A guide to Battambang (beyond the bamboo train)
I went to Battambang with low expectations.
I needed somewhere to bridge the gap between Siem Reap and Phnomh Penh, and not having the time to venture to the wild jungles and ruins of the east, I stuck my pin in this city, three hours' west.
As far as I could tell, Battambang (pronounced ‘Battambong’) was popular only for its ‘nori’ - a flat carriage of bamboo which was originally designed for residents to transport goods from one settlement to another. Now, it is a mode of transport favoured by tourists, who complete the line at up to speeds of 40km/h.
After spending two nights in Battambang, I realised there was much more to this town than the well-trodden ride on the nori. Its streets are lined with some beautiful French colonial buildings, it is home to some seriously good restaurants and the glorious surrounding countryside, dotted with temples, is ripe for exploration.
Here’s my guide of to Battambang, beyond the bamboo train.
things to do in battambang
Take a Cooking class
A fellow traveller in Siem Reap recommended Coconut Lyly to me, and so I signed up a couple of hours prior by emailing Lyly whilst on the bus to Battambang. This small family-run affair teaches you how to make really great traditional dishes from scratch, including the quintessential fish amok, after a market visit to buy the ingredients. Our group of four also prepared a green mango salad and crispy vegetable spring rolls. At $10 per person, this class was incredibly good value and I also came away with a book containing additional recipes to try at home.
You can eat Coconut Lyly for lunch or dinner, too, and it is rated as one of the best places to dine in Battambang.
Wander the streets
It is fairly rare to find an Asian colonial city as intact as Battambang. Its portico exteriors and gable roofs have been shophouses for over 100 years, and you could easily spend a couple of hours walking, or cycling, it’s avenues. This helpful map shows the city’s main architectural sites.
Explore the surrounding countryside
Hop on a motorbike or rent a tut tuk for the morning and head out of town. A slog up to Wat Banan will reward you with great views and crumbling temple buildings dating back as far as the 10th century. Consider stopping at the Phnom Sampeou cave, however please show respect to the local history and refrain from taking any, or any inappropriate, photographs; this is the site of one of the many ‘killing caves’ across Cambodia. The area is best visited at dusk to view the bats emerging from the cave.
Tip | Stop off at Chan Thay Chhoueng Plantation, not for the wine it produces, but for some delicious red grape juice!
Offering exquisitely decorated rooms, a footpath bar serving charcuterie and cheese snacks with quality wine, and an emporium selling a gorgeous array of handicrafts, artwork and textiles, Bric-a-Brac is charming. Owned and run by Australians Morrison Polkinghorne and Robert Carmack, you can see the love that has gone into this place, and it’s well worth a visit for an evening tipple as the sun goes down. For prices and availability to stay, click here.
check out the art
A local fruit seller told me that there are more artists per capita in Battambang than any other place in Cambodia. From the number of galleries and creative stores, he may just be right. I particularly enjoyed Tep Kao Sol and Sangker Gallery, and Romcheik5 is also worth a visit; it houses rotating exhibitions by local contemporary artists downstairs, with a permanent showcase upstairs.
Ride the old bamboo train
Rail tracks originally laid by the French were abandoned during the Khmer Rouge, and locals subsequently constructed their own basic nories: a steel frame is decked with tank wheels, a two-stroke engine and a bamboo mat. As the tracks are only designed for single vehicle at a time, a typical journey involves one of the two cars which meet being completely dismantled to allow the other to pass.
It has become THE thing to do in Battambang; you may have to wait your turn and there will be locals selling coconuts, T-shirts sunglasses and everything in between at the other end in Poipet, but - whisper it - it is actually a pretty fun
Tip | Here’s where it gets a little bit complicated - there are actually TWO bamboo trains. The one I took, and the one I recommend you take, is the old version, as described above. There is, however, a newly built bamboo train line in a different location (with a ticket window and rough car park) offering more cushioned noris. It appears that some tourists think that the new train ‘replaced’ the old, but this is not the case - do yourself a favour and seek out the old bamboo train!
Expect to pay around $5 return per person.
watch a circus performance
With shows in both Siem Reap as well as Battambang during my visit 2019, Phare Ponleu Selpak – in Khmer, The Brightness of the Arts – is a Cambodian non-profit arts school located in Battambang, offering support to children, youth and the surrounding communities through artistic, educational, social and community outreach and engagement programmes.
Over 1000 students are empowered every year through our schools and programmes: performing, visual and applied arts leisure classes, and vocational training aid children and young adults to develop their creativity, communication and concentration skills, and to access a sustainable artistic career whilst preserving and promoting Cambodian arts and culture.
Where to eat in battambang
This slick modern restaurant trains and employs and supports vulnerable youth through the Cambodia Children's Trust. The refined menu includes Cambodian classics such as green Kampot pepper prawns with chilli jam, and a papaya and shrimp salad. It’s the perfect choice if you want to treat yourself. Check out reviews of Jaan Bai here.
A meal for two including drinks will set you back around $20-$30.
Lonely Tree Cafe
The Lonely Tree Cafe is another eatery born out of a social enterprise. It was set up by the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang with the help of S.A.U.C.E and Catholic Mission Australia with the goals of obtaining profits to help finance the humanitarian activities led by Apostolic Prefect Monsignor Enrique “Kike” Figaredo SJ…
That, and the food is bloody good. See more reviews here.
Another restaurant offering a cooking school, Nary offers unfussy and tasty local dishes at cheap prices.
Where to stay in battambang
I stayed at … Delux Villas
Cambodia is hot, and Delux Villas has a pool. That was enough to convince me to fork out $50 a night to stay here, and I can’t say I regretted it. It’s rooms are large and I had a spacious rain shower ensuite - a hearty (if basic) breakfast is included in the rate.
I visited The Place nightly for $0.25 beers with people I met on the bus from Siem Reap, but it was Pomme that I was considering staying at before my sweaty face convinced me I needed a pool to cool off in. I really liked the vibe at The Place so would consider staying here if I were to visit Battambang again, but Pomme also received high praise from backpackers.
Consider… staying out of town
As Kabuto Noodles’ ‘Asian Traveller’, my trip to Cambodia was generously part-funded by these noodle ninjas! You can check out their range of noodles here (my favourite is their Chilli Chicken Ramen) and follow them on Twitter and Instagram for some dreamy noodle pics.
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