For a real look at Cambodia visit the small city of Battambang. Not the crazy busyness of Phnom Penh, the tourist catering Siem Reap or the party oriented coast, Battambang shows you the Khmer people with all their warmth and what it’s really like day to day in Cambodia. Cambodia’s second city, Battambang’s riverside location and French architectural influence, is perfect for the laid back traveller who wants to experience authenticity and the humbling personalities of Asia.
What to do
Visit the Bat Cave: I can guarantee you have never seen so many bats at one time than this never ending swarm that come out of the bat cave at sunset. The word ‘millions’ comes to mind. Take a tuk tuk to the cave, grab a beer and wait. Watch what happens to the way they fly if you clap your hands loud. Take a cooking class: learn to make local dishes at Nary’s Kitchen. You will be taken to the local market to get supplies before prepping and dishing up at the restaurant. We got the wok (quite literally) flaming with our bonkers chef (who insisted on calling me darling). We made fish amok, beef loklak, spring rolls and my new favourite desert, tapioca and coconut milk pudding. Visit the Killing Cave at Phnom Sampeau: lesser known than the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, the Killing Cave displays skulls and bones collected from the victims of the Khmer Rouge. One of the many mass graveyards throughout Cambodia, men were killed at the site before being thrown into the cave. A visit to Battambang or Cambodia itself wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the struggle of the Khmer people during the 1970’s.
Memorial to those who lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge.
Browse the night market: a low key affair but there’ll be all sorts of treats to try. Expect to be greeted by young street kids who know exactly how to charm a meal out of you. How can you say no? See the disused Royal Railway Station: if not for the station itself, you’ll probably see some social activity going on, an apparent meeting place, local boys and men chat and play card games. Take in the local atmosphere: whether it’s the man in the street who glued my sandals back together or young monks whizzing past on the back of a motorbike there is always someone to people watch.
Young monks hitching a ride.
Visit the HUMAN Gallery: featuring the work of Joseba Etxebarria who cycled through 29 countries photographing the people he met along the way. Every photograph has a story behind it. Proceeds go towards educating children living poverty in the O’mal community outside of Battambang. Hire a bike and explore the neighbourhoods: you can hire a bicycle for a dollar and head out of the city. Notice the simplicity in which so much of the world lives, the wooden hut houses, the banana trees and the kids who wave and shout hello. Ride the Bamboo Train: maybe yes maybe no. I’ll be honest, I gave this one a miss. Gone is the original rickety bamboo train, a crate looking structure on wheels, and it’s place in Battambang history. Nowadays one can ride the new improved version some 20 kilometers outside of the city. To me, that’s not the authentic experience I look for. But it’s your call!
Where to stay
Best Budget Private: Holiday Guesthouse is clean with friendly staff. Basic with typical Khmer decor it has private doubles with en suites starting from £3 a night. Best Sociable Hostel: Blue Diamond is a short walk out the main centre but definitely worth it. Complete with pool, bar and backpackers, this was one of the most fun stays I’ve had yet, dorms start from £3 a night.
Where to eat
The night market: For simple food full of Khmer flavour for just a few dollars. Look for the man selling giant barbequed chunks of tofu with salad and dressing for just 1,000 Riel (that’s 25 cents).
Barbequed tofu from a street vendor.
Coconut Lyly: typical Khmer menu, this pleasant eatery is welcoming and well priced. I can recommend the tofu loklak. The Lonely Tree Cafe: if you need a change from meat veg and rice, the Lonely Tree Cafe may be for you. Balance out the healthy feta mango and cashew salad with a slice of lemon pie.
For a unique experience
Complete a Vipassana Meditation Course: These courses should come with a disclaimer, by no means a yoga retreat this 10 day Vipassana Meditation courses is a serious affair. Self development and spirituality are not everyone’s cup of tea, in fact it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Vipassana is an ancient Indian meditation technique, meaning ‘to see things as they really are’. You do not need to be Buddhist to take part. The Dhamma Latthika Centre, about 18km outside of Battambang and runs on a donation only basis, private rooms are supplied along with vegetarian meals, including my favourite tapioca pudding. Men and women are separated, all technology, books and communication with the outside world is forbidden as well all forms of communication with one another. Places can be booked online.
To make a difference
Help under privileged children at AKD School: I always think what a privilege it is to be in the position I am, traveling the world purely for my own benefit. If this is you too, why not consider a voluntary position at AKD School? Set up by Kamnat, a living saint in my humble opinion, the school provides free English lessons to local children to help improve the prospects for adulthood. Many will work in tourism, though some of the kids have much bigger ambitions. A small daily donation is asked for to cover your own bed and food costs. A former monk, Kamnat and his family live at the school and he doesn’t actually pay himself a salary. The school can be found via workaway.info to arrange volunteering positions. Whichever way you choose to spend your time in Battambang, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this corner of the earth.