This official ecotourism site was launched in 1999 and takes in a floating village and bird sanctuary located at the confluence of the Tonle Sap lake and Sangker River. As well as being an ornithologist’s dream, the site is of interest to those who aren’t hardened twitchers. More than 120 species of water and forest birds have been recorded, including 15 endangered species, such as the masked finfoot. Tours of the area are led by trained Sam Veasna Center guides. The floating village also operates a community tourism project, where visitors can learn more about local life for the hundreds of families who call the lake home. As part of the project, villagers are now employed as rangers, boatmen, guides and project staff, with some homestays also offered. Prek Toal Tours and Travels is one great community-led initiative.
Soksabike is a Battambang-based responsible tourism initiative that provides training and jobs to young people living in the area. The award-winning social enterprise runs a series of biking trips throughout Battambang, with their local livelihood tour proving to be a hit. Led by a local student, the four-hour leisurely cycle takes guests through the countryside to visit a series of families who produce traditional products, including bamboo sticky rice, fish paste, and dried bananas. Learn the ancient techniques, have a go yourself, and chill with villagers in their homes while enjoying seasonal fruits and coconut water. The tour finishes with a visit to a memorial site for victims of the Khmer Rouge. Round out your ride with a visit to their second initiative, Kinyei Café, for refreshments.
Today, ecotourism encompasses a range of objectives, with responsible travel that has a minimal impact on the environment and a maximum impact on grassroots communities remaining at its core. Butterfly Tours embodies this philosophy as a boutique tour company run by local students, who are all advocates of young Cambodian leadership. The ultimate aim is to create a team of empowered and independent young Cambodian employees and employers, with all tours delving deep into the heart of Cambodian communities. This tour takes guests to the base of Phnom Sampeau, where a short walk or moto ride to the top – tuk tuks are banned – reveals panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. There is the option – which shouldn’t be missed – to return to the base in time for sunset when tens of thousands of bats stream out of the caves for a night of hunting.
While there is no doubt that the bamboo train is one of Battambang’s top tourist attractions, it is a prime example of how tourism can be used as a tool to provide a sustainable form of income for impoverished families. The unique mode of transport, which was once the main means to move rice, goods and people, employs locals to drive tourists on a one-hour round trip journey along the rickety track as the “train” – a bamboo platform covered with a mat that is set on two sets of bogies with a motor at the back – hurtles through the countryside. It stops for about 15 minutes, where you can buy refreshments and handmade crafts from families there, although giving to children is strongly discouraged.
Sitting about 6km north of Battambang city is the village of Pheam Ek, which is famous for its rice paper-making. Family-run workshops line the main street, with visitors welcome to stop and watch the process. Using broken rice, the grains are soaked in large clay pots to form a paste that is then drained and steamed before being placed on a bamboo frame to dry in the sun. A few hours later, the rice paper that is commonly used for spring rolls is ready. A trip to the village can be combined with a visit to nearby temple Wat Ek Phnom. Guided tours can be booked at any of the small tour operators that dot Battambang city. Alternatively, hire a tuk tuk and go solo.
Free Cycling Tours is another local student-led initiative that aims to spread the tourist dollar to more outlying communities. While you shouldn’t let the “free” in its name mislead you, tours are really affordable, with bike rides taking guests to a string of local villages and farms. The beauty of Battambang is it’s flat and the pristine countryside sits on the doorstep of the city, about a 10-minute cycle away. Its two-hour city walking tour starts at Phsar Nath – Central Market – with some local snacks and a tour of the small but bustling market, temples and the colonial buildings that dot the riverside.
About two km south of Battambang City sits a small village that is famous for its cluster of about 20 heritage houses. Dating back almost a century, the stilted structures are built from now-rare hardwoods with sweeping verandas and large rooms. Two houses have opened their doors to visitors – Mrs Bun Roeung’s Ancient House, which dates back to 1920, and Khor Sang House, built in 1907 by the owner’s grandfather. The owners are happy to give guests tours of their historic homes in Khmer, French and English, with homestay options available at both – a special way to spend the night.
Social development also falls under the ecotourism banner, and Phare Ponleu Selpak is an organisation that has been championing that in Cambodia for more than two decades. Most famous for its circus shows that can be seen in Siem Reap daily and in Battambang on various nights of the week, Phare works with underprivileged children and their families by providing art schools, educational programmes and social support. A large portion of Cambodia’s contemporary artists are graduates of Phare, with it also running creative courses in theatre, design, music, dance, animation and graphic design. Guided tours run daily from Monday to Friday, where guests can see circus students learning new tricks, music students perfecting their notes, and visitors can also view a short film created by animation students.
Another tour that sees guests do a little more than just dip their toes into local life is Backyard Travel’s adventure into the countryside. The four-day, two-night trip combines travel by foot, bicycle and boat, and packs in many of the activities mentioned above. Urban Battambang is explored with a walking tour of the compact city – more of a sleepy town – before enjoying views of the rural landscapes the province is famous for from Phnom Sampeau. Sunset is spent at its base watching the bats stream out at dusk. A cycling tour takes guests to Wat Kor village, with the evening spent at the circus. A series of temples are taken in on the journey, with a ride on a Khmer tractor – kuyon – through the countryside included.
Battambang My Homestay is a locally run guesthouse that has built up a reputation, thanks to the friendly owner Mr Kun. Whether you’re a guest there or not, he has a team of local tuk tuk drivers who double up as guides and will take you into the heart of rural Cambodia. All born and bred in Battambang, they come equipped with priceless local information and can take you on tailor-made trips way off the beaten track.