Did you know that Cambodia’s second bigger city is Battambang? That’s right, and I bet that the name doesn’t ring a bell.
When we think of Cambodia, we think about the incredible temples of Angkor, the bustling capital Phnom Penh or about the beach getaway of Sihanoukville and surrounding islands. Battambang is often out of the mass tourists’ radar and it’s their lost.
A mere 3 hours bus drive from Siem Reap, Battambang, with 250, 000 residents, is the second most populated city in Cambodia, but you would never guess so. The colonial architecture, the river setting, the modernity with the small-town feeling, makes of Battambang a little gem. Say goodbye to the streets packed with resorts and tourists of Siem Reap. Forget about the traffic and scams of Phnom Penh. Slow down and welcome the genuine friendliness of people, their culture, and the picturesque landscape.
Battambang province is one of the most fertile of the country and is the leader in rice production. Because of this, Battambang became a major commercial hub, attracting people mainly from Vietnam, Thailand and China. During the French colonization, in the 20th century, the city saw a big urban renovation, of which the grid structure and the colonial building, made it the most modern provincial capital at the time.
Of course the rough history of Cambodia hit the region greatly, and Battambang was emptied during the Khmer Rouge period. After the liberation from the regime, the region remained the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge party who were using the surrounding mountain as a shelter and frequently tried to regain power. It was just in the 90’s that the conflict finally ended and today, thanks to foreign and Khmer investment, the city is once again renovating.
What makes Battambang particularly enjoyable from a tourist’s point of view, is the fact that combines some of the modern comforts to a very local and an almost village experience. The city developed along the river, and it’s there that people go. A very nice characteristic of Southeast Asia is the fact that people actually use their public green spaces. Battambang is no different. In the park there are gym machines that people can use for free and, in the evening or early morning, the park is busy with people from all age exercising, hanging out or playing. Behind that, there is a raw of laid back cafes, where it’s possible to have a drink while doing some people watching. The cafes alternate with arty boutiques in Chinese-style shophouses and strolling down the quiet streets by foot, you can find many little gems.
If you want to learn a little more about the city and its history, there are self-guided tours of the city that are easy to download and to follow as well as being very informative.
The city itself is not the only reason to head to Battambang; the landscape of the region, its temples, and smaller charming villages are indeed worth the trip! When in the city, you can easily find a guide that will be happy to take you around for a very affordable price. The highlight of the trip for me was the actual ride: cutting through the exquisitely green countryside on the orange dusty pathways; waving at kids playing in the river; passing the heavy wooden cart pulled by white cows while breathing the smell of spices and nature. Bright red chilly is left to dry on roads side so that you can’t help but open your eyes wide to the red contrast when driving through. Hidden in the countryside you can find beautiful temples, like Wat Banan, where Buddhist and Hindu elements beautifully coexist and integrate with the surrounding nature.
The tour is not free of emotions. As I already mentioned, this area was hit hard by the Khmer Rouge and visiting the killing caves in Phnom Sampeau is probably one of the best ways to understand the history of Cambodia. The caves are the place where people, dead or alive, were tossed during the regime time. Today some of the victim’s bones are preserved in a cage and kids take you around explaining to you what was happening there. I’m not going to lie – it’s tough, but is also a way to understand and do not forget. On the top of the same hill, there is another beautiful temple and a breathtaking view of the surrounding light green fields, which are framed by darker mountains and dotted by sporadic temples and villages.
The unusual beauty of Battambang is not over yet; there is another impressive occurrence happening at dusk on this very same hill. The wall rock is inhabited by thousands of bats and every day, as soon as the sun start to go down, they leave their cave all together looking for food. The process of leaving the cave take about 20 minutes and the dark strip snakes into the purple sky – it’s unbelievable. The driver told me that throwing a stick in the air you could kill a dozen of them and have a tasty dinner with your family. Unfortunately for locals, the government doesn’t aloud this anymore.
Battambang is the real essence of Cambodia: a beautiful land that is now flourishing again thanks to the strength of its people.