’s a num­ber of hill­top tem­ples, yet more Wats and a pretty large lake. One of the more fa­mous hills is Ph­nom Sam­peau (Ship Hill) with the no­to­ri­ous killing caves.

Bat­tam­bang did not give way to the Kh­mer Rouge move­ment after the fall of Ph­nom Penh, but it’s been in the cen­tre of the on­go­ing gov­ern­ment Kh­mer Rouge con­flict ever since the Viet­namese in­va­sion in 1979 pushed the geno­ci­dal regime out of Ph­nom Penh and to the North­west. Un­til the sur­ren­der deal of Ieng Sary (Kh­mer Rouge num­ber three man based in Pailin), Bat­tam­bang was the Kh­mer Rouge strong­hold in the re­gion.

In the ear­lier his­tory Bat­tam­bang flip-flopped back and forth be­tween Thai­land (called Siam be­fore their 20th-cen­tury renaming) and Cam­bo­dia. It’s been a part of Thai­land most of the time since the 15th cen­tury, with Cam­bo­dia re­gain­ing con­trol (more specif­i­cally due the French) in 1907. The Thais grabbed it again, with Ja­panese as­sis­tance, in 1941 and kept the re­gion in their camp un­til the World War II years in 1947.

The Allied Forces helped per­suade the Thais that the re­gion was orig­i­nally part of an­cient Cam­bo­dia and the world com­mu­nity would not take kindly to the Thais hold­ing onto it fur­ther. Like the rest of the North­west, there is still a lot of Thai in­flu­ence ap­par­ent. The main cur­rency is still the Thai Baht and many peo­ple are able to con­verse in Thai. But the area is very Kh­mer, with an­cient Kh­mer ru­ins scat­tered around, and even the ways of life are much more sim­i­lar to the rest of Cam­bo­dia than to Thai­land.

Bat­tam­bang city is a peace­ful and pleas­ant place these days. The main parts of the city are sit­u­ated close to the Sangker River, a tran­quil, small body of water that winds its way through Bat­tam­bang Prov­ince.

It is a nice, pic­turesque set­ting. As with much of Cam­bo­dia, the French ar­chi­tec­ture is an at­trac­tive bonus of the lovely city.

Cam­bo­dia has a trop­i­cal mon­soon cli­mate. Dur­ing the rainy sea­son be­tween mid-april and mid-oc­to­ber the Mekong swells and backs into the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), in­creas­ing the size of the lake al­most three­fold. Be­tween Novem­ber and April winds are less strong and there are higher tem­per­a­tures (up to 35 C). Gen­eral in­for­ma­tion about the cli­mate:

- Rainy sea­son: June - Oc­to­ber (<31 C) - Cool sea­son: Novem­ber - Fe­bru­ary (>26 C) - Hot sea­son: March - May : (From 28 C -35 C)

With talks un­der­way for list­ing Cam­bo­dia’s sec­ond city as a UNESCO World Her­itage City (most likely in 2016), Bat­tam­bang’s sta­tus as a some­what pe­riph­eral des­ti­na­tion looks set to change. The num­ber of tourists who are catch­ing on to its charms con­tin­ues to grow. It is slowly wak­ing up to the ben­e­fits of tourism, not just eco­nom­i­cally, but also for its role in cul­tural and her­itage pro­mo­tion and pro­tec­tion (by some any­way).

Bat­tam­bang has al­ready been named by UNESCO as a City of Per­form­ing Arts, thanks to more than 100 an­cient Kh­mer, Thai and French colo­nial build­ings and the many an­cient pago­das and tem­ples that dot the city and its en­vi­rons. It is also the home of a per­for­mance and arts school called Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak, a home-grown non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that grew out of the post-kh­mer Rouge-era refugee camps in Thai­land which an­i­mated the city’s artis­tic heart.

The city it­self is rather dreamy and po­etic by com­par­i­son with the raw, un­bri­dled en­ergy of Ph­nom Penh and the chaotic mash of Siem Reap. The Sankae river winds its way all the way through Bat­tam­bang’s cen­tre.

An evening walk along the wide river­side pave­ments is to wit­ness or­di­nary lives with all of the quiet beauty that en­tails as you pass strolling fam­i­lies, court­ing teens, chil­dren swing­ing in the pub­lic park, dozens of peo­ple twist­ing, push­ing and pulling at the pub­lic gym or walk­ing on stones to stim­u­late blood flow and pro­mote their health. Along­side them groups of guys laugh

and bounce shut­tle­cocks to one an­other off their heels, and school kids drill their tae kwon do.

The cen­tral shop­ping area is home to a mix of Chi­nese shopfront-style build­ings, Kh­mer 1960s struc­tures and the liver-spot­ted re­mains of French colo­nial-era build­ings. The prin­ci­pal flies in the oint­ment now are de­vel­op­ers who would rip down what re­mains of the lovely town cen­tre build­ings and re­place them with ugly, mod­ern ed­i­fices while they still can. Hope­fully, they won’t get too far with their plans.

Out­side the city bound­aries, rich soils and more mod­er­ate tem­per­a­tures make Bat­tam­bang the food bas­ket of Cam­bo­dia, and for a lush green coun­try­side that is a fresh air-gulp­ing joy to visit by bi­cy­cle or on a moto or one of the many tuk tuks.

The land­scape, of­ten pic­turesque and highly var­ied in this large prov­ince, morphs from vast marshes and wet­lands around the lake’s rim into ex­ten­sive rice pad­dies dot­ted with lime­stone out­crops and then rolling or­chard-blan­keted hills around the Pailin en­clave, be­fore fin­ish­ing with rugged for­est-clad slopes abut­ting the pic­turesque south­ern moun­tain ranges. Bat­tam­bang is home to the king­dom’s best farm­ing land and the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal was tra­di­tion­ally a wealthy trad­ing town as well as be­ing the sec­ond largest city of the King­dom of Won­der.

‘Bour­geois’ Bat­tam­bang with its large eth­nic Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion suf­fered greatly dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge era. With nearby Pailin be­ing one of the last re­doubts of anti-gov­ern­ment forces dur­ing the war of the 1980s and ‘90s, it also later be­came the cen­tre of UN peace-keep­ing op­er­a­tions. To­day the town is flour­ish­ing again due to its agri­cul­tural riches and rel­a­tively good com­mu­ni­ca­tions and trans­port in­fra­struc­ture that have been dras­ti­cally im­proved. Mean­while Kh­mer ex­pats and in­vest­ments are re­turn­ing in large num­bers to the re­gion.

There are plenty of things to see and do in and around town, apart from just ad­mir­ing the idyl­lic coun­try­side, with no short­age of great ac­com­mo­da­tion and food and drink op­tions.

One odd­ity of Bat­tam­bang prov­ince is the rain gam­bling. Although it does hap­pen all over Cam­bo­dia, this is the epi­cen­tre of the phe­nom­e­non. For­tunes are won and lost bet­ting how much rain will fall at a given place at a given time. When in the cap­i­tal, keep an eye out for peo­ple clus­tered on the roofs of the build­ings over­look­ing the cen­tral bus sta­tion. Clutch­ing walkie-talkies, they’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with both their rain-spot­ters, who are scat­tered across the sur­rounds mon­i­tor­ing the clouds, and their book­ies at Psas Boe­ung Ch­hoeuk. The book­ies can be a bit shy about hav­ing their photo taken, but they’re not too wor­ried if you’re just there to check it out.

Wat Som­rong Knong Pagoda

Statue of Ta Dam­bong with his stick

The fa­mous Bam­boo Rail­road

The Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak Cir­cus

Hanu­man statue with a mer­maid in Yu Vann park

Bat­tam­bang boasts some lovely ar­chi­tec­ture

One of the many in­ter­est­ing street stat­ues

Map of Cam­bo­dia show­ing Bat­tam­bang on the left

A group of vet­eran rain bet­tors crowds along the edge of a rice

paddy in Bat­tam­bang just after dawn, watch­ing the clouds.

The coun­try­side of Bat­tam­bang www.tourism­cam­bo­


Look­ing down on the Tonle Sap area from Ph­nom Krom, just out­side of Siem Reap.

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