In a nutshell
Rural Battambang is attractive precisely because it doesn't have too many attractions. Ride the nori or bamboo train; amble through a few ancient Khmer temples; check out some rice paper making; and otherwise enjoy the classic Khmer scenery around the town via river or motorbike.
Battambang province lies in the far western region of Cambodia; bounded to the west by Thailand, the south by the Cardamom Mountains, the east by the Tonle Sap Lake and Pursat, and to the north by Banteay Meanchey province. The landscape, often picturesque and highly varied in this large province, morphs from vast marshes and wetlands around the lake's rim into extensive rice paddies dotted with limestone outcrops and then rolling orchard-blanketed hills around the Pailin enclave, before finishing with rugged forest-clad slopes abutting the southern mountain ranges. Battambang is home to the kingdom's best farming land and the provincial capital was traditionally a wealthy trading town as well as being the second largest city of the kingdom.
'Bourgeois' Battambang with its large ethnic Chinese population suffered greatly during the Khmer Rouge era. With nearby Pailin being one of the last redoubts of anti-government forces during the war of the 1980s and '90s, it also later became the centre of UN peace-keeping operations. Today the town is flourishing again due to its agricultural riches and relatively good communications and transport infrastructure; Khmer expats and investment are returning to the region.
Tourism-wise, the town was always a rather off the beaten track destination -- known mostly for being the end of a scenic boat ride from Siem Reap and its famous 'bamboo railway' -- but these days it's increasingly appearing in traveller tour plans, with easy access to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Thailand. The tourism infrastructure is developing fast.
There are plenty of things to see and do in and around town, apart from just admiring the idyllic countryside, with no shortage of great accommodation and food and drink options. The town still remains quiet and far more traditional than the bustling capital or tourism hotspots of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, so it makes for a wonderfully contrasting destination to complete your Cambodia itinerary.
One oddity of Battambang province is the rain gambling. Although it does happen all over Cambodia, this is the epicentre of the phenomenon. Fortunes are won and lost betting how much rain will fall at a given place at a given time. When in the capital, keep an eye out for people clustered on the roofs of the buildings overlooking the central bus station. Clutching walkie-talkies, they're communicating with both their rain-spotters, who are scattered across the surrounds monitoring the clouds, and their bookies at Phsar Boeung Chhoeuk. The bookies can be a bit shy about having their photo taken, but they're not too worried if you're just there to check it out.
Battambang is Khmer for "disappearing stick", referring to a legend about a cowherd named Ta Dambong who found a magic stick and used it to usurp the then-king. The king's son ran off to the woods and became a monk. In the meantime, Ta Dambong had a dream that a holy man on a white horse would vanquish him, so he decided it would be a good idea to have all the holy men rounded up and put to death. When the prince heard he was required to go into town, a hermit came up and gave him a white horse. When the prince got on the horse he found it could fly. When he flew into town, Ta Dambong realised his dream was coming true so he threw his magic stick at the prince and did a runner. Neither he nor the magic stick was ever seen again.
The city itself is split into two by the Sangkar River with the compact central area and main market situated on the left bank. The series of narrow parallel streets numbered imaginatively 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 are home to an increasing number of cafes, bars and restaurants. This is where you'll find most of the old Chinese shophouses and a smattering of French colonial-style buildings as well.
Battambang was an important province in the Angkor period so several temple ruins and historical sites can be found within a 30 kilometre radius of town, providing convenient day trip opportunities.
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With Cambodia's number one tourist destination, Siem Reap, but a couple of hours away, you'd think Battambang would do a decent trade in tourists, but it's surprising just how few bother to check it out. That's their loss and your gain as far as we're concerned — as Battambang is absolutely worth at least an overnight's stay.
if you're thinking of seeing Battambang on a couple of day jaunt from Siem Reap before returning to the same, consider doing one way by land, the other by boat — just be prepared for a pretty rough and ready experience when it comes to the boat trip.
Once you're safely ensconced in Battambang, make sure you organise a motorbike trip into the surrounds — allow at least half a day to see the highlights. There are no shortage of English-speaking motos will be on hand to guide your way.
Text and/or map last updated on 13th January, 2014.
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