My kind of place: The north-western Cambodian city has made the switch from stopover to cultural destination, writes Lara Dunston.
Cambodia's second city Battambang has become a cultural destination
A 2.5-hour drive from Siem Reap and five hours from the capital Phnom Penh, Battambang in north-west Cambodia is the second most-populated city, yet, laid-back and unpretentious, it feels like a country town. And that’s its charm. Straddling the coffee-coloured Sanker River, its dusty streets are lined with French-colonial edifices, its surrounding villages dotted with traditional, stilted, timber houses, while its forests conceal crumbling Khmer Empire ruins.
Until recently, Battambang was little more than a stopover on overland journeys between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Visitors did little more than ride the exhilarating bamboo “train”, a gasoline-engined platform that hurtles through lush rice paddies along abandoned railway tracks. Now, after a flurry of restaurant, cafe and gallery openings, visitors dine at stylish eateries, attend art shows and take in experimental music.
A comfortable bed
Battambang’s best hotels are near the riverbank and in villages on its outskirts, 10 minutes by tuk tuk from the centre.
In the tranquil, riverside Wat Kor village, Khmer-style wooden houses at Maisons Wat Kor (www.maisonswatkor.com; 00855 98 555 377), which overlook a lotus pond and swimming pool, have high-ceilinged rooms with polished floorboards from US$78 (Dh286). The terrace restaurant serves the city’s finest Cambodian cuisine.
Nearby, Battambang Resort (www.battambangresort.com; 00855 53 666 7001), set among emerald rice paddies, has minimalist rooms from $55 (Dh202), looking over a small lake. Activities include evening street-food tours ($13 [Dh48] per couple) and morning bike rides to breakfast soup stalls.
In the centre, with an inviting swimming pool and superb restaurant, Bambu Hotel (www.bambuhotel.com; 00 855 53 953 900) has spacious rooms decorated with silk textiles from $70 (Dh257) in a colonial-style villa and Khmer-inspired buildings.
Find your feet
Easily explored on foot, Battambang’s compact, charming old centre boasts glittering pagodas, an incense-filled Chinese temple, 1960s modernist buildings and elegant French-colonial mansions like the grand 1907 Governor’s Residence. Print out Khmer Architecture Tours’ (www.ka-tours.org) self-guided walking map.
You’ll have to hire a tuk tuk or bicycle to explore Battambang’s villages. A three-hour tour ($25 [Dh92]) with Battambang Bike (www.thebattambangbike.com) visits an atmospheric, century-old Khmer house. Maisons Wat Kor and Bambu Hotel can arrange countryside tuk tuk tours (from $15 [Dh55]) to artisanal workshops where families make rice noodles and incense; 11th-century Angkorian temple ruins, such as the hilltop Wat Banan (lovely at sunrise) and the ramshackle Wat Ek Phnom; and Mount Sampeau (best at sunset), the site of the Killing Caves, a memorial filled with the bones of victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, where millions of bats fly at dusk.
Backyard Travel (www.backyardtravel.com) offers a three-day private Battambang tour covering most activities above, including transfers from Siem Reap, hotels and meals, for $439 (Dh1,612) per person for two people.
Meet the locals
Slurp a bowl of soup at a street-food stall at the central Phsar Nat market or the main Phsar Boeung Chhoeuk market. Stroll the grounds of the pagodas to meet a monk – most are keen to practise their English. In the late afternoon, locals participate in mass dancercise classes on the riverside – you’re welcome to join in.
Book a table
Kick-start your day with Cambodia’s best coffee at Kinyei Café (www.kinyei.org; Street 1½; 00855 17 860 003), where the 2013 Cambodian barista champion Sakana Long makes her award-winning Cambodian Cappuccino with palm sugar, pineapple syrup and coconut milk ($2.50 [Dh9]). Follow that with French crepes at the bohemian Cafe Eden (www.cafeedencambodia.com; 85 Street 1; 00855 53 731 525), which has antique tiles and balcony seats upstairs.
For lunch, a local favourite is the no-frills Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh (145 Street 2), or “Chinese Noodle”, for homemade dumplings and hand-pulled noodles ($1.50 [Dhs6]), while the sleek newcomer Lotus (Street 2½; 00855 92 260 158) has a Culinary Institute of America chef cooking up scrumptious burgers and salt-and-pepper calamari. Upstairs, a gallery hosts art-film screenings, DJs and experimental sound nights.
Try the stylish new Jaan Bai (www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org; Street 2; 00855 7 826 3144) for dinner (around $30 [Dh110] for two), in a refurbished colonial building with murals by local artists. The menu focuses on local, organic, seasonal produce, Cambodian specialities like Kampot pepper crab and pan-Asian favourites, including Thai dishes by the celebrated chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok, who’s an adviser to this hospitality training restaurant.
Phsar Nat market has handmade baskets and colourful cotton kramas (scarves), a quintessentially Khmer souvenir. The boho-chic boutique Jewel in the Lotus (Street 2½) sells locally made gifts, including handmade soaps, incense, textiles, retro postcards and music from Cambodia’s 1960s “Golden Age”. An emerging art destination, Battambang has several galleries on Street 2½ run by local artists, including Make Maek and Sammaki Gallery (www.facebook.com/sammakibtb).
What to avoid
Exploring Battambang in the middle of the day during the hottest months (March and April). Save the sightseeing for mornings and late afternoons.
A night at the circus. Battambang is home to Cambodia’s largest performing arts school, Phare Ponleu Selpak (www.phareps.org; 00855 77 554 413), which trains disadvantaged children in visual arts, music, theatre and circus skills. Visit during the day (8 to 11am and 2 to 4pm) for a behind-the-scenes look, then watch the distinctly Cambodian Cirque du Soleil-style circus under the big top at 7pm.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok from Dh2,460 return, including taxes (journey time is about six hours). From there, fly to Siem Reap (one hour) on Cambodian Angkor Air (www.cambodiaangkorair.com), from $200 (Dh735) return, including taxes. A driver with car to Battambang costs $35 (Dh128).
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