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.
Love this post! I miss SE Asia! I wish I visited Cambodia before I moved to the US from the Philippines 🙂
Battambang sounds like a very unique place! I love the back story of Ta Dumbong and the statue! Plus, I am a sucker for beautiful temples and great architecture. Might have to check out Battambang! Hoping to plan a trip to that part of the world next year!
Hey! I really enjoyed your post. Cambodia is one of my favourite countries, however I didn’t have time to visit Battambang. I really want to now I’ve read your tips and experiences.
What at fab little city! The old city with the French colonial architecture looks stunning, I also love exploring SEA temples so this would be the perfect destination – thanks for sharing 🙂
I loved this circus you mentioned. I had the opportunity to go twice while i was in Cambodia….best decision ever!!!
That sounds like a fascinating trip. I always love reading old myths and legends like the one about the lost stick. And the Temples look stunning. As for the Tchamlaek – weird stuff but I can imagine quite intriguing.
That bamboo train sounds like a hoot. I spent a quick day in Phnom Penn years ago and then went onto Ankor. This Battambang region looks like it’s checking out if I ever get back there.
I traveled to Battambang back in 2008 to check out the bamboo train but I couldn’t recall much about the city except it being very sleepy and laid back. This was a great walk down memory lane. My wife and I might be headed back to Cambodia this winter and hopefully we’ll get to spend a few days re-touring the city. I would love to go back and take some more photos of that retro-looking train station!
Love the Roundabout Men, not so sure about the bamboo train but it would be a unique experience!
From the architecture in the temples to a bamboo train, you had me at train! A bamboo train sounds very, very interesting. I’ve heard good things about Cambodia, as I’ve been on a couple flights in the U.S. with others that are connecting to end in Cambodia. They all light up when they talk about their end destination, Cambodia.
This is a lovely post that looks beyond Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. The story of the cowherd king is fascinating. I can see echoes here of similar mythological stories in the Hindu religion of India. The temples too look so divine and enchanting. A lovely place to visit other than Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia.
Even if I was not impressed by Battambang and its colonial architecture I had a lot of fun on the bamboo train plus the boat trip from Siam Reap was nice. I did not know the roundabout man’s story, so weird!
These are great ideas! I missed Batammbang on my first trip to Cambodia, but it’s at the top of my list for my upcoming trip there, so thanks for the tips! I love visiting temples and it looks like there’s no shortage here! Bookmarked this!