Updated: Jul 26
Battambang is a city less travelled blessed with atmospheric colonial architecture and a relaxed friendly outlook
Battambang (pronounced ‘Ba-tam-borng’) is the capital of Battambang province, and as the third largest city in Cambodia a central hub for the Northwest of Cambodia connecting to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and - through the Poipet land border-crossing - Thailand.
Straddling the Sangkae River the city is shaped by its French colonial architecture, which is the best-preserved in Cambodia. The city is walkable with the central market acting as hub for laid back cafes and small restaurants, and circuit of the centre crossing the two river bridges and circumnavigating the market takes about 90 minutes at an ambling pace.
Established by the Khmer Empire in the 12th century, Battambang became a French colonial boom town and much of its storied architecture later survived the privations of the Khmer Rouge. Today the town persists as a regional hub and stop-over for visitors arriving overland from Thailand.
2. Getting there
Battambang is due west of the Tonle Sap Lake around 3 hours in a car from Siem Reap, and the Thai Border at Poipet further to the west is around 2 hours' drive away. Built on the Sangkae River and Battambang is an important regional hub for agriculture and the city fades out into idyllic scenery, particularly along the southerly river route towards the ancient Banan temple.
Battambang can be reached by road, rail and seasonally from Siem Reap by tourist boat minivan combination. By taxi or minivan Battambang is around 3 hours from Siem Reap and 6 hours from Phnom Penh. The roads are reasonable, although National Road 5 to Phnom Penh is new and there are fewer services catering to western appetites in the section between Battambang and Krong Kampong Chhnang), which is a little over half of the distance. Railway travel in Cambodia is known to be slower but can be explored by visitors looking forward to the experience of travelling by rail in Cambodia.
Travelling to Battambang by road
Travelling by minivan is cheap and convenient - we like travelling by Larryta Express - and tickets can be sourced though Camboticket (tickets are around US$9 to Siem Reap and in the region of US$12 to Phnom Penh). If travelling as a party or with children, or simply seeking more comfort we were able to arrange a comfortable private taxi from Siem Reap for US$50 and to Phnom Pehn for USD85 (one way), and we consider these prices to be competitive. It is worth shopping around for taxis at the local travel booths and travel shops because hotels and luxury tour operators may add a chunky booking fee.
Battambang is supported by a small regional airport but at the time of writing there are no regular flights available.
3. See and do
Around the town
Recreationally Battambang town itself is best described as a chill out destination with cool cafes, cocktail bars and small restaurants spoking out on the streets around the central market. There is a casualness to the pace of life in the town relative to the busy tourist centered Siem Reap and the antitheist to the traffic and hustle of Phnom Penh.
Complimenting the picturesque colonial facades are green spaces along the river with benches and small playparks for kids, which differentiate the town centre from most other towns in Cambodia, particularly the capital.
Out and about
Although not a firm fixture on Southeast Asia's tourist circuit like Siem Reap, Battambang offers several exceptional attractions and activities in the surrounding area. All of the below attractions are within tuk-tuk distance, and we were able to hire a knowledgeable driver cum guide with a large remorque style tuk-tuk for around 15 dollars for half a day.
Battambang Bamboo Train
The famous Battambang bamboo railway is an unforgettably authentic experience requiring only a couple of hours. Originally a working freight system, these simple portable trains are a combination of abandoned tank parts, bamboo mats and a small 2 stroke engine that is held in place by the driver.
For a about 15 US dollars a small group can a bamboo train ride on the actual working train line through the serene and breathtakingly beautiful Cambodia countryside, stopping off at a shaded cafe next to the tracks for a cold coconut before heading back along the same route.
While on the train it is important to use sunblock or opaque clothing to protect exposed skin from the sun, and to consider tipping the drivers because it's hot work.
An 11th century 'mountain top' temple Phnom Banon is around 40 minutes tuk-tuk south along the river from Battambang. Be mindful that there are 458 steep steps to get to the top (the path to heaven is not easy!) and there are no services at the top of the climb, but the temple at the top is well maintained and offers an unparalleled view of the surrounding countryside. There are concessions for food and water at the site, and we were able to borrow umbrellas for a couple of dollars when it rained a little during our ascent.
There are 3 rope suspension bridges across the Sangkae River - the construction of which was supported by NGOs, one of which can be crossed as part of the trip down river towards Wat Banon. We liked it so much we used a photograph as the cover image for our website destination-cambodia.com.
On the way to Phnom Banon are several authentic Khmer houses, some of which are over one hundred years old and open to the public. At the suggestion of our tuk-tuk driver, we were shown around by the proprietor - a venerable Khmer gentleman and given a full tour (in French language) for a modest donation. There are several interesting pieces of colonial era furniture in the house, which is worth seeing, and it is a unique opportunity to learn some local history firsthand.
4. Live and work
Battambang is a full-service town with an estimated population of around 120,000 souls, with reliable national road connections to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap - and Thailand. Despite this, Battambang remains a picturesque town with a laid-back vibe, which is easily navigable on foot, by bicycle or by moto. It is far from difficult to imagine kicking-back in this town to relax for an extended period. In addition, the city offers a range of accommodation options, and the price of food (especially eating out) is much more affordable than Phnom Penh.
Longer term visitors should be aware that both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh offer more comprehensive specialist medical care for foreigners through the private hospitals in those locations.
However, in terms of work - although there is a small, vibrant hospitality sector which clearly has some expat ownership interest - the range and quantity options for foreign expat workers seeking employment options on the ground in Battambang is much diminished relative to the tourism hotspot of Siem Reap and the commercial and business capital Phnom Penh.
For its size and footfall Battambang has an abundance of cafes and other hangouts suitable for freelance working, and the internet connectivity is equivalent to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. While creative types might find the ambience of Kampot Town with its established writer and art community more social, Battambang is an attractive alternative for those who are working location agnostically.
5. Eat, drink, and stay
There are a few places that we can recommend in Battambang:
The Pomme, Battambang
Centrally located the Pomme is a chilled bar-restaurant with a great atmosphere and tunes. Freshly prepared Western and Khmer food options are well priced, and the beer is cold and fresh with in-house craft beer options. Comfortable and relaxed enough for a laid-back workspace during the day and good for lunch, the Pomme livens-up as a popular meeting place at sundown and an ambient evening venue. Regular live music slots at weekends.
Located on the riverside south of the central market, Cafe Eden is a enclosed air-conditioned venue open for breakfast and until 9pm, which is equally comfortable for a family meal or an informal business meeting. Food options range from Khmer to western cuisine including Mexican menu options. With air-conditioning, fast internet and even a meeting room upstairs, this venue is also equipped as a effective workspace for freelancers and others looking to quiet space with comfortable ambience and good coffee to get some work done.
For shoppers Cafe Eden also houses a range of locally produced arts and crafts and clothing which is tastefully positioned around the restaurant.
La Pizza Battambang
Tasty woodfired pizzas, craft beer, and cocktails served in a trendy well-appointed restaurant with inside and outside seating just across the river from the centre of town. The restaurant has a friendly outlook, and the service is flawless: La Pizza is an accommodating for anything ranging from a quiet drink to a birthday party.
La Villa is a colonial era mansion and an adjoining pool house with only seven large guest rooms replete with original fittings and eclectic period furniture. Serving a hearty continental breakfast, the manager and staff provide exceptional service, and a restaurant is available for lunch and dinner service, and it is worth stopping here for a coffee simply to absorb the outstanding collection of original photographs, maps, and paraphernalia.
When were we here?
We last visited Battambang in May 2022 towards the end of the dry season and visited all the locations featured in this article around that time.