A huge sigh of relief rippled across Cambodia when in January, the government announced that the bamboo train was back on track and being reinstated in a different area after operations were halted in its original location. Called a norry in Khmer, the “train” consists of a small bamboo platform covered with a mat and a few thin cushions to sit on. This sits on two sets of bogies with a motor at the back. A wooden pole is used as both the brakes and accelerator, with the train hitting speeds of up to 50km/h. A truly hair-raising ride.
As Cambodia’s creative capital, it’s only right that Battambang is home to Phare Ponleu Selpak. The organisation offers underprivileged youngsters free arts training in a range of skills. It’s most famous for the circus performances that can be found in Siem Reap and Battambang, which feature a range of jaw-dropping acrobatics. Visitors can take a daily tour of the campus before stopping off to see a circus show.
Take a tuk tuk in mid-afternoon to Phnom Sampeou, about 12km from Battambang centre, and head to the peak. Here, you’ll find Wat Sampeou and its stunning views that stretch uninterrupted into the horizon. Visitors can explore the temple as well as the neighbouring Killing Caves, where Khmer Rouge soldiers pushed their victims to their deaths. A shrine sits inside the caves. Just before dusk, head back down to the base, and join the crowds that gather at about 6pm to watch the seemingly endless stream of bats pour out of the caves for a night of hunting.
Battambang is home to Cambodia’s best-kept collection of colonial buildings and other ancient architecture, which is well worth viewing. Khmer Architecture Tours offers a downloadable map so visitors can take their time exploring the city. Alternatively, Free Cycle Tours, led by Cambodian students, offers free walking excursions around Battambang. For those of you fearful of fatigue, fret not because the city is compact, so not much effort is needed to get around on foot.
After all that sightseeing, the best way to unwind is through a rejuvenating massage. Nature Boutique Spa is one of the latest offerings to open and boasts a truly tranquil helping of treatments, from a sports massage and four-hand massage, to foot reflexology and a tropical treatment. Scrubs are also available. A café is onsite, serving up healing teas.
No trip to Cambodia’s artistic hub is complete without visiting some of the city’s galleries and studios. Romcheik5, across the river from the city centre, has served as the studios of four young Cambodian artists since 2012. It has since expanded and now takes in rotating exhibitions from local contemporary artists and offers a permanent exhibition of the residents’ work. Sangker Art Space and Gallery is another spot that hosts changing exhibits from local artists. Visitors can also meet those working in their studios to find out more about their work.
Romcheik5, Street 201, Krong Battambang, Cambodia, +855 92 304 210
Battambang is home to Soksabike, an award-winning pioneering sustainable tourism venture that offers vocational training for local students while giving visitors the chance to see first-hand local living. The range of tours take in a Local Livelihood trip, visiting rural communities, a customs and culture tour and a countryside jaunt.
Jaan Bai is undeniably one of Cambodia’s top restaurants. The Cambodian Children’s Trust-operated restaurant trains and employs disadvantaged young people in the area, who cook and serve a delightful array of dishes. The social enterprise is also a big supporter of the local art scene and regularly hosts exhibitions. A huge colourful mural painted by local artists adorns the outside wall — a great spot for photos.
Jaan Bai, Street 2 in next to Psar Nat, Krong Battambang, Cambodia, +855 78 263 144
Take a tuk tuk about 23km south of Battambang city to 11th century temple, Prasat Banan. Don’t let the 358-stair climb put you off because the views of the surrounding countryside make every step worth it. Not over-run by tourists, you can explore the five-tower temple that was built by Udayadityavarman II, son of Suryavarman I, with ease. The site is also home to several caves, which can be visited by one of the guides available to hire for a few dollars from the temple.
If you fancy immersing yourself in rural Cambodian living, then take a trip to Mrs Bun Roeung’s Ancient House. As one of a handful of heritage houses located in Wat Kor village, the stilted house showcases traditional Cambodian living, built from sturdy wood and surrounded by orchards and palm trees. Tours of the house, which Mrs Bun grew up in and is full of family artefacts, are given in French and English. There is also the option to stay in accommodation at the back of the property.
Battambang city sits on the banks of the Sangker river, and there are several companies offering river cruises that take in life along the waterways. Gecko Private River Cruise offers intimate boat trips for one and two people that pass by fishing communities, families cooking on the shores and children splashing in the water.
Shoppers have two options: the original night market, which sits at the northeast corner of Psar Nath market or the new night market on the riverfront. At both, you’ll find street vendors serving up local bites, souvenirs and an array of clothes. Remember to barter to bag a bargain.