Surprising Battambang

Ray Zepp, a teacher who has travelled to the far corners of the globe, published the first edition of his Cambodia Less Traveledinsight into the 'other' Cambodia, not usually guidebook in October 1996. The book gives the reader an found in the glossy guidebooks and is a treasure trove of anecdotes and experiences in many off the beaten track places throughout Cambodia. Zepp, now back living in Cambodia after time in Micronesia, has also published A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas and the Pagodas of Siem Reap and in 2001, his latest work Around Battambang. My thanks to Ray for permission to re-print this insight into his experiences in Battambang, Cambodia's second city (from his original edition):

The name Battambang does not conjure up much of an image in the minds of tourists. It is seen as just a provincial city with few tourist attractions. Besides, it is located in the dangerous northwest part of Cambodia and has experienced a few Khmer Rouge mortar and bomb attacks in the not too distant past. I revisited Battambang in late October 1996, a few weeks after the surrender of Ieng Sary and the defection of many Khmer Rouge soldiers. There was hope that the northwest would soon become pacified, so I went off to Battambang to see for myself. I was highly surprised to find a peaceful situation not only in the city itself, but in the surrounding countryside. I was also surprised to find many potential tourist sites in and around Battambang, which were very accessible and safe to visit. Several Angkor-era and pre-Angkor temples are in fairly good nick and are in beautiful rural surroundings. There are quiet rivers and mountains to be seen, all within an hour or so of the city. The local residents go for picnics to all these places with no fear of mines or Khmer Rouge attacks, and schools go for field trips out to the ruined temples.

There is not a whole lot to do right in Battambang city. Tourists will probably want to go outside the city to ruins and other attractions during the daytime, and to relax in the city during the evening. Battambang is a very good city for this. Across the river from the main part of town is the charming old city, called Po Veal. There are three or four wats over there, as well as a lot of colonial houses and other buildings. The action has clearly moved away from Po Veal, as evidenced by closed restaurants and night clubs replaced by a whole string of NGOs. One older wat has an intriguing entrance, while the more modern Wat Po Veal is garish in the extreme, with blue and green monsters and far too many clashing colours. I am surprised there are not more restaurants or places to sit out and watch the river in the evening. It would be lovely to watch the river and the lights on the other side from the peaceful left-bank atmosphere.

A Khmer woman makes rice cakes in her home in Battambang. Photo courtesy of Christine Dimmock.There are many good restaurants in Battambang, frequented by the local populace as well as by tourists. A lot of the better ones are outside the city center and cater to people with wheels. My friends and I spent some delightful evenings across the main bridge at the Sobaynas. We sat outside, but quickly moved out from under the tree, where flocks of sparrows roost for the night. Some local people I know often go north along the river towards Ek Phnom to either Wat Leap restaurant or the Heng Heng. There is also a Pizza Hut, complete with red-roof logo, just across the northern bridge which crosses near the hospital, but it sells ice-cream, not pizza.

Along the river in the evenings are a host of identical tik-alok/drinks stands, which could be one of the nicest things to do in Battambang. I say 'could be' because I was harrassed by dozens of beggars, lunatics and one-legged soldiers, who made the experience less than harmonious. If you can somehow ignore them, the view across the river is beautiful in the evening. Another way to ignore the harrassment is to escape into the Neak Poan, the more up-market outdoor restaurant along the river. Unfortunately, a high fence has been erected around the Neak Poan to keep out the riff-raff, with the effect of completely cutting off the view of the river. The road perpendicular to the river from the Neak Poan is the center of nightlife in the city. there are several nightclubs, karaoke bars, rides for the kids, Thai boxing for aficianados of that bizarre sport, or street benches for just sitting and watching the evening's activities.

Outside the City

It might be wise to stop in at the tourist office for information. It is located in a small office behind the Provincial HQ facing the main bridge. The director speaks adequate English and was very helpful to me. I followed his recommendations and directions and was well pleased with the results. I arrived in Battambang one morning, walked around the town for a while, and visited the Tourist Office when it opened at 2pm. The Director recommended an afternoon trip out to Wat Bassaet, about 20 km from town, and even told my moto driver how to get there. We crossed the river by the middle bridge (no cars allowed), and turned left (north) along the river. It was a beautiful ride along the shady riverbank. There were lots of old colonial houses, as well as some wooden ones. The road is stony and therefore bumpy, but not potholed and very passable in all weather. At Norea, after a Catholic church and the interesting Wat Balatt on the right, the main road turns right, even though a smaller road continues along the river to Prey Trawp. The main road emerges into open rice paddy and goes through a couple of villages before reaching Tapon village, identified by a large wat on the left.

Only a kilometre or two after Tapon is Wat Bassaet, an Angkor-era temple made of sandstone and in rather poor repair. But it is nicely located out in the countryside, and there are a few nice monks around. A few of the reliefs on the lintels are in pretty good shape, but have been recently painted blue and yellow. There are the body-less Reahu monsters on the lintels, showing that the Reahu myth goes back a long way in history. Poking around the temple, consisting of a front shrine and a large temple in run-down condition, is very pleasant in the peaceful rural setting, but it takes only a few minutes to see it all. But as usual, getting there through the countryside is half the fun.

Highway 10 to Pailin has long been regarded as one of the most dangerous in Cambodia. Pailin has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting with the Khmer Rouge, and the town of Treng, halfway to Pailin, changed hands many times during the last few years of the civil war. However, at least as far as Sneng, about 30 km out along Highway 10, the area is now peaceful. Battambang residents have no fear of going out to Phnom Sampeou for a picnic. When I traveled route 10, it was not open to Pailin, but it was considered quite safe and unmined as far as Sneng and even beyond. There was no regular taxi service along the road, but there was plenty of traffic, about half of which was related to demining activities in the form of CMAC deminers and MAG educators. There are no doubt hundreds of thousands of mines in the surrounding countryside, so don't stray off the main paths. One local guy told me he had personally cleared over 1,000 mines in the past year in the Sneng area. The villages are filled with signs warning residents to be careful of mines. That said, I can recommend a day trip out along Highway 10 to several outstanding sites.

Not far from town is a pottery school, where you can see local people making both pottery and bricks. The pottery is supposed to be of the same style as found at Angkor Wat. Experts, including one lady with 37 years ' experience, were brought in from Kompong Chhnang, the capital of pottery-making in Cambodia. You can buy pottery at the site but it is rather pricey. Just after the pottery center is the pretty village of Pi Doung (= 'two coconuts'), the only place I have ever seen pigs willingly jump into a pond and swim across. And why not? All that fat must make them extremely bouyant.

About forty minutes outside of town is the mountain called Phnom Sampeou. You can see it from a long way off, its two pointed pagodas sticking out from the top of the trees. As you come closer, you can see that the mountain is a hige cliff, and so if there is any way to reach the top, it must be on the other side of the mountain. But once you are there, you find that there is a staircase weaving up the face of the cliff - pretty impressive!

For some reason, my moto driver went right through Sneng without stoppping. Even when I asked why he didn't stop at the temple, he said we were going on to Sdaw, about 10 km futher on. I assumed there was something to see there, but when we reached Sdaw, he asked what I wanted to see. I had no idea, but asked whether there was a temple or something. We asked by the side of the road, and were told some Khmer equivalent of "Temple? Nope, no temple round here. Go back to Sneng if you want to see a temple". So we went back to Sneng to see the temples. All of this area beyond Sneng is in the middle of a war zone. The town hall, the only real building in Sdaw, had been blown to smithereens. We saw lots of soldiers and demining trucks heading out towards Treng and Pailin. Sdaw is only a couple of kilometres from Treng, which saw some of the heaviest fighting in the recent war. While we stopped to fix a flat tyre, I chatted with some soldiers, who declared that the guy sitting next to me was a Khmer Rouge, but that this week they had all joined the government side. Despite the war activity, people were constructing new houses and stalls in the Sdaw market, which was very active. So I guess there was a spirit of optimism that peace was at hand.

Ek Phnom is the largest, best preserved, and most beautiful of the Angkor-era ruins around Battambang, and is one of the most accessible - only 11 km from town out along a good road. Go north along the Sanker river on the town side until the main, paved road turns right and crosses a bridge over a smaller stream at a village called Doung Thieu. Don't cross the bridge, but continue along the smaller road to the left of the stream. We stopped for a relaxing cup of coffee at the bridge, and discussed the various signs we had seen along the way, ie. Holiday Barber Shop, the Art of Love Scissors and others.

This beautiful, shady road is almost as worthwhile to visit as the Ek Phnom temple itself. There are more old, colonial homes out this way. There are also many arched, wooden bridges across the stream, many of which have roofs. One village specializes in producing some kind of rice cake, which you can observe as dozens of transparent circles hanging on racks along the road. The next stretch of road specializes in betel nuts. The villagers grow not only the tall, thin areca palms where the betel nuts grow, but also the substance which you mix with the nuts in order to chew to make that awful red juice in your mouth. This grows on bright green-leafed vines, usually planted under or near the palms.

At the village of Peamek is a large, new wat, which we decided to visit, as it looked as though they were preparing for a celebration. Almost all of the windows of the wat had statements of amounts of contributions and letters from the USA. The outside decorations of the wat were rather overdone - pinks and yellows and other gaudy colours, but inside was a real treat with large murals depicting the coming of the French. They were all tied in with religious themes, such as gods introducing the three red-coated French soldiers to the King.

Wat Ek Phnom by Bert HoviusFurther along, the road crosses the stream at a picturesque village called Phum Su Ey. From there it is only a kilometre or so to a new wat on the left. Just behind the wat is Ek Phnom temple. There is no hill (='phnom') to be seen, perhaps the name comes from the fact that the old temples were built to resemble mountains. There are two towers in the complex, surrounded by the original wall, as well as the moat, just as in Angkor Wat (photo by Bert Hovius). This is a sandstone prasat, and so must be from a later period. We saw no Hindu influence in the carvings. The large bodhi trees around the temple, together with the overgrown wall and moats and water lillies, give it a charming serenity.

We poked around the ruins for nearly an hour before heading back to town. We stopped at a couple of other interesting wats near town, one with large elephant statues in front. One statue tells the story (a folk story, not a Buddhist story) of a man who cut off the tusk of an elephant in order to make a bed for a sick princess. The rest of the elephants eventually kill the man who cut off the tusk, but the whole story, as told to us by an old monk, was so long and confusing, we couldn't make out just what it was all about. [I find most Cambodian folk stories confusing in their odd twists and turns, coming to some abrupt end which you didn't expect, like everyone dying or being eaten.] If you have only one day in Battambang and have to choose what to do, I would recommend the trip out to Ek Phnom as the most satisfying.

Another half-day trip, one favoured by Battambang residents as a picnic spot, is out along the river to the south of the city and to Phnom Banan. The moto ride takes less than half an hour, but a car takes a bit less. The road is in pretty good shape, but there are several spots with large potholes. The countryside is more open than the river roads to the north. They wind through villages which specialize in the production of chilli peppers. In the right season (I was there in October) there are millions of chillis spread out along the road to dry. The red peppers spread out on blue canvas in the bright sunshine provides an almost abstract art worthy of a photograph.

There is actually an alternate route to Phnom Banan. Go out to the pottery school on the way to Phnom Sampeou and turn left along a very good road. My colleagues went that way and recommend it, but my moto driver refused to go that way for fear of bandits. From the river road, the temples are hard to miss, as they stick out from a hill on the right. The five towers are arranged as at Angkor Wat - one in the middle, surrounded by four smaller ones. They are made of laterite, evidence of a very early date. My guide, whom I trust as very knowledgeable, said early 9th century, but one travel guide dates it from the 12th or 13th century.

The view from the top is gorgeous. Good photographs can be taken with temples in the foreground and scenic views in the background. To add to the photography variety are red hibiscus bushes, as well as big army guns. The army controls the top of the hill and occupies the temples. One temple is the kitchen, another the lodging for a large gun, and a third contains hammocks where the soldiers sleep. You can also see the road going on and on in the distance towards the mountains, one of which is actually Koh Kong, and the road (they said) is actually shorter in distance to Phnom Penh than the main road. I went out to Phnom Banan on a field trip with a group of 30 festive students. They told me that a few months ago they would have feared coming to Phnom Banan because of the Khmer Rouge but that now, Battambang residents have no qualms about coming out to this beautiful spot for picnics. Still, I wouldn't be poking around the bush off the main path for fear of mines.

The last day of our stay, we noticed a dozen or so boats all decked out in flags and other festive decorations, so we asked what was afoot. It turned out that there was to be a pilgrimage to Wat Peanek up the creek along the Ek Phnom road. This was to honour the American donors who had constructed the wat. There were placards from several cities in the USA which had all contributed money. Thousands of people were making their way upstream for a big Khmer picnic. It seems to me they could market this festival to tourists, who would come to take the boat ride up stream to the beautiful setting at Wat Peanek for the big party.

In conclusion, there is a wealth of things to do in and around Battambang. A week could be spent visiting rural temples and other tourist sites during the day and returning to sample the restaurants and riverside stalls by night. Battambang grew on me during my stay. I began to see it as a city with an identity in its own right, where residents view themselves as Battambangians and are proud of it. The city has its own culture and festivals, such as the pilgrimage to Wat Peanek. Walks along the Po Veal across the river, or along the streams in the outskirts of town, indicate that Battambang has a history and roots which are not felt so much in the ever-changing Phnom Penh. With the opening up of the northwest, the Battambang area is going to blossom. It will become a nice place to live - quieter and probably safer than the capital, as well as an interesting and relaxing place to visit.

Click here and here to read my own travelogues from Battambang in 1999 and 2000 respectively.

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