Before I visited Cambodia, I had the usual sights in mind: Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields, possibly the southern beaches if the weather was good. A place that hadn’t really been on my radar was the quaint city of Battambang in the North West (you can take the boy out of Warrington…) but it ended up being one of my favourite stops during my time in the country. Here’s why you shouldn’t just breeze past this small gem…
1. The Bamboo Train
Perhaps Battambang’s most iconic attraction, the bamboo train may not have reclining seats or a foot rest, but it does take you on a wonderful ride through the countryside, with a few bumps along the way. The railway itself is no longer used, so this is purely a tourist attraction, and it’s a nice breezy 20 minute ride each way. Even more fun is when a bamboo train comes in the opposite direction – as there’s only a single track you have to face-off to see who has to physically lift their cart off the track and allow the others to pass. Unsurprisingly, the end of the ride is filled with children trying to sell you stuff, though their English is astonishing. Overall, it’s good fun and a real ‘only in Cambodia’ moment. The ride costs $5 each if there’s a group of you, or $10 if you’re riding solo.
2. The Views
A tuk tuk ride out of Battambang lies the Sampeou Mountain where there’s a wealth of brilliant stuff to find. It’s littered with small pagodas from which you get a glorious view over Cambodia’s fantastic landscapes, most of which is very flat. The lush green fields stretch for miles and the view is worth the moderate climb up on a hot day. The caves on this mountain also have a bleaker history as they were used by the Khmer Rouge to send people to their deaths. The skulls and bones of prisoners are still on display today. I can’t remember how much we paid to get in but Wikipedia tells me it was $3. The climb to the top took 1 hour or so. Look out for the evil monkeys, one of which tried to nab my phone!
3. The Bats
Bat by name, bat by nature. One of the most spectacular natural spectacles I’ve ever seen occurred just as the sun went down. It’s no exaggeration to say that literally milions of bats migrate from their cave in Phnom Sampeou as soon as it starts to get dark. This never-ending tornado of bats is mind-blowing. Most people watch from the road leading up to the mountain, but our tuk-tuk driver took us round the back to another cave which was swarming with the creatures. A strenuous climb to the top rewarded us with an ‘access all areas’ experience of this spectacular occurrence. I’d really recommend asking your tuk tuk driver if they know about this ‘secret’ place – it was magical to stand so close to the bats and away from the crowds. And, to top it off…
4. The Sunset
For most people, Battambang’s glorious sunset is hidden by the mountain but as we were on the other side, we were rewarded with a spectacular sundown. It was one of those weird moments where the sun and the bats were competing for your attention at the same time – do you look at the millions of migrating bats or the burning sunset which turns the sky orange? It was one of the most amazing natural wonders I’ve ever seen. Certainly a night to remember.
5. The Circus
And if all that’s not enough, you can round off your time in Battambang with a trip to the circus. I didn’t know this was quite a famous thing in Battambang until someone in my hostel mentioned it. It’s on every Monday and Thursday and the $14 entrance fee supports the NGO school that the performers attend. It’s a great night with some fantastic displays and the performers really get the crowd going. All the reviews said the money was well worth it and I have to agree. It’s a proper Big Top too and you really get the cosy circus vibe. We were able to get tickets through our hostel.
Battambang’s got a lot going for it. It doesn’t feel like a city with its calm river setting. Every evening I was there, the river banks played host to aerobics classes and football games, whilst delicious street food stalls set up on the road. It’s hard to believe it’s Cambodia’s second biggest city. And if you’re really missing home comforts, the Here Be Dragons hosts a Pub Quiz each week (we came 3rd but won ‘Best Team Name’). They’ve also got dorms going for $3 a bed.
It started off as just a stop-off between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but Battambang ended up being one of my favourite destinations in Cambodia. Any destination with good sunsets, hikes and a pub quiz is a winner in my book.