Every now and again you come across a place that hits all the right spots. My first trip to Cambodia I spent a month in Siem Reap but I wanted a place to go somewhere else before settling into Siem Reap life. When looking at nearby places I discovered the bamboo train, one of the popular things to do in Battambang. That was enough to capture my attention. So off I went to spend a few days in this sleepy city a couple hours from Siem Reap before settling into Siem Reapstu.
By sleepy, I mean local. Battambang has the second largest population in Cambodia yet doesn’t receive many tourists (relatively) with most in a rush to get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh therefore bypassing Battambang.
My first time in Battambang was awesome. So awesome I went back for a second time last year where I planned to stay a month. While I was happy chilling out at Here Be Dragons most of the time, there are some interesting and different things to do in Battambang I really enjoyed which make me a true advocate for people stopping off for a couple days in Battambang when travelling through Cambodia.
Laughs On The One Of A Kind Bamboo Train
This bamboo train is the most popular attraction in Battambang. And the sole reason I needed to visit in the first place. The drive to the ‘train station’ doesn’t take too long as you head out of the city centre on the bumpy roads. On arrival there is no formal process to get a ticket but soon enough you’ve handed over fiver dollars to the ‘train station master’ (it’s not a scam) and are hurtling down the tracks on a bamboo platform attached to wheels. Don’t worry, you get a ‘conductor’/driver who knows how to drive the thing consisting of four wheels, a couple axels and a bamboo platform.
You trundle along rather fast and while it’s not exactly comfortably you’ll be grinning ear to ear with the ever consistent bump from running over the joinery work on the tracks. The view isn’t spectacular but it’s not necessary to make the journey fun and worthwhile.
Now, there is only one track and there’s two way traffic. What to do?
It’s simple, one train simply dissembles their train, moves it to the side of the track and let’s the other train through.
A funny sight to see on its own. The process takes a couple minutes tops, impressive!
When you get to the end of the tracks you’ll be hounded by a couple hustling children who want to sell you knick knacks. They are witty and will pester you but are ultimately harmless like all touts. There’s nothing to see when you get to the end so don’t be afraid to let your driver know you are ready to turn around right away.
Once you get back to the train station, tip your driver if you like. It’s the only bamboo train in the world and your mates will get a laugh from it. They say stressful situations help you remember emotions more, I can still vividly remember hurtling down here! (I also rode along on my second trip to Battambang).
Watch The Procession From The Bat Caves
If you’re looking for your perfect sunset photo from Battambang to post all over social media you’ll get that on your way home from visiting the Battambang bat caves. Minutes before sunset there are a couple of caves where the bats suddenly start awaking from their snooze. Given they’ve just woken up they spend a bit of time amping each other up before the first few bats flutter out and into the dusk to feed for the night. A couple of minutes in and hundreds, probably thousands of bats are flying out every minute.
If you go with DJ (who you can read about below soon), he has permission to go to the ‘better bat cave’ which is a little bit of a climb to get to but you can get really (REALLY) close to the bats! A couple of the other guides will snatch a bat out of the air, don’t encourage them….poor bats just want to go for a feast!
Exploring Phnom Sampeau
Before sunset it makes sense to spend an hour or so heading up the hill to Phnom Sampeau. When you get to the base, you can either walk to the top (not too strenuous) or get a ride on the back of a bike. When you get to the top, there are some impressive temple structures and a killing cave. The killing cave is nothing like the Phnom Penh killing caves but is a good warm up to prepare you for seeing the reality of it all if Phnom Penh is your next stop.
Go To The Winery
Wine and southeast Asia don’t exactly go hand in hand. Spicy food is hard to pair wine with as it is. The scorching temperatures year round don’t exactly help either.
Yet getting to visit a winery in Cambodia was something you can’t pass up if you have any interest in wine at all. Is it a gimmick? No, but the wine isn’t exactly first class so in reality it’s a bit of a gimmick.
When you arrive there is a few wines but the actual vineyard is across the road, but you go to a winery for the tasting only right?
For a couple dollars you can sample the wine, along with a couple other drinks and chat to the owner of the winery (she’s good banter once the ice is broken). You won’t spend much time there but it’s worth popping in not only for the fun, but to encourage the development of grape growing in the region. It’s some years away yet, but just by visiting you help the owner keep working at the process of making better wine and inspires others to look into the possibility.
Sneaky Dip At The Classy Hotel
During the hot season Battambang is hot (yea, I’m Captain Obvious sometimes). What is better than finding a pool to go for a dip? Not a whole lot. What is better is sneaking into said pool . Head around the back of the Classy Hotel pool, act confident and walk on in and enjoy your splish splash. If the staff do say something, it’s up to you whether you tell them the truth or not but just hand them a few dollars and everyone is happy. We were classy at the Classy Hotel several times when chilling out at Here Be Dragons was simply too hot (weren’t caught).
Wandering Around The Cafe Scene
The trickiest part about ‘non-touristy’ cities is finding an array of food options.
Yet the biggest surprise to me was the cafe scene in Battambang. Most of the cafes wouldn’t look out of place in any developed city. As you walk along the streets everything looks pretty rugged with no organisation as you awkwardly switch between walking on the road and footpath. Yet there are modern trendy cafes scattered in here and there all serving up incredible food. Even a range of dishes for vegans like myself.
I had planned to go to most of the ‘hip’ places but found myself returning to two places consistently thanks to the wicked food, atmosphere and people working there. They were Jaan Bai Restaurant and Choco L’Art Cafe.
Bike Tour Through The Villages
I hadn’t ridden a push bike in a long time but jumped at the chance to join my friend Seavyi from Green Lotus Tours for a bike ride into the countryside with a couple other friends I’d met at the hostel. We jumped on the rickety bikes and before long were passing by small villages attracting waves as we cycled by….me managing to go in the right direction despite the handles pointing 45 degrees of course!
Eventually we arrived at a local family Seavyi knew. They were so intrigued with us white skinned tourists and while they didn’t speak any English, Seavyi insisted we could head out the back of the property. When we did there was beautiful fresh produce growing everywhere. We walked around and feasted on fresh papaya, coconut and lotus plants (my first time eating lotus). The whole family came out to hang with us for a bit as we ate away, they were impressed by our skin colour and of course wanted to have a touch of the beard (can’t find this photo sadly).
On the way back we crossed a river on a raft with all our bikes, something different that’s for sure. Overall a great afternoon out with unique experiences and just the right amount of bike riding.
Night Time Street Food
Along the river is a nightly market packed full of interesting street food stalls. When you first arrive it looks pretty filthy with tissues all over the ground, don’t worry it’s a local custom. Keep your eyes up looking at the food. There are at least 20 food carts so with a bit of hunting you’ll find something to satisfy for cravings (with a bonus smoothie of course) for cheap.
Find An Epic Battambang Guide
Let’s be honest, tuk tuk drivers in Southeast Asia don’t have a good reputation. The backpacker scene is full of stories about tuk tuk drivers ripping people off, taking them to the wrong location, being rude and sometimes, even scams.
When you do find one however, it is awesome. Give them love, let fellow travellers know who they are and you’ll be as right as rain.
In Battambang I had the pleasure of meeting tuk tuk driver, guide and now friend DJ.
DJ has been living in Battambang since 1992 after ending his time as a monk and is based out of Here Be Dragons hostel.
He’s been taking tourists around the sites of Battambang for years and knows exactly where, and crucially when to do things in Battambang. The latter is crucial as going to Phnom Sampeau is a waste of time first thing in the morning.
If you want to get in touch with DJ, his phone number is: +855 12255989 and email: [email protected]. He will look after you from arriving in DJ to leaving the city or whatever you would like. Let him know you heard about him through Jub!
Most people arrive in Battambang by bus which can be intimidating with no shortage of tuk tuk drivers hounding you when you get off the bus. Make plans with DJ before you arrive to avoid the whole ordeal!
Other Things To Do In Battambang
- More Temple hopping, there’s plenty to see around the area
- The Battambang Circus (DJ’s son goes here to train and loves it!)
- Sammaki Art Space
- There’s a regular night market a couple days a week in addition to the food market (it’s riverside too)
Battambang is so awesome I even did a crazy 24 hour trip on my second visit. Departed 8pm to get to Phnom Penh. Dropped off my Russian visa application at the consulate and then jumped back on the bus for the seven hour journey back. In theory you only need to stay for a couple days to ‘tick’ off all the things to do in Battambang. Don’t blame me if you find yourself stuck there enjoying life a week later, it really has that ‘Chiang Mai’ addictive feel to it.
Have you been to a lesser visited place that has just clicked for you before?
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