The appropriately named Battambang came as such a huge surprise and slowly wiggled its way into the top spot as our favourite destination in Cambodia. It is a budget backpacker’s dream really, thanks to its low cost yet high-quality accommodation, cheap food stalls, plentiful food options, and quirky attractions.
We loved staying on the city outskirts where the palm trees hung happily and the dusty roads sparkled in the sun yet a mere 15-minute walk towards the river and we were met with a colonial city and ancient architecture, all of which battled its way into our hearts.
Although the majority of its attractions will mean hiring a tuk-tuk/moped or booking a tour, don’t neglect to explore the city itself which, despite being the second largest city in Cambodia, is easy enough to navigate on foot.
Come for the bats, stay for the bamboo train.
Overall, we will dedicate this quick guide to Battambang to our friend Kelly, who put it on our map so we can hopefully put it on yours!
From Phnom Penh To Battambang:
With plenty of buses and minivans heading to the north-western city, head down to Orussey Market where you will find Capitol Bus and Mekong Express or over to the Central Market for the Sorya Bus and Bayon Express VIP bus companies.
All the above have daily buses running from 5.30am until 6 pm.
The express minivans with Mekong Express, Bayon and Capitol are direct vans to Battambang and cost anything from $10-$12 depending on the company you go with.
Both Capitol and Soyra have cheaper services on the larger buses for just $5-$6. Just note the larger buses are slower with the journey time being around 6 hours.
Mekong and Capitol are within walking distance to each other as are Soyra and Bayon so you can easily head to one and price the other. We went with Capitol bus and so can share the scheduled times below.
Accommodation In Battambang:
Whether backpacker, flashpacker honeymooner and everyone else, one might be drawn to the Blue Diamond Guesthouse which is an ideal little set up for those who are in need of some comfort and luxury while sticking to a budget.
The large guesthouse has its own pool, a spacious common area that doubles up as a dining area for serving food from its onsite restaurant (reasonable but not as cheap as what you would find in the city), and outdoor seating area on the second floor, around 5 dogs and very sound staff – BLISS!
We paid $4 per night for a double room with en-suite, including free breakfast. Maybe book via Booking.com for the free breakfast as they might not offer free breakfast if you book face-to-face. The breakfast offered was either eggs and bread or fruit served with tea or coffee
The guesthouse itself is down a badly lit road off the main road that swerves in from a nearby market. It will take about 10-15 minutes to walk to the Central Market and after sundown, you will need to navigate with the torch on your phone, but only to the main road.
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Things To Do In Battambang:
Rent a Bike:
As we said, there are plenty of things to do and keep you busy in Battambang, with plenty of day tours and tuk-tuk/minivan or bike rentals available. For the cheapest rates on tours and transport, visit the backpacker hostels scattered around the centre.
As per usual, we rented a moped for the day and paid $6 for 24 hours from a motorbike rental company on Street 512, behind the Battambang hospital. No doubt there are plenty of bike rental places around the city, and to find them your best bet will be to ask at your own hostel and then scout at other backpacker hostels. We are happy to recommend the rental company we went with, but make sure to get down there between 9-10am as he has limited bikes and is fairly busy. We missed our chances on our first day in Battambang and so popped down at 9 am the following morning and got a bike.
Phnom Banan Wat:
On our little day out, our first stop was Battambang’s Phnom Banan Wat. Built in the 11th century, therefore making it older than Cambodia’s biggie Angkor Wat, the locals claim that the fiver tower layout was actually the inspiration for Angkor Wat.
Start the visit at the Sangker River lakeside entrance surrounded by vendors, restaurants and stalls, ahead is the 400-meter tall mountain which the temple sits silently atop, and so begins the 350 step climb. Enter the temple to find a number of Buddhist shrines and locals working away, one woman creating offerings from banana leaf while a gentleman sat spinning thread.
Once again the wrath of the Khmer Rouge has left what was once an important Khmer temple built over 1,000 years ago in complete ruins. And while this does add to the crumbling infrastructure injecting that Indiana Jones feel to the surroundings, do mind your step and watch for the signs that state loose bricks etc.
It is around 20 km from town, and it is possible to cycle as we saw some people do, the easiest way is to either hire a tuk-tuk for the day or save yourself some cash and rent a motorbike as you can combine the day out with visiting the nearby bat caves. We spent no more than an hour here.
Free parking is available and it costs $2 (€1.80) to enter.
For us, it was nice to see ancient Khmer ruins without many tourists (it was dead when we went in November 2018) however if you have already been to Angkor Wat this may be a little underwhelming. It is definitely not the most impressive set of Khmer ruins we have seen, our favourite still being the Vat Phou ruins in Laos.
Before leaving the grounds, follow the trail from the carpark to the right towards the cave.
Phnom Sampeu and Battambang Bat Caves:
Visiting the Phnom Sampeu Hill (to us it’s a mountain!) has to be one of the most cost-effective days out in Battambang. We didn’t expect to spend so long here, a predicted one hour of zipping around the grounds turned into three, at least.
Usually tours and crowds come here in the evenings for the bats and maybe to see the Khmer Rouge Killing Caves but honestly, it’s worth an early afternoon to discover the temples, the caves, and the mountain peaks that offer an impressive view of Battambang’s landscape, ending the day, of course, at the bat cave – which is a remarkable site that definitely deserves the hype!
Phnom Sampeu is around 11 km from Battambang and again, we came across plenty of tourists who did cycle out there. However, since you can drive your motorbike up and around the hill itself and for the price of $2 entry ticket, it really is worth it.
For those who prefer not to drive, you can hire a moto to the top or hike up the stairs which are to the left of the ticket office. If you do drive, pass the ticket office keep going straight following the road that veers up to the right and up the hill. Be mindful of the loose gravel and steep climb, take your time and drive slowly.
You can either head straight to the top to work your way back down stopping at the many mini attractions en route, or vice versa.
Kerirom Killing Caves:
Our first stop was the Phnom Sampeu Kerirom Killing Caves, yet another Khmer Rouge execution site. We parked our bike at the large red arch entrance and walked uphill for about 10 minutes to reach an area that holds a number of statues which showcase some traditional Khmer beliefs and what they believe to be hell. Some statues replicate the hideous acts of torture the Khmer Rouge inflicted on the local people.
To the left will be some viewpoints, and right is towards the Killing Caves, follow the signs. Some of the local kids will approach and try to act as a guide. We politely declined but Umai, a charismatic young 8-year-old girl wouldn’t take no for an answer and instead led the way, pointing out the nearby crocodile mountain and explaining the statues. Her English was excellent, and her charm had us gripped.
We arrived at the cave, where Umai showed us the small collection of bones which were mostly skulls and bones belonging to babies and children. It was eerie being shown these by a child.
Under the cave’s skylight is where thousands of innocent Cambodians were murdered. The Khmer Rouge would lead people above the cave and, next to the opening where they would strike the victim who would then fall into the cave – making such a beautiful serene place yet another mass grave.
Umai patiently waited for us as she brought us back out towards the entrance; throw her opened palm out for her tip. We gave her $1 which is a lot if you think about it, but of course, her cheeky-self looked for more. When we politely explained that we had no more change she thanked us and sent us on our merry way.
Heading back out towards our bike, we went left uphill to the Pkarslar Cave which is almost like a small Buddhist village, decorated with statues, crawling with both monkeys and monks!.
Park the bike at the Big Buddha and walk behind the stalls towards the cave.
The stairs bring you down to an altar where locals arrive for prayer and blessings from the local monk. The caves over on the left-hand side aren’t the most impressive but worth a quick look! It is dark and there are bats! Head right for more Buddhist alters, a giant Reclining Buddha and another cave where we saw a number of kids approach a Buddhist nun for blessings and prayer.
We took the opportunity to sit out of the way and enjoy some lunch while we subtly watched the prayers taking place at the outdoor altar.
Walk back up the Pkarslar Cave stairs and follow the signs upwards for that viewpoint we were talking about. There are chairs and places to sit and chill – also another ideal picknick spot.
Fully satisfied, we jumped back on our bike and headed to ground level for the main show.
Further down from the main ticket office, where we originally drove into Phnom Sampeu, is where you will spot the bats.
Vendors will line up chairs facing the cave entrance, and if you grab a drink you can take a seat. Fresh coconut, water and soft drinks cost $1, large beers cost $1.50. We bought a fresh coconut and shared it between us as it was huge!
Note: When picking your seat and prepping the camera, the 1 million or so Asian Wrinkle-Lipped bats fly out, up and towards left. Make sure to get a seat from around 5 pm for the best view, the bats usually fly out around 5.30 pm. It really is incredible to see! The flight continues for over 25 minutes which makes us believe there are way more than 1 million, at least 3 million for sure!
Note: If you do go on a tour, ask what time the tour will show up at the bat caves. We noticed two different tours arrive after 6 pm when the bats had died down and it wasn’t as spectacular. We also noticed a number of tours leave early so just triple check (another benefit to visiting on your own time!)
We thoroughly enjoyed the hour spent watching these little squeakers take off like a Bat Out of Hell, and thankfully left with no bites.
Ah the famous Battambang bamboo train, what a laugh even if it is nothing but a tourist attraction. A cheap and fun little adventure that will give you a wonderful introduction to the method locals once used in order to commute and transport goods.
We quickly discovered that Battambang has two bamboo trains, one that has been built quite recently and is more modern than the original bamboo train. It lies between Phnom Banan Wat Temple Ruins and the Phnom Sampeu hill. Fitted with luxurious leather seats on the train and built on what looks like a manmade rollercoaster track, the flashy train station alone was enough to turn us away. We wanted something a little more traditional and authentic.
A more comfortable and luxurious version, unless sitting with no back support is something you can’t handle, we suggest visiting the “original” bamboo train, around 6 km outside of the city.
Both bamboo train options are priced at $5, however, the “original” bamboo train’s 20 km round trip is through the countryside, passing by fishing lakes, farms, rice fields and local villages. So, of course, we went there instead.
Known locally as ‘the norry’, the train was prepared upon our arrival as we met our driver and jumped on board. Flying down the dusty train tracks at 40 km per hour (at least!) the touch of wind is a nice welcome to the sun-exposed journey. No more than four people per train, we (and other couples we saw) got to enjoy ‘the norry’ all to ourselves.
Our favourite part was those moments of near collision. Only one train can travel down the track at a time. This small game of chicken ends with the dismemberment of one tourist-packed train which is then swapped and put back together. Within seconds – it is unbelievable!
We learned that it was the French who built the railroad which runs from Phnom Penh all the way up to the Thai border. Of course, during Cambodia’s dark years, the Khmer Rouge took control and banned the use of the tracks – yet another tactic to alienate Cambodia from the rest of their world.
Even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and right up until the 1990s, guerrillas would place mines all along the train route. This resulted in frequent attacks which meant the trains had to be fitted with large and long wooden platforms that were placed in front to trigger the mine before it could blast the main carriage.
In the early 1980s, those who survived the Khmer Rouge developed the bamboo trains. Made from literal remains of Cambodia’s recent conflicts, wheels and axels were taken from old military vehicles and covered with a flatbed of bamboo. Topped with a motor, usually from a bike or boat, all connected using a large rubber band. And voila – the bamboo train was born.
At the end of the line, the train stops and waits for 5 minutes those five minutes being surrounded by local kids looking to sell $1 bracelets. Although persistent and somewhat invasive, the kids are adorable and very sweet to chat to. They will eventually accept your “no, thank you” but remember to remain polite.
The original bamboo train is about 6km from the centre, you can haggle and hire a tuk-tuk which will wait for you – we walked the 6 km and did so in 1 hour and 20 minutes, we do love to walk. It was actually a really enjoyable walk; we used Maps.me to direct us.
Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus School
We didn’t get to visit the Battambang Circus School but our friend Kelly spoke very highly of it and so we wanted to give it an honourable mention.
While slightly cheaper than the circus shows in Siem Reap, the school here in Battambang is where the kids come to train. Kelly mentioned that because these kids are still training, be mindful that there may be one or two little mistakes during the show.
Tickets cost $14 and shows are held twice per week – see here for the schedule.
Another unique quirk is that you can visit the Circus School grounds and see the kids train, learn new tricks and practice their stunts. There is a guided tour every day from Monday to Friday at 9 am, 10 am, 2.30 pm and 3.30 pm for $5 or only $3 per person if you buy a ticket to their circus show.
There are really cheap local places to eat at the market close to the guesthouse. You have to pass this market to go to the centre so you won’t miss it. Along the market, look out for the stalls with the pots all stacked on a table outside. This may look dodgy as hell but we ate here nearly every night, loved the food, and didn’t suffer at all as the food is freshly cooked every day.
Curries, fish dishes, meat dishes and vegetables with rice, you won’t pay more than $1 for a plate. Just head over open the pots, have a nose and pick what dish you would like. It is extra for two choices.
At night, the streets outside the Battambang market turns into a food market. Along the river, you will find Jing Jing’s (the one furthest from the water and directly facing the entrance to the main market) which is one of the cheapest places to eat and has vegetarian options.
On the corner of Street 121 and Road No. 2.5 from around 2-8 pm, there is a small selection of food stalls, all very reasonably priced and with English speaking servers.
Know that your money goes to helping these young kids of Battambang train and potentially make a living from their talents. We were slightly raging we didn’t get to experience this so do let us know how you get on.
So Battambang turned out to be an amazing funfilled stop, full of quirky things to do and see, as well as a nice reminder of why we love to travel this way, being able to swing of the “trail” when someone tells us about a place we hadn’t even heard of.
We highly recommend you take the time to get to know this fantastic little city.
If you want to know more and fancy a bit of a giggle you can check out our Instagram highlights here.
And as always please feel free to get in touch if you need any more information or have any questions.
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