Although Battambang is the second biggest city in Cambodia, it is not nearly as popular with tourists as Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. You can get to Battambang via bus in 3 1/2 hours from Siem Reap or in roughly 6 hours from Phnom Penh. As soon as the bus stops in the center of Battambang, expect it to be swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers offering to take you anywhere in the city for 50 cents (prices in the post are in USD since it’s the main currency used in Cambodia alongside the Riel). We personally felt a bit intimidated and preferred to walk the five minutes to our hotel.
There a lot of things to do in and around Battambang and it is easy to find a tuk-tuk driver to take you on a full or half day trip. Expect to pay between $12-15 for a half day trip and $20 for a full day. We’ve found that most of the tuk-tuk drivers spoke pretty decent English and could give you some information about the places you’ll visit, but you still might consider bringing along a guide as well.
Highlights around Battambang
- Riding the Bamboo Train
- Visiting Phnom Banan Temple, also called little Angkor
- Exploring the caves and temples of Phnom Sampeau
- Seeing millions of bats leaving the Bat Cave at sunset
- Visiting the ruins of Wat Ek Phnom temple
- Enjoying a show at Phare Ponleu Circus (they play every other night)
One of the strangest experiences we had in Battambang was riding the Bamboo Train. Despite its name and the train tracks it rides on, the Bamboo Train is not an actual train. A small bamboo platform, put on top of two train axels and powered by a small motor is what you’ll be riding. The contraption looked more than a bit unstable, but we had come a good way to ride it. A friendly policeman informed us that we would need to pay $5 per person with a minimum price of $10 per train, and we would ride for about 20 minutes to a small village and then turn back.
After sitting down on a small pillow atop a series of old, thin bamboo reeds, the Bamboo Train then sets off at a pretty scary speed. The train tracks are old and not mounted together very well, so you’ll get shaken around while riding along rice fields and over crumbling bridges. As there is only one track, oncoming traffic makes the ride on the Bamboo Train even more interesting. Both bamboo platforms stop nose to nose, and then one group of passengers has to get off and stand beside the tracks while the drivers take the entire bamboo platform off the wheels. They then also move the steel axels to the side, push the second Bamboo Train past, and put the other back together.
After 20 minutes or so, the Bamboo Train arrives at a tiny village, where locals immediately will try to sell you drinks and souvenirs. You’ll then wait around for a while before riding the train back. Aside from the relatively pointless stop at the village, riding the Bamboo Train was a unique and fun experience not to be missed in Battambang.
Phnom Banan Temple
If you have been to Angkor before coming to Battambang, Phnom Banan Temple might be slightly underwhelming, but we thought it was still worth a visit. The temple was built in the 11th century and is older than the famous Angkor Wat. A steep 358 step stairway leads up a small hill to the temple. It’s location makes Phnom Banan special, although the view from the top isn’t great due to the dense vegetation.
The look of the temple reminded us a little of Angkor Wat, and even though the temple itself isn’t very well preserved, there are a few beautiful stone Buddha images and carvings to be found around the complex. At the foot of the hill are tons of small restaurants and food stalls and you’ll encounter many children trying to sell you things or offer to accompany you to the temple. Apparently there is a small cave that you can explore at the foot of the hill as well, we unfortunately missed it.
Phnom Sampeau Temple and Killing Cave
About 28km south of Battambang lies the small hill, Phnom Sampeau, known to house the Killing Caves and a few temples on the top. There is a two dollar entry fee per person, which has to be paid at the ticket office before going up the hill. You can access Phnom Sampeau either via a steep staircase next to the ticket office, or walk up on the concrete road that winds up the hill for about 15 minutes. Another option is to pay one of the locals to take you up on the back of their motorbike for a couple of dollars. About halfway up the hill via the concrete road there is a turnoff to the left which leads to a small temple and the Killing Caves. During the Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s the caves of Phnom Sampeau were the site of cruel mass murder. People were bludgeoned to death by a blow to the back of the neck and then thrown through the skylights of some of the caves. You can enter the main caves, where they’ve built a glass memorial filled with the skulls and bones of the people who have been killed here and a small golden reclining Buddha statue.
From the Killing Cave you can follow the road again either straight up to the summit, or detour to the left past another small cave, the Flower Cave. At the top of Phnom Sampeau is a temple complex with different kinds of temples and stupas, and a few lookouts for beautiful views over the area. The fastest way to get back down and to the Bat Cave is via the steep stairway leading back to the ticket office. Phnom Sampeau is an interesting, but sad place to visit. The whole temple complex seemed a bit strange and run down, but the views from the top were rewarding.
A great way to end your day is to visit the famous Bat Cave just before sunset. The cave is located at the foot of Phnom Sampeau Temple. There are plenty of food stalls that have tables and chairs set up with the perfect view of the cave entry, just make yourself comfortable and wait. Shortly after 6pm when we visited, just as it started to get dark, the bats began flying out of the cave. You might be wondering, what could be so special about seeing bats flying out of a cave. It is not just a few bats, it is millions of them flying out in a black, never ending cloud off to the horizon. You can sit there for a good twenty minutes and will still see more bats coming out of the cave. It was very impressive to watch, and similar to our experience in Myanmar.If you booked a full day tour, your driver will probably stop at the bat tree as well. Huge fruit bats live in this tree during the day and fly out to eat fruit at night.
Wat Ek Phnom
Wat Ek Phnom Temple is around 10 km north of Battambang, The hindu temple was built during the Bayan period in the 11 century. Today, unfortunately the temple lays partly in ruins. You can carefully climb up the jagged stairs and walk inside the temple remains. There are a few surprisingly well preserved carvings to be found. Although Ek Phnom temple is partly collapsed, it is still an interesting place to visit if you have extra time while in Battambang. There is a relatively new temple built in front of the entry to Ek Phnom and a big Buddha statue next to it.
Phare Ponleu Circus
One of our highlights in Battambang was visiting a show of Phare Ponleu Circus. Phare Ponleu Selpak is a non-profit organization that provides education, art school, and social programs for children and families, helping to improve their lives. One part of their many programs is a performing arts school where children and young adults receive a four year training to be able to work as professional performers. You can watch one of their amazing shows at the schools campus. Although the entry fee of $14 pp is quite steep, it is more than worth it, especially because the money is for a good cause. You can come up to an hour before the show starts and see a small art exhibition, buy students artwork in their souvenir shop, or have a drink/snack at their bar. The show is an hour long with a traditional Cambodian dance performance at the beginning. The quality of the circus show and the passion the young students were performing with took us by surprise. It was a lot of fun and very exciting to watch.
Visiting a local market
If you’re up for an authentic local experience in Battambang, you can visit the market in the center of town, although this place is probably not for the faint of heart or vegetarians. Locals are selling everything here from vegetables, fish, meat, and clothes, to beheaded snakes, chili fried cockroaches, rats, and skinned giant frogs. The market opens at 3am and runs until noon, and is definitely an interesting place to visit. If you haven’t been to a typical market somewhere else in the country or throughout Southeast Asia it’s worth a stop, or even if you have and are in the mood to feel a bit nauseous again, give it a look.
Overall Battambang had a very small town, authentic feel to it, despite its large population. It’s a nice place to learn a bit about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge while still hurdling ridiculously unsafe platforms down a railroad track to break up the morose feelings. The people in Battambang couldn’t have been friendlier, which really helped make the place for us.