Battambang province lies in the far western region of Cambodia; it’s bounded to the west by Thailand, the south by the Cardamom mountains, the east by Tonle Sap lake and Pursat, and to the north by Banteay Meanchey province. With a rich architectural heritage, an increasingly confident art scene providing a cradle for many of Cambodia’s top talents, and stunning surrounding countryside, Battambang is a tranquil respite from the boom and hustle of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
And with talks underway for listing Cambodia’s second city as a UNESCO World Heritage City (most likely in 2016), Battambang’s status as a somewhat peripheral destination looks set to change. As the number of tourists who are catching on to its charms continues to grow, so too is it slowly waking up to the benefits of tourism, not just economically, but also for its role in cultural and heritage promotion and protection (by some anyway).
Battambang has already been named by UNESCO as a City of Performing Arts, thanks to more than 100 ancient Khmer, Thai and French colonial buildings and the many ancient pagodas and temples that dot the city and its environs. It is also the home of a performance and arts school called Phare Ponleu Selpak, a home-grown NGO that grew out of the post-Khmer Rouge-era refugee camps in Thailand which has animated the city’s artistic heart.
The city itself is rather dreamy and poetic by comparison with the raw, unbridled energy of Phnom Penh and the chaotic mash of Siem Reap. The Sankae river wends its way through Battambang’s centre and an evening walk along the wide riverside pavements is to witness ordinary lives lived by ordinary people with all of the quiet beauty that entails as you pass strolling families, courting teens, children swinging in the public park, dozens of people twisting, pushing and pulling at the public gym or walking on stones to stimulate blood flow and promote their health. Alongside them groups of guys laugh and bounce shuttlecocks to one another off their heels, and school kids drill their tae kwon do moves. It is a far cry from the monochromatic image of a broken, blood-soaked Cambodia relentlessly invoked by those who wish to trade off its violent past.
The central shopping area is home to a mix of Chinese shopfront-style buildings, Khmer 1960s structures and the liver-spotted remains of French colonial-era buildings. The principal flies in the ointment now are developers who would rip down what remains of the lovely town centre buildings and replace them with ugly, modern edifices while they still can. Hopefully, they won’t get too far with their plans.
Outside the city boundaries, rich soils and more moderate temperatures make Battambang the food basket of Cambodia, and for a lush green countryside that is a fresh air-gulping joy to explore by bicycle or on a moto, tuk tuk or tour.
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 that have been drastically improved. Meanwhile Khmer expats and investment are returning to the region.
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 Psas 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 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.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 16th October, 2016.