Battambang; Cambodia's Second Largest City and Why You Should Go
by Ben Ward
Cambodia has a place on many destination bucket lists and is home to the worlds largest temple, a great and cheap nightlife, rich jungles and to the south, some of Asia’s nicest islands but the place which left the biggest impression on me here was Battambang, an often overlooked city on many travel itineraries.
When you think of Cambodia, you think of Phnom Penh, Koh Rong, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, rightly so too, these places are all incredible and definitely worth a visit but I would like to raise more awareness for Battambang, the second largest city in the country and one with a very different vibe to the rest.
The capital of the largest rice producing region in the country, it has the second largest population behind the 1.4 million residents in Phnom Penh, with a population of nearly 200,000 so now you have heard of it, please enjoy my travel guide to one of Cambodia’s hidden jewels!
How to Get There?
Battambang lies in the north west of the country on the banks of the Sangkae river and you can easily access it by bus from both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, there is also a daily boat available from Siem Reap.
If you are used to travelling in South East Asia, you will find it super easy to get here, all you need to do is find a local bus company (or a few companies for price comparison) and book yourself in. Travelling from Phnom Penh, we chose to go with Mekong Express, one of the more expensive operators (still an affordable trip of around 12 USD) but me standing at 6 ft 5″, you learn that some sacrifices are worth it, especially with a minimum 5 hours travel time!
Do note that with different operators, come different prices and I believe you can find this journey for around half that price.
The trip from Siem Reap can also be made by bus but despite only being 77km apart, there is no direct road so the journey will take around 4 hours.
The boat is more expensive and will take longer (between 8-10 hours and costs around 20USD) but is also a viable option as is very scenic, passing many floating villages on your journey.
After the busy, bustling streets of Phnom Penh, I was surprised when I arrived in Battambang, a sleepy, non-westernized, non-modernized city with wide, dusty streets and lots of smiley, welcoming, relaxed locals. To say there is no tourism here would be unfair but it is over-looked as a destination by a lot of backpackers and travelers which probably goes some way in lending to the charm of this place.
As a result of slower tourism, prices are generally cheaper than the already more often visited Cambodian cities. A huge portion of amazing, flavorsome fish amok cost me around 1USD from a local roadside food stall, right in the city center.
The architecture here is beautiful with lots of ancient shrines and temples scattered amongst French colonial villas and mansions, it really is a lovely place to wander around or especially to take advantage of the quiet roads, rent a bicycle and explore. If you get lost, the river runs through the middle of the city so just find that and you will be fine!
What to Do?
Battambang probably isn’t the best place to go if you are looking for a party, something that will become evident walking through the streets after 10pm when it feels like the lights have been turned off in the city.
There are a couple of streets close to the river which stay open but it is quite an experience walking through near pitch-black city roads which were full of traffic just hours before. It does still feel safe here, just different!
When you inevitably Google ‘Things to do in Battambang’, one of the top options is the bamboo train, we spoke to some people we met in our hostel who were wildly disappointed with it, saying that (until the new one is built at least) the trip only lasts five minutes. It was enough to put us off but I have also read good things online.
The best experience we had during our couple of days here was renting a scooter (around 5USD for the day) and exploring the countryside around the outskirts of Battambang.
The unique thing about this city is that you will go from the city center, quickly noticing the city turn into a village and the village turn into the countryside. It is surreal how close the center is to the rice fields and local villages surrounding Battambang.
Before you know it you will be driving through local markets, over rickety bridges and through rice fields which makes getting lost very fun.
Just off a main road around 12km from Battambang, there is a bustling little area of shops and markets at the foot of Phnom Sampeu. You should be able to see it jutting out of the earth from the mostly flat surroundings once you are driving around the countryside.
I recommend turning up here at 3/4pm because as the sun sets, there is an amazing daily spectacle here and there is a lot to see before then too!
On this hill, there are three caves, each very different and each certainly worth visiting.
The Killing Caves
This is one of thousands of sites across the country where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered many victims under the rule of Pol Pot and whilst not a nice experience, it is definitely somewhere you should visit as it gives a great understanding of Cambodia’s history. You will have heard of the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh and whilst this is not as big of a site, it is certainly still a harrowing one. Once inside you will see a cabinet full of the skulls of some of the victims here, serving as a stark reminder of the horrors that once occurred in this now peaceful setting. From an opening in the roof of the cave, thousands of Cambodians were bludgeoned and allowed to drop 20+ metres to the cave floor.
The Flower Cave
This can be reached by either driving up the back of the hill or via a steep (but recommended) walk past shrines, statues and lots of monkeys! You will get the chance to stop at a number of viewpoints on the way up which provide stunning views of the surrounding area. Before you explore the cave, make sure to have a look at the two impressive temples at the top of the hill but don’t forget to offer a little donation to one of the monks up there, you may get lucky like we did and be invited to sit down for a chat! The cave itself is breathtaking, as you descend down another steep set of stairs and into the middle of it you will find a shrine and I have never been anywhere that made me feel like I was in a Tomb Raider video game set quite like this. We spent a long time here just taking in our surroundings and looking up at the steep cavernous walls covered in ivy vines, just don’t be put off by the smell of bat poo!
The Bat Cave
Once you have taken in the temples and caves on Phnom Sampeu, head back down as this is best viewed from the bottom of the hill. From around 4.30pm, you will see tourists positioning themselves around 30 meters from the entrance of the cave, on the road. If you get there early enough, order a coffee or a beer and take advantage of one of the limited seats. At around 6pm and you will start to hear the noise of millions of wrinkle lipped bats waking up and shortly after you will have a front row seat to the bats leaving the cave to go on their nightly hunt. In a steady stream they continue to come out for around 30 minutes, it is truly an amazing sight and witnessing it was my personal highlight of Cambodia.
Battambang isn’t as well known as a lot of Cambodian destinations but I promise that if you add it to your bucket list, you won’t be disappointed and if you go soon, you will get to beat the crowds before this place is mentioned in the same sentences as Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.