Bats, Boutiques, and Billionaires: A Guide to Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s second-largest city, but it feels much more like a small, sleepy town. Upon your arrival, the view of the Sangker River flowing lazily by the city greets you.

What to See
Start by seeing the sights on foot through a self-guided walking tour. Khmer Architecture Tours has free downloadable maps on its website. While the tour stops are not particularly memorable, the maps provide a nice introduction to quaint Battambang. That the numbered streets and roads (Roads 1.5 and 2.5 among them) neither run precisely east to west nor north to south only adds to the locality’s charm.

Due to its burgeoning art scene, Battambang is gaining recognition as the creative capital of Cambodia. Leading the cultural revival is Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a nonprofit organization formed in 1994 by nine students and their art teacher when they returned home from a refugee camp after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s rule. PPS provides over 1,700 students with arts education through its public, art, music, and theater schools. Many of its graduates perform in Battambang and Siem Reap through Phare the Cambodian Circus, a Cirque-du-Soleil-esque show combining Cambodian stories, theater, dance, music, and circus arts.

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Beyond PPS’s students, there are a number of artists-in-residence in Battambang including the unforgettable Marine Ky. Raised in France after her family fled the Khmer Rouge, Marine returned to Cambodia in 2000. Her textiles combine Western and Khmer printmaking techniques and explore the journey from genocide to inner peace, happiness, and harmony. Marine welcomed us into her gallery and her home with a presentation of her artwork, a pot of tea, and tales of her life, and sent us away with embraces and mandalas for protection. To embark on a self-guided tour of Battambang’s art galleries, check out the following guides by Granturismo, Move to Cambodia, and Bric-a-Brac.

Battambang is not only home to local artists, but also to international performers. Movie star Angelina Jolie owns a house in northwestern Battambang which she purchased after the adoption of her oldest son, Maddox, from Cambodia. During my visit to Battambang, the town was abuzz with preparations for the shooting of First They Killed My Father, a motion picture directed by Angelina based on the memoir written by a childhood survivor of the Pol Pot regime. Even though I was more than a little disappointed when my submission to the movie’s open casting call and my dreams of stardom went unanswered, a few friends and I managed to sneak onto the movie set and witness Angelina in action.

Spend a few days wandering around Battambang and soaking in the art and culture scene, and then hire a tuk-tuk to see the attractions outside the city, namely the Bamboo Train, the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, the Bat Cave, and Wat Banan Temple. The Bamboo Train is a touristy but entertaining excursion where bamboo rafts powered by gas engines transport passengers seven kilometers through the countryside along metal rails.

The Killing Caves – one of the sites of Khmer Rouge mass executions – provide a sobering look into a human tragedy, while the Bat Cave exhibits one of nature’s wonders. At sunset every day, thousands upon thousands of bats fly out of the Bat Cave to feed, a breathtaking phenomenon to behold. If you drive down the road, you can watch the bats soar over the rice fields and disappear over the horizon. During my visit to the Bat Cave, we were equally astounded by the spectacle of two of Angelina’s children, Shiloh and Pax, standing before us.

I expected to be tired of Khmer temples after three days of touring the Angkor ruins, but Wat Banan was worth the visit. The temple dates back to 1050 AD, even before Angkor Wat, although it was rebuilt in 1210 AD. Like many of the Angkor temples, it was originally dedicated to Hindu gods before its conversion to a Buddhist temple. That its four towers are still standing is a miracle as they look ready to collapse at any moment. Luckily they remain erect, giving visitors the opportunity to examine the captivating carvings adorning their exteriors. Climbing the 360 stairs up to the temple can pose a challenge, but results in a rewarding view of the surrounding countryside.

Where to Stay
Hostel BTB Cambodia is so new that it was still being built during my visit to Battambang. Don’t let that deter you, however. Despite construction, the dorms and bathrooms were clean and the showers were hot. The owner is very knowledgeable about the area and can share with you a number of things to see beyond the main tourist attractions. He helped us book bus tickets to our next destination and offered us a resting place when our bus decided to show up not one, not two, but three hours late. At $3 a night, Hostel BTB Cambodia is a steal!

Where to Eat
The Kitchen’s Coconut Strawberry Freeze and Fish Taco Salad are the perfect antidotes to a long day of traveling. You can sit and eat in the downstairs café or browse the exhibits in the upstairs art gallery. Apart from the Mexican food at The Kitchen, you can get decent Spanish tapas at The Lonely Tree Café and tasty Indian food at Flavors of India. Pay a visit to White Rose for fruit shakes, my favorite of which is the creamy pineapple, banana, and soursop shake. For prime people watching, get a drink at Bric-a-Brac, a boutique which specializes in Asian cookbooks and hand-made tassels, textiles, and scarfs (perfect gifts for your family and friends after your trip to Cambodia!). Every evening, the shop transforms its storefront into an al-fresco wine bar. Lest I forget, no visit to Battambang would be complete without tasting the divine chocolate hazelnut cake at Choco L’Art Café.

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