Battambang is a confusing little place. I didn’t love it but I didn’t dislike it neither. We stayed at Here Be Dragons, a den permeated with subliminal Game of Thrones references aimed to cajole international backpackers to converge under one dwelling.
We were lucky enough to be given the only room with a balcony overlooking the green space near the river, where elderly Russian and Chinese women practised aerobics daily. It’s a sweet strip with street food vendors selling noodles, a variety of meats and fresh sugar cane, but be careful which ones you eat at. Further up there was a gypsy-esque fun fair entertaining children and housing rebel alliances for the quirky Khmer teens.
That’s one of the first things I noticed about Battambang actually; the dyed hair, tattoos, shorter skirts and raucous laughter. Khmer tradition seemingly slips away the closer to the Thai border we got. There was also a lack of tourists in this area in comparison to other areas on our trip – be this because it is still low season or simply not a particularly touristy place I’m not too sure.
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Battambang was for the old school bamboo train that not only looks dodgy as f*%k, but reminiscent of the age old transport. Guess what: It was closed. Apparently the track used to run over a farmer’s land and because he wasn’t making enough money from it, he refused the train to pass through so he could expand his land. Sad times.
Battambang isn’t particularly interesting to the modern day backpacker against the other parts of the trip (seeing as the nightlife pretty much finishes at ten), so see it as more of a chilled cafe day vibe before heading up into Thailand (the most logical step). Rent a moto and have a road trip out of town to a couple of pagodas maybe, but after being in Siem Reap, they hardly compare!
Yet Wat Banan was pretty cool. After dismissing the small children offering to fan us the whole way up, we climbed up the sketchy 364 stairs. Yes we stopped off a few times on the way, but the view was totally worth it. Breathtakingly high and eerily misty, it was incredible; I think the way down was worse though This is a public thank you to Jake for helping me down, thus I be stuck up there forever.
After a quick refreshment at the bottom, we stumbled along some caves which were, admittedly, surrounded by land mine warnings. Luckily we were found by a guide who took us inside these crevices which opened out to an enormous area filled with stalagmites dripping with ‘holy water’. After another near drowning blessing, we returned to the road.
Battambang’s circus is supposed to be one of the best in Cambodia and is known for producing some of the country’s best singers, dancers and actors. We missed the performance due to our short stay, but everyone was recommending it to us. Acrobats and death stunts galore, be prepared to have your heart in your mouth and try to see it if you can .
Another well known attribute to Battambang is the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to the dark Cambodian history of the Khmer Rouge, but I highly recommend the books ‘First They Killed My Father’, by Loung Ung and ‘Year Zero’ by François Ponchaud.
On the way to the caves you pass many beautiful bright green paddy fields which are only there as a result of mass forced work. Battambang was a crucial city during the Khmer Rouge rein and the killing caves truly bring to light the brutality of what happened. Crafted figures stand in front of the caves demonstrating torture techniques and original drowning pools remain from back then.
Crushed skulls still crunch underfoot and a mesh cage holds hundreds of broken bones. A skylight shone down into the cave showing the height of which we had dropped as well as the many children and babies that had been thrown down. Our guide stopped us from going any further into the cave and we were blessed by a monk supervising the entrance.
If you are on a limited amount of time for your trip around Southeast Asia, I would only recommend one or two nights in Battambang in order to break up the painstaking journey into Thailand. There’s a great little cinema a five minute walk from Here Be Dragons on the right which has all the latest movies in English (Khmer subtitles) and you can do you washing at Iron Man laundry two minutes further on from that.
Prepare yourself for the anarchy of Bangkok.
Eat: At the Vegetarian Foods Cafe. This little hole in the wall cafe attracts a lot of local Khmers, but I attest the claim that here is the best vegetarian food in Cambodia. At around 2000 riel a meal you’re definitely getting a good deal. My recommendation? The freshly made soy milk is delicious. I went black sesame and Jake went pumpkin (who usually detests anything that is meatless and in a category beginning with ‘v’) and we both left full.
Drink: Coffee at Kinyei! Super simple, clean and well lit, another hidden gem which has won awards for their coffee and is home to two Cambodian national coffee champions. The cafe offers vocational courses for their staff and hosts open workshops for NGO groups and local communities. Done done drink.
Do: A cooking class at Coconut Lyly. It honestly made the trip to Battambang worthwhile. It was a spur of the moment activity because the weather was forecasted to be pretty sh\tty that day, and me and Jake had been talking about how we missed cooking back home.
The first part of the workshop was going to the market to shop for the ingredients for beef lok lak, fish amok, spring rolls and a coconut lyly desert. The market wasn’t far from the restaurant and we were able to ask our guide about what was on sale including the price of what we should expect to pay.
The actual cooking part was very well structured and well explained. The lady made it very easy to follow and answered all our questions about substitute ingredients we may not be able to find in England. The end result was delicious, a four course meal prepared by us, heavily satisfied and washed down with a large Chang (of course). Only $10 down, we took home a recipe book and a promise to spread the word.
Stay: Here Be Dragons is clearly designed for the weary backpacker. The downstairs bar area makes it easy to mingle with others, swap stories, tips and tricks and during an after hours drink, tequila and tomato juice went down pretty smoothly (apparently – hey Jake.) Everyone is pleasant and they hold rooftop yoga, barbeques and daily happy hours.