Battambang is a sprawling town of about 200,000 on the Sangkae River, about 70 km West of Siem Reap. While the highlight of my visit was without a doubt my tour of Phnom Sampov, there are a few other reasons to stay a bit longer and explore this former French colonial city. You can book tours, but I explored downtown Battambang on my own. It’s easily done with a copy of the maps.me app on your phone and – to move more quickly in the heat – a bike.
Battambang means “Lost Stick, ” and the name derives from a legend about a cowherd named Ta Dumbong, who found a magic stick he used to usurp the king. The cowherd-cum-king had a dream forecasting that he would be defeated by a holy man on a white horse. He concluded that he should round up all holy men and kill them. The former king’s son had since become a monk and was therefore also ordered into town. A hermit gave him a white horse to ease the journey. It turned out the horse could fly. When Ta Dumbong saw the flying horse, he was scared and threw his stick after the holy man on the horse. He missed. And the magic stick disappeared. So the usurper took off never to be seen again.
Ta Dumbong, the Battambang Man, is immortalized in a giant statue on a roundabout at the entrance to town along Highway 5 coming from the East (Phnom Penh). People visit him to pray, and you can buy a small bird to release (but don’t be shocked that the bird won’t take off to never be seen again – their home is the cage the bird man sells them in).
On the Western side of Battambang along Highway 5 (coming from Siem Reap or the Thai border), you’ll find another roundabout with another large sculpture. This one is of Preah Noreay. He has eight arms – like a Hindu god -, in which he holds different weapons and items like a snake. This is a great place for street food you can buy in sit-down restaurants as well as little stalls. Don’t miss out on the sweet soup for dessert on the northern end of the roundabout.
Battambang is dotted with dozens of ornate Khmer Buddhist temples glistening white and golden in the sun. Each of them has individual features like gates reminiscent of the portals in the Angkor complex or golden monkeys guarding the flag posts.
Some of the temples are hundreds of years old. The oldest temples, among them Banan and Ek Phnom that date back to the Angkor period, are, however, a few kilometers outside of town. You can hire a tuk-tuk for the day to take you to the highlights (the drivers have lists you can choose from), or you stay downtown and take a wander about to discover the younger temples yourself.
Cambodia was a French protectorate and later colony for almost 100 years. Battambang was expanded to a provincial capital and the old town with its grid pattern of streets, the balconies, the arched windows, and the ornate stucco remains an excellent example of French colonial architecture in Southeast Asia. In fact, efforts are currently underway to get the city inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Modernist architecture fans will also get their kick wandering around old town Battambang. The large covered market with its clock tower cuts the old town in half and at the Western end sits the currently derelict Battambang Railway Station, an off white and turquoise dream in simple lines.
If you are looking for a working train, you’ll have to go about 5 km South to the Bamboo Train. The Norry (or Nori) utilizes the old French-built train tracks, and locals have built small bamboo carts with an engine – but not always with a proper brake – running along the single-track line, which they use to transport anything. There is a service for tourists along about 4 km of track – on carts with brakes – between villages in 13.0689591,103.2166427 and in 13.0375677,103.2327923 (sorry, don’t know the name of the villages but copy+paste the numbers into Google and the map will pop up).
If you have visited Siem Reap, you might have already heard about Phare Circus. The NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak was founded in 1992 by former refugees. They had received painting lessons by a French aid worker in their refugee camp at the Thai-Cambodian border and hoped to apply what they had learned to help many more children in their home country.
Phare grew from painting to music to circus school, and now also runs a regular school and provides social services in Battambang.
The artists at the professional Phare Circus in Siem Reap have all been trained and educated at the performing arts school in Battambang.
If you would like to support the work Phare is doing, you can visit the campus, buy merchandise designed and produced by the students, and you can visit one of the shows performed by the students. At $14 per person it’s not the cheapest night out in Cambodia, but it’s for a good cause. They have different programs, shows only happen a few times a week, and the performers aren’t pros, yet, so mishaps are bound to happen.
I went to a program called Tchamlaek, which means ‘weird’ in Khmer. It was an indeed strange but also very entertaining mix of dance, circus artistry, and traditional music threaded along a storyline about five children building their father a house.