I was really looking forward to my stay in Battambang because I thought it would be my only chance to see the “real” Cambodia outside of the cities. Although Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia, there aren’t a lot of attractions within the city itself. Most people visit Battambang to ride a bicycle or motorbike around the countryside surrounding the city. There are plenty of attractions within a 30km radius of Battambang that are fun to navigate to on your own.
On my first day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle from a rental shop on Street 2.5. I paid only $2USD to have the bike for the whole day. I pedalled 15 km to Phnom Sampeau (also sometimes called Phnom Sampov), a hill with a temple on top of it that affords a great view over the city. It was not an easy ride in the Cambodian heat, let me tell you. I had to keep stopping every few minutes to take a drink of water.
Soaked with sweat and severely dehydrated, I finally got to Phnom Sampeau, parked my bike, and paid the $3USD entrance fee. Just as I was about to start walking up the stairs, a young Cambodian boy approached me and asked if I was going up to the temple. I had heard that there are always local children hanging around who take it upon themselves to act as guides for tourists around the temple and caves on the hill, and then expect a couple of dollars for their services. Sure enough, the boy (who told me he was 13) accompanied me up the stairs without asking me whether I wanted him to or not. I walked and talked with him for a while, and then handed him a $1 bill and told him I could go the rest of the way by myself. He accompanied me all the way to the temple anyway, but then thankfully left me to sightsee on my own.
The temple itself isn’t really anything special, but the view over Battambang from where it stands is pretty nice. There are tons of monkeys hanging around the temple, so be careful. Thankfully, they seemed completely uninterested in me for the most part. There was a curious little one that kept coming towards me as I was walking away from him, but I managed to scare him off before he attacked.
After seeing the temple, I walked around and explored a couple of cool caves around the hill. During my ramble, I ran into the Cambodian boy again. He and a couple of other boys took me to a cave known as Flower Cave. Then he brought me into a small, dark cave where I had to use my cell phone flashlight to see bats flying around overhead. (He assured me in advance that I did not have to pay him anything for this tour.)
Whether you choose to cycle, take a motorbike, or hire a tuk-tuk, I highly recommend checking out Phnom Sampeau. There’s quite a lot to see there.
On my second day in Battambang, I rented a bicycle again. This time I headed towards the ancient ruins of Wat Ek Phnom, about 12 km outside of town. The ruins don’t cover a very big area, but it was pretty cool to climb around and explore them. As a bonus, there were only a few other people there, so I could take as many selfies as I wanted without feeling self-conscious.
That night, I went to a performance by the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) circus. PPSA is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Cambodian children through arts training and educational programs. Their circus is well-known as one of the top attractions in Battambang. The performers at the show I attended were absolutely incredible. It’s insane what some people can do with their bodies. I was a little bit terrified when one of the female performers started hula-hooping with a ring of fire, but she pulled it off effortlessly. And when another performer built a tower by balancing cylinders and boards on top of each other, I was like, “Oh hell no. Ain’t no way you gon’ stand up on that, boy.” But then lo and behold, he stood up and balanced on it while hardly even shaking! Don’t miss a PPSA circus performance if you visit Battambang. (I paid $14USD for my ticket, and the show lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.)
The next day I didn’t do too much of anything. I had planned to take a ride on the Bamboo Train, which is supposedly the #1 must-do attraction in Battambang, but I found out from the staff at my hostel that morning that the old Bamboo Train has been closed and the new one is located some 20km out of town. I wasn’t going to pay $20 to take a tuk-tuk there and back, so I decided to just spend the day walking around the town.
The hostel that I stayed at, Here Be Dragons (great hostel!), happened to be hosting a cocktail party in their bar that night where all cocktails were $2USD from 5PM – 11PM. I decided to go on a hunt for a bottle of vodka to use for pre-drinking before heading to the bar that night. Let me tell you, I have never in my life had so much difficulty finding a bottle of alcohol. I walked around the town for hours without success. I inquired at so many convenience stores whether they had any vodka (or rum or gin or anything else that would alter my mental state), but the answer was always negative. Finally I popped into a random, unassuming little shop and saw a row of whiskey bottles on display — apparently the only kind of alcohol they sold there. I realized this was the closest I was going to come to what I wanted, so I asked how much it was. The girl working there told me it was 3500 Cambodian riel, which is $0.90USD. Damn, what a steal! Granted, the alcohol content was only 23%, so it was hardly even whiskey at all, but beggars can’t be choosers. The girl wiped off the thick layer of dust coating the entire bottle (clearly this whiskey is not a big seller) and put it into a bag for me. I walked away feeling finally victorious, and also convinced that bottled vodka simply does not exist in Battambang.
On my last day in the city, I rented a bicycle once again for another hot, sweaty ride through the Cambodian countryside. My goal this time was to reach Phnom Banan, another hill with a temple built on top of it and great views. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way to Phnom Banan. It would have been a 21-km ride there and a 21-km ride back, and I was just too hot and sweaty to complete that mammoth task (not to mention the long walk up the stairs to the top of the hill). Besides, I had slept in that day and consequently didn’t start my bike ride as early as I would have liked, so I was worried I might not make it home before dark if I took time to explore Phnom Banan. I rode as far as a temple which, according to my map, is known as Wat Bay Damram (about a 15-km ride) and then turned around and headed back. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to Phnom Banan, but at least I got to see a glimpse of rural Cambodian life during my ride. That’s what I really wanted to see when I came to Battambang anyway.
Battambang is a place that you should definitely visit if you want to see what Cambodia is like outside of the cities. There’s nothing like having the freedom to explore on your own two wheels, and Battambang provides plenty of opportunities to do that. As long as you don’t mind being (extremely) hot and sweaty all day, you’ll have a great time there!
Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia!