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