It may be Cambodia’s second-largest city, but Battambang, a sleepy burg connected to the Tonle Sap by the Sangkor River, retains a unique small-town charm and makes for a great weekend getaway from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Battambang province is steeped in dramatic history, with ownership going back and forth between Thailand, Cambodia and the French. In the 90s, the areas around the city were one of the last holdouts of the Khmer Rouge. Despite its turbulent past, Battambang has an allure that’s all its own, from the early 20th century French colonial buildings and 1960s Khmer architecture to Cambodian cuisine with a distinct Thai influence.
FRIDAY 19:00 Dinner at Jaan Bai
In the middle of town, a stone’s throw away from the bustling fresh food stalls of Meeting Place Market (Psas Nat), Jaan Bai is both a social enterprise for the Cambodian Children’s Trust and a ground-breaking contemporary restaurant created with the backing of David Thompson, the man who made Thai food famous, and Sydney restaurateur John Fink. Jaan Bai serves up a short selection of Thai dishes with an emphasis on big flavours. You can either do it tapas style and share a selection of small plates, such as pork belly boa slaw with peanuts and five spice ($5) or eggplant and mushroom dumplings ($3), or go for the large plates, like twice cooked coconut braised beef rib with prik nahm pla ($12), a stunning (as you would expect) Thai green chicken curry ($5.50) or maybe a sticky skin glazed chicken with palm sugar, lime and chilli ($7) catches your fancy. And there’s much more, all equally bursting with personality. If trying to work out what you want gets too difficult, and this is very possible, just say “khlean”, and the crew will serve you up a selection of different dishes from the menu for $15 per person, including a glass of wine. But whatever you do, don’t go overboard before dessert. The salted honeycomb and caramel sundae ($3.50) is seriously not for sharing and mango sticky rice ($4.50) makes for unusually divine comfort food. Definitely check out the cocktail list too, those are killer.
Jaan Bai Street 2. T: (078) 263 144. Open Tue to Sun, 11:00 to 22:30
21:00 Drinks at Lotus Bar & Gallery
Battambang has long suffered from a reputation for not having a particularly vibrant or interesting nightlife. That is starting to change though, and Lotus is one of the signs. A thoroughly lovely and modern bar, with retro flourishes like the stunning floor tiles, it also functions as a restaurant and arts centre with regular exhibitions and events nights. The walls feature the works of some of Battambang’s most prominent artists including Khchao Touch, the owner’s wife. In the main gallery and event space upstairs, the hold film screenings on Thursday (documentaries) and Saturday (feature films) nights.
Lotus Bar & Gallery #52, Street 2.5. T: (092) 260 158. Open daily 08:00 to 23:00
Saturday 09:00 Khmer Photo Studio
If you’ve ever wondered what life would be like as a Khmer princess, start your day at any of the dozens of photo studios in town and spend an hour with the locals getting makeup shellacked on and ridiculously coiffed and ringletted hair. Once the makeover is complete, dress in Khmer formal wear or traditional apsara dance costume for your photo shoot. Pictures cost around $2 each and include airbrushing and the addition of comical backgrounds, many of them distinctly Khmer.
Sangker Photo Studio 74-76 Street 2, South of Psas Nat. T: (053) 952 511; (012) 959 119. Open daily 07:00 to 19:00
12:30 Lunch at Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh
Known affectionately as the Chinese Noodle Shop by expats, this small, almost hole-in-the-wall eatery dishes out reams of fresh handmade noodles and gorgeous dumplings in a variety of forms, including in beef, pork, and duck soup. They also serve fried rice dishes, and vegetarians are well catered for. Dishes cost between $1 and $2, which means seconds will never be a problem. The sign is pretty small and easy to miss, so keep an eye out on the east side of Street 2 as you are approaching the junction with Street 113.
Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh #145, Street 2. T: (092) 589 639. Open daily 09:00 to 21:00
13:45 Wine Tasting Hire a tuk tuk for $10 to $15 to take you to the countryside outside of Battambang city. Your first stop should be at Prasat Phnom Banan Winery, Cambodia’s only winery. Tastings cost $2 and include a red wine that is a mix of cabernet and shiraz, brandy and grape juice. Although you may not be seriously tempted to bring any of of their creations home, it’s still worth a visit if only to see the vineyards flanked by palm trees.
Prasat Phnom Banan Winery Bat Sala Village, outside of Battambang city. T: (012) 665 238. Open daily 08:00-18:00
14:45 Wat Banan
A smaller, more dilapidated version of Angkor Wat located 25km outside of Battambang, Wat Banan is a hilltop temple accessible by 350-odd steps and surrounded by picturesque paddy fields. Many of the carvings have been looted or are housed in the Battambang museum but it’s an impressive structure nonetheless, with five carved towers of increasingly questionable stability. Dotted with fragrant frangipani trees and brightly-coloured flowers, the temple, which was built in the 11th century, is popular with local teenagers and picnicking Khmer families. Bring a bottle of water for the climb up the stairs. Admission is $2 (if you plan to go to Wat Phnom Sampeau, get a receipt as it’s good for admission there as well).
16:30 Bamboo Train
Despite rumours that it would be closed down at the end of 2010, the fabled bamboo railroad is still going strong, but get a ride while you can on the improvised train line where the cars are constructed of axles with recycled wheels and a bamboo frame and powered by a small motor. Traditionally used by locals to move goods on train tracks that were only erratically visited by a train, you’re now more likely to see nice German couples taking in the countryside. This doesn’t diminish from the pleasure of rushing along the tracks at 15 kmh that feels more like 40. Time it right to take in the sunset and make it back to Battambang by dark. Prices are generally $5 per person — if you’re quoted a higher price, firmly negotiate downwards.
19:00 Dinner at Riverside Balcony
Popular with local expats, Riverside Balcony Bar is a great place to relax and enjoy the evening calm of Battambang. The veranda is adorned with soft lighting and the menu — Western burgers and pizzas — is slightly expensive but very good. It’s also a comfortable place to linger over a bottle or two of Angkor on a comfy couch and take in the tropical nighttime atmosphere.
Riverside Balcony Bar Street 1 (, on the west bank of the river south of town). T: (012) 437 421; (053) 730 313. Open 16:00 to late.
Sunday 08:00 Breakfast at Kinyei Cafe
A very cool space tucked into the crook of a small lane off Street 2. Kinyei is a social enterprise that also sells absolutely amazing coffee and a small selection of pastries and baked goods. The cafe is a real cultural and informational exchange, with special support going out to grassroots organisations. You can also organise a day trip with Soksabike Tours from here (www.soksabike.com).
Kinyei Cafe Street 1.5. T: (017) 860 003. www.kinyei.org
9:00 Cooking Class
There are three cooking classes in town, but the oldest and most popular is at the Smokin’ Pot restaurant — although all have a similar format and price of $8 to $12. Spend the morning touring Psas Nat for ingredients and then come back and cook three dishes off the menu. By the time you’re done you’ll have earned the resulting enormous Khmer lunch. You’ll also get a recipe booklet to take home so you can get a taste of Battambang anytime you’d like. Book at least one day in advance for a class.
Ch’Ngainh Ch’Ngainh Meet at Royal Hotel, Just west of Psar Nath Market. T: (012) 639 350. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nary Kitchen 650, Group 32, Prekmohatep, Svaypor, Battambang. T: (012) 763 950. narykitchen.com
Smokin’ Pot 229, Group 8, 20 Ousephea Village (near Angkor Hotel). T: 012 821 400. email@example.com.
Where to stay:
Royal Hotel, is the backpacker pitstop in Battambang. Cheap, clean and easy.
Banon Hotel, an excellent mid-range hotel with spotless rooms and lovely staff.
La Villa, a lovingly restored, French colonial building makes for the classiest stay in town.
A number of bus companies, including Capitol Tours, Phnom Penh Sorya and Ponleu Angkor run regular daily buses from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Tickets are around $5. From Siem Reap, the journey should take around two and a half to three hours, and from Phnom Penh, around five hours. More information on getting to and from Battambang.
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