What many regard as a stop-off point, a checkpoint en-route to the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat and the bustling, lawless streets of Siem Reap, Battambang is a hidden gem far too often overlooked.
Pulling into the sleepy-backwater of a town, the air heavy and jasmine-scented, it’s easy to see why some might regard it in this way when you compare it to the dusty insanity that is Phnom Penh, or the idyllic white-sand beaches of Sihanoukville.
Battambang is laid-back, it’s understated, and it takes a little digging to uncover what can be one of the most rewarding and authentic travelling experiences of a lifetime.
We were lucky to experience this amazing place with the help of Tony. Having lived in Battambang all his life, Tony was the ideal guide. Open, friendly and quite rightly proud of where he was from, he ensured that he treated us to the very best Battambang had to offer.
In all honesty we arrived expecting relatively little, but thanks to local knowledge and impeccable hospitality, our short time there became unforgettable.
Take a Ride on the Bamboo Train
An essential experience in this little corner of north-western Cambodia, and the first stop on Tony’s tuk-tuk tour of Battambang. When coming across a run-down train station some miles out of the town itself, one of the last figures you expect to see is a local who has dressed himself, impeccably, as a 1960s British rail conductor.
You also probably wouldn’t imagine you’d be invited to sit on a contraption of planks and runners strapped to a crude outboard motor, before being shot out into the Cambodian countryside at 25 mph, teeth chattering as you bounce alarmingly on old railway tracks.
A lack of, well, sides, does make for a pretty good thrill. And after some mandatory haggling for yet more trousers you don’t need, after learning the custom that the train with the fewest passengers will be dismantled to allow one moving in the opposite direction to pass, and after finally arriving, windswept, back in the station, it really does feel as if you’ve experienced something a little unique.
Climb to Wat Banang Temple
If climbing 500+ steps to a tumbling 11th century temple surrounded by panoramic views and shrouded in local stories of ghosts sounds like your kind of thing, then this is the temple for you. A steep, sweaty climb followed by an intimate exploration of this ruin straight out of the Jungle Book is a peaceful, incense-heavy experience.
Tony doesn’t join us to the top. He waits below, wary of the spirits he tells us of. Or the stairs.
If you feel in need of yet more relaxation after you make the pilgrimage back down, settle yourself in a lakeside hammock, grab yourself an Angkor beer and watch the dragonflies flit across the perfumed water.
See the Killing Caves
The Khmer Rouge regime has left its scars all over the Cambodian landscape, and there are few places that act as so poignant a reminder as this site, situated 7.5 miles outside Battambang, known as ‘The Killing Caves’.
Located halfway up a mountain topped with Buddhist temples, the Khmer Rouge made use of a natural skylight to the cave, executing victims before throwing them into the cave below. Conversations with locals help you understand just how raw these events still are today, and you can hear multiple accounts from those who lost friends and family. It is a deeply tragic, haunting place.
Often, it’s easy to forget or detach yourself from such atrocities. The reality is hammered home when Tony suddenly veers off into the undergrowth. He takes us off the path, and above the skylight. He tells us that members of his family had been executed in the very spot we were standing.
The gravity of the place hangs over you as you climb yet higher, past memorials and figurines of Buddha to the top of Phnom Sampeou, where you stumble upon ornate temples and tumbling monkeys, a spectacular view of delicately glimmering rice paddies stretching to the distance, and mountains that roll out of the flat of the land, and come with their own myths.
Catch the bats at sunset
Make your way to the bottom of Phnom Sampeou, grab a plastic chair, buy the locals a round of cold beers and settle in for sunset. As the sky turns an iridescent purple-orange, seeping into grey rolling clouds and melting them into the horizon, watch as, from a cave halfway up the mountain, a swarm of bats numbering millions bursts over the jungle to feed.
Spend a good half hour watching a steady, black stream pour over the trees as the smells of cooking and sounds of good-natured conversation wash over you. Try some local specialities: snails if you’re feeling brave, duck foetus (with small beak attached) if you’re feeling even braver.
Most importantly, talk to the locals. Even if there is a strong language barrier, the Cambodian people have a knack for hospitality and a natural inclination for openness like no other. Where English fails, a heady mixture of surreal natural beauty, disarming smiles and warm laughter succeeds. Or was that just the beers and Tony’s translations?
The Little Things
These are what really made Battambang. On few tours would you find yourself pulling to a quick halt, led out into a pond and taught how to extract and eat lily seeds. You wouldn’t expect to stop on dusty rural roads to charge into fields and be shown ginger, chili, bamboo, mangoes, and get a crash-course in becoming a Cambodian farmer.
You could be forgiven for not expecting to be brought to an unassuming Buddhist temple in the sweltering midday heat, given the freedom to explore the complex, before being blessed by one of the monks themselves.
You could see the Killing Caves, and you could see the temples, the mountains, the rivers, but just see them. You wouldn’t know why a mountain exists because of a dispute between an ancient king, a princess and a crocodile. The Killing Caves would be poignant, but the reality may not hit home.
The value of a local guide, of a person excited to show you the wonders of their home, is invaluable. Tony made Battambang into a day that we would never have experienced without his insight. Enthusiasm is infectious. When a person loves their home and is ready to share it with you, you’re in for a treat.