A place where East meets West, where colonial grandeur meets the spectacular temples of its Buddhist roots – Battambang, Cambodia’s second-biggest city, has often been unfairly overlooked.
Located near the Thai border, around three hours from Siem Reap, Battambang has managed to retain an amiable, small-town vibe: there are few buildings over 10 storeys high, the traffic is tame, and by 10pm most establishments are closed and the streets empty.
But that old-world charm is an attribute that’s fast helping establish Battambang as the next big tourist draw – the sleepy city is slowly, but surely, gaining attention as one of Cambodia’s go-to destinations.
This is, perhaps, long overdue. Battambang’s history, culture and art scene are on par with – and often surpass – those of its better-known neighbours Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and it boasts some of the best restaurants and cafés in the country. About two years ago, as a way of preserving the city’s architectural history, the Cambodian government put Battambang forward to be officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a lengthy process with conservation at its heart, but it’s also a move that will serve to increase the city’s drawing power.
“Battambang has always been seen as the centre for art and culture in Cambodia,” says respected local art historian and curator Reaksmey Yean. “It was [ruled by] the Khmer Empire, and then Siam, so geographically there was a huge cross-cultural exchange. Then, when it was under French colonial rule, Battambang was regarded as one of the more prestigious provinces. [It] generated this hybridity, which produced a very different type [of creativity and] intellectualism.”
Part of the attraction for visitors is the grid system and quiet roads that make the French quarter of Battambang so easy to navigate on foot. Walking along the Sangkae River, which cuts through the heart of the city, one is immersed in some of the best-preserved French colonial architecture in Indochina; the streets and alleyways are flanked by veranda- and metal balcony-adorned buildings painted in distinctive shades of yellow.
One particularly grandiose construction is the former Governor’s Residence. Designed by an Italian architect while Battambang was under Thai rule, the mansion is the image of flamboyant opulence in brick and mortar. Though the interior is off limits, the building is an imposing remnant of the city’s history.
This Western influence is juxtaposed against an array of temples in varying styles, designs and sizes. As long-time resident Ray Zepp puts it in the guidebook Around Battambang: “Buddhism is the heart of Cambodian culture. In order to experience Cambodian culture, you must acquire an appreciation of pagodas, or wats.” One of the most visited pagodas in the city is close to the Governor’s Residence: Wat Tahm-rai-saw is also known as the White Elephant Pagoda, after the two white statues positioned by the main gate. The Buddhist sculptures and motifs are a marvel in themselves, but the pagoda also offers a glimpse of the evolution of the Battambang aesthetic.
“For example, if you look at Wat Po Veal, at first glance you’d think it was influenced directly by Thailand,” continues the energetic Reaksmey. “Then, if you look more closely, you’ll actually think it’s Cambodian. But if you take everything together, it’s what we call Battambang style.”
The city’s artistic legacy is now being continued through a burgeoning café scene that offers a platform for local artists to exhibit and sell their works. “The current art scene is vibrant,” says Reaksmey. “There’s a sense of unification – for everybody to come together and share ideas, and keep this creative way of thinking going.”
One such spot is Choco L’Art, a small, unassuming venue where customers are surrounded by the works of some of Battambang’s best home-grown artistic talent. “We wanted to open a place where we could combine coffee and art,” explains founder Prak Ye. “We had the idea because Battambang has such a history and many stories of art and culture.
“I love Battambang, because it’s so quiet,” adds the 29-year-old. “Five years ago, there were not many [art cafés], so we created one of the first. But it’s growing. Many have opened in the last few years.”
Another space that combines art and entertainment is The Lotus Gallery, run by Darren Swallow and his wife Khchao Touch, who displays her art upstairs. Her pieces are almost psychedelic, combining themes of spiritualism and nature. Downstairs, the former bar now champions organic produce, as the couple grew interested in herbal medicine after their daughter fell ill. “People thought I was mad to have a bar and not serve alcohol,” Swallow says. “But it seems to have worked out well.”
A few blocks away is Bric-à-Brac, a small, three-bedroom B&B in Battambang’s old colonial quarter, founded by partners Morrison Polkinghorne and Robert Carmack three years ago. The pair fell in love with the town at first sight.
“We stayed three nights and were invited to an art gallery opening,” recalls Polkinghorne. “We were just thinking, ‘Where the heck are we?’”
Four years after that first trip, the men are hoping their hotel can help turn this eclectic mix of cultures, histories and art styles into one of the region’s bucket-list destinations. Their B&B is the definition of chic: the couple have painstakingly revived the building’s original French colonial style so guests can immerse themselves in a bygone era. There’s also a boutique selling curios, alongside an in-house atelier where tassels and fabrics are lovingly created.
“We want to provide something unique, and we want to provide something that is also part of the culture,” Carmack says.
Both agree that none of this would have happened anywhere else. “Battambang just has this buzz of creativity to it,” Polkinghorne says. “Cambodian culture from the last 100 or 200 years – the art, the music, the fashion – it all came out of Battambang.”
Foodies will also feel very much at home in the city, which offers the best of both worlds: great variety and top quality. “There’s Chinese, Korean, French and more importantly, there’s really good Khmer food here too,” states Carmack. Indeed, choices abound – from the high-quality Cambodian cuisine at restaurants like Khmer Delight, to the street-food stalls of the night market.
“The greatest change over the last few years has been international chains entering the food scene,” says Marc Adamson, who has worked as an advisor to social enterprise hospitality businesses in Cambodia for the past five years. “The long-term restaurants have also expanded or renovated, so Battambang now has a wide selection of eating options for all budgets.”
One of the restaurants that the New Zealander works for is Jaan Bai. With its Asian, fusion and vegetarian options, Jaan Bai has been heralded as one of the best restaurants in the country and also operates as a community space for local artists. Though one of Battambang’s pricier eateries, profits go towards helping disadvantaged children and young people. “Jaan Bai has seen great growth over the last few years, and we expect this season to be the best ever,” says Adamson.
“Battambang offers an amazing opportunity to get to know the true Cambodia,” adds Phia Nim, manager of The Lonely Tree Cafe, a restaurant and handicraft shop also found in the French quarter of the city. “The possible designation of Battambang as a UNESCO heritage city would be a great push to preserve it, and I have no doubt Battambang could be one of the new hotspots in Cambodia.”
So far, Battambang has avoided the mass commercialisation that often ensues when a city becomes a tourist capital. That’s excellent news for current visitors, but it could change as the city’s profile grows and if the UNESCO application succeeds. The challenge, then, will be balancing the seemingly inevitable rise in visitors while maintaining the small-town charm that attracted them in the first place.
Battambang is around three hours from Siem Reap. Mekong Express runs a bus service for around US$20 for a one-way ticket, which can be booked online or at the counter. A more comfortable option is a taxi service. Many are available and cost between US$50- 60. Do invest in a guidebook to the city; very few of the tourist hotspots are signposted or contain information about the location. These can be ordered online; alternatively, one can pick up Around Battambang by Ray Zepp for US$10 at Bric-à-Brac.
Outside The City
Phnom Sampaeu – A popular attraction, this hill about 10km south of the city is home to a beautiful pagoda and great views of the surrounding plains. The mountain is also the site of the Killing Caves, now home to a series of shrines. They’re a sobering reminder of the atrocities committed here by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Bat Cave – Towards dusk, tourists and locals alike gather outside a cave at the base of Phnom Sampaeu as millions of bats wake for their nocturnal hunt and emerge en masse from the cliffside.
Phnom Banan – The area around Battambang is home to numerous Khmer temples, similar in style to those found at Angkor Wat. But unlike Angkor, these are still little-visited. One of the best preserved is this impressive 11th- and 12th- century temple situated on a mountaintop 13km south of Battambang.
This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.