“Battambang is famous for being the birthplace of Cambodia’s most famous artists and musicians, but during the Khmer Rouge era the art scene was virtually destroyed when most artists either fled or were killed.” – Canby guide, Nov 2015
It’s been six months since we moved to Cambodia, and last month I felt like I finally got to stretch out a bit and see what it has to offer.
Deciding on Battambang versus Sihanoukville (beach town) and Phnom Penh (the capitol) was a mental + internet research slog-fest. In the end though, I decided a beach town had too much potential during the holidays to be a major disappointment (seedy, crowded, expensive) and the capitol (lots of folks either love it or hate it) is someplace I have to go to later this year anyway due to getting my passport renewed. So, Battambang it was.
Batt is a short, 3 hour bus drive from Siem Reap and is known for many things, but mainly for its French colonial architecture, art community and bamboo train. It reminded me of Chiang Rai Thailand in some ways because it’s quieter than Siem Reap, walkable, family-friendly and artsy.
In fact, whoever said SR is walkable needs to be shot in the foot. SR is not walkable unless you enjoy dodging trash, parked vehicles, sucking on dust and construction. But I suppose this all depends on your definition of walkable. Let’s just say Batt is pleasantly walkable. We only went for 3 days, but I wanted to move there.
First up, Battambang has a plenty of good restaurant options. It was fun to eat out except that one time I chose a complete dud, Madison’s, a tired burger joint that is living off of its location and probably a better past reputation. I hate that feeling, when you choose a bad restaurant. Thank god we didn’t get sick.
Everything else in Batt was great though. I’d recommend: Khmer Delight, super nice staff, tasty food + inviting. Jaan Bai was super popular and for good reason, and The Lonely Tree Café, located upstairs from a gift shop was good and relaxing as well.
And the things to do! We just hit a few things.
The bamboo train, of course, had to be tried. It’s weird. The whole process feels like an exercise in trust (not unlike driving in SE Asia!), but I suppose that’s part of the adventure. So, I won’t upload the video recording. I will say though, it feels illegal sitting on a rickety bamboo platform speeding down old train tracks at 31 mph without a helmet or a net or something to catch us in case we derail.
I wish I did know that at the turn around point, you will be left to wander makeshift shacks where “friendly” vendors try to lure you in to buy scarves, coconuts and clothing. You know the hissing cartoon snake that tries to be your bestie, that’s what the sellers are like. I’ve never encountered this level of slickness anywhere else in Cambo so far.
It’s okay though, you’ll survive the 10 minute layover, but it takes away from the “I’m in a developing country’s rollercoaster ride” experience. Or does it? Hmmm. (Costs $5 not including tip. I know, right? You have to tip the “driver”.)
Battambang Bike is a great experience I’d recommend. It took some energy finding their shop since they moved from their old location further down Street 2.5 to #185. But I’m glad we did because Soksabike, the other biking company, was packed with tourists when I saw them on the road. We did a half-day countryside tour with just one other couple and it was more intimate and personal. Sun is also a lovely guide. (Sun and his twin brother Toe run Battambang Bike.)
We were out of town quickly and riding through neighborhoods and learned about making rice whiskey, bamboo sticky rice, fish paste, rice paper and visited a school and a crocodile farm. It was an excellent change of pace from just eating out and wandering around temples or sitting in a tuk tuk. Now, I’m interested in taking more bike tours, such a great way to see a new place.
Lastly, we explored the growing art scene in Battambang and it was refreshing to see something different than the stuff you see in touristic areas. Unfortunately, Sangker Art Space was closed, but we went to ROMCHEIK 5 Art Space which showcases and supports four young Khmer artists. Lotus Bar is another place that displays local art and Jewel in the Lotus, across the street, was a funky shop where we bought a signed print from an illustrator.
I wish the world would experience a new art renaissance. It was sooo nice to be around original art again. Battambang seems more interested in putting up art in their spaces and what a difference. Siem Reap is all about Angkor Wat, which is wonderful, of course, but I just wonder, why do we have to see generic art or no art when there are plenty of artists and photographers who can make your coffee shop or restaurant more interesting and dynamic? They get exposure and your space benefits, too.
I’ll be back, Battambang. I’ll be back.