Want to see the real Cambodia? Come to Battambang. While Battambang is the second largest city in Cambodia, it still isn’t a destination that often makes it onto the traveler bucket list. There are no white sand beaches or boozy pub crawls, but rather, Battambang is a city full of ancient temples, unspoiled local culture, and arguably the best Cambodian food in all the land.
Only about a 3-hour bus ride from Siem Reap, Battambang makes for a fun stop over before you head down to Phnom Penh. While it’s a city of 250,000 people, it’s still got that small town charm that entices you to rent a bicycle or a moto and just explore. Pack a backpack for the day and go on a excursion to discover side-of-the-road food stands, wander bright green rice fields, explore old country dirt roads, venture over to some ancient temples and then pop into a coffee shop for an artisan latte. Life here is slow and laid back- as most places worth seeing usually are.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Battambang:
1. Kayak through Villages and Countryside
The riverside of Battambang is where many locals have set up house. However, many of these houses are quite different to ones that you’ve seen before. What is essentially a neighborhood on water, you’ll see houses on stilts over the water which locals use to fish, swim, and wash their clothes.
During your water adventure, you’ll also go downsteam into the countryside where you’ll kayak along rice fields with farmers busy at work, dense rainforests giving off a cool breeze.
Rent your kayaks through Green Orange Kayaks, a NGO school who uses the proceeds to fund the local children’s education. Your tour will include steady kayaks, paddles, life jackets, and a friendlt English speaking guide.
2. Phsar Nath Market
Battambang’s most recognizable and central landmark is the Phsar Nath Market- otherwise known as the Central Market. Built in the 1930’s by French architects, this market has a distinct design that sets it apart from all other buildings in the area. You’ll find French style shop fronts and ceilings that you certainly wouldn’t expect to find in small-city Cambodia.
The market serves as the main hub for locals to buy and sell all sorts of produce. Like most Cambodian markets, you’ll find wet sections with fresh seafood and hanging raw meat, and dry sections with fresh fruit and dried seafood. There are lots of flavors, smells, and sights to be taken in. Go in the morning to see the peak of the excitement.
3. Visit the Well of Shadows
As you first approach the Well of Shadows, it might look like another beautiful golden pagoda with spirals reaching towards the sky. But look at little closer and you’ll see that this pagoda serves a deeper purpose.
The Well of Shadows stands to memorialize the lives brutally lost during the Khmer Rouge. This monument is not for the faint of heart, as you’ll be greeted by human skulls and bones – many with visible gunshot holes- encased in a large glass box.
Below them are relics depicting the horrors that took place during this dark time, including torture and killings.
To get there, ride your bicycle or motorbike along the east side of the Sangkar River and you’ll meet the Well of Shadows approximately 6 kilometers north of Battambang.
4. Go on a Free Walking Tour
Yes, free. The walking tour leaves from the Central market, (also called the Phsar Nath Market) at 4pm when the weather is cool. Your tour guide takes you around the central area pointing out French architecture and historical sites, while bringing you by some yummy fruit stands and local shops. You don’t have to buy anything and no one will pressure you, but it’s all part of the fun to sample some treats and this is how they can make the tour free.
You’ll finish your walk at around 6pm, just in time to ask for dinner suggestions. This free walking tour is a great way to get acquainted with the city and will give you points of reference for the rest of your time in Battambang.
5. Hike to the Killing Cave
Tie your sneakers up tight and head off on the gorgeous mountain trail where monkeys wander, birds sing, and swarms of bats fly near sunset. You’ll pass peaceful pagodas, monuments, and statues- all leading to a starkly different memorial.
Once you eventually reach the caves, prepare yourself to learn about the horrors that plagues this area during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. As you descend into the cave, you’ll notice the contrast between natural beauty and manmade horror. Once inside, there will be a museum of human bones lining the perimeter of the cave.
Look above through the skylight. This is where the Khmer Rouge murdered innocent families and scholars, then pushing their bodies to fall into the very cave in which you are standing.
6. Ride the Bamboo Train
While Cambodia did have the best intentions of having a fully functioning railway system, they just couldn’t seem to make it happen. The slow trains lacked efficiency and speed, therefore, all train services were suspended in 2009, leaving the tracks totally abandoned.
If there is one thing you should know about the Khmer people it is that they are innovative beyond recognition. So it’s no surprise that they took those abandoned tracks and created their own transport systems.
By building small boat-sized bamboo trains that fits a small family, locals created a way to easily transport people and goods. These “trains” are run manually with a lever and must be taken off the tracks any time two trains encounter one another. Check it out for yourself.
7. Experience Village Life
Go local by supporting local entrepreneur tour guides and the rural villages in the Battambang area. Take a day tour with Savet, a local Battambang guide who is educated, respected, and well known for giving tourists an unforgettable local experience.
Come prepared for a full 9-10 hour day of tuk tuk excursions over bumpy roads and bicycle cruises around small villages. You’ll ride the bamboo train, eat an authentic Khmer lunch, learn how traditional Cambodian handicrafts are made, and interact with locals. You’ll visit the killing caves, witness swarms of bats, and watch the sunset.
The tour is all-inclusive with food, drinks, transport, park fees, and even a hat to keep you cool.
8. Sip at a Winery
Prasat Phnom Banan Winery is your chance to taste a variety of wine like you’ll find no place else. Cambodia’s only winery, this unique vineyard grows their very own organic grapes to make some unique blends.
They grow shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes to make some incredible reds and they also grow a special genus of Black Queen and Black Opal grapes to make a bubbly rose.
To get there, hire a tuk tuk or ride your motorbike 16 kilometers outside of Battambang where you can spend an hour tasting for a small fee.
9. Kampong Pil Pagoda
The adventure starts before you even arrive at Kampong Pil Pagoda. First, you’ll have to cross the long bamboo suspension bridge built over a flowing river which swings with every step. Move aside when daring locals ride their motorbike across and hold on tight.
Once you reach the pagoda, your heart might be racing a bit. A calm wander around the premises is enough to take you back to a peaceful center. A traditional pagoda with a golden roof and white walls, Kampon Pil is totally picturesque. What makes this pagoda unique, however, are the Buddha statues, the Angkorian people sculptures, and the massive reclining Buddha on site.
It’s a colorful place with cheerful energy and lots of photo opportunities.
10. Go on a Cycling Tour
For just around $16, you can spend the day with your own personal bicycle guide who will show you around the countryside of Cambodia where you’ll immerse yourself in Khmer culture and get glimpses of pure natural beauty.
When you bike with Free Cycling Tours, there is a heavy food element that includes stops at different shops and workshops to introduce you to rice paper, banana chips, rice wine, bamboo sticky rice, fish paste, and a local market full of local goods.
In between, you will cycle in the countryside along bright green rice paddies, through small village neighborhoods, and down charming red dirt roads.
By the end you’ll have unforgettable experiences, a full belly, and a new friend. This trip is absolutely a must-do in Battambang.
11. Banan Temple
It’s such a surreal experience to visit this Angkorian temple with overgrown green jungle vines located up a set of eroding olden brick stairs in the middle of nowhere.
Built at the end of the 12th century, it’s a miracle that these structures are still standing. Make your way up the steps of steep stairs leading to a platform with 5 separate buildings that make up this temple.
From the temple, you can see gorgeous views of the Sangker River, palm tree forests, and farming fields of green rice paddies. On clear days, you can also get a view of the crocodile-shaped mountain to the south.
There will be lots of vendors, beggars, and locals selling religious handicrafts along the way.
12. Killing Field at Wat Samrong Knong
It’s a disgrace that happened all over the country. The Khmer Rouge took the most sacred grounds and turned them into killing fields. Wat Samrong Knong is no different.
This pristine temple in Battambang is one of the oldest in the province. Built in 1707, this temple is unlike others that you’ve seen as it has been built with a combination of cement, brick, and wood. These elements combined are so aesthetically pleasing that you could study it all day.
Unfortunately, that isn’t all there is to see here. There is a monument to pay respect to the some 10,000 Cambodians that lost their lives here during the senseless genocide during the Khmer Rouge.
Tip: With monks present at this temple, it’s important to dress modestly.
13. The Cambodian Cheese Factory
Don’t get too excited, there isn’t actually any cheese here. Instead, this “cheese factory” is where fish paste is made. If you are a seafood lover who doesn’t mind the smell of fish, a visit to this factory makes for a pretty interesting excursion.
They call it “cheese” for its creamy yet curdy texture and for it’s pungent smell. Cambodians absolutely love their “cheese” in multiple dishes, as you will learn. On your visit, you’ll get to taste the cheese straight up and will also have the chance to order the cheese in local dishes.
The name of this cheese factory in Battambang is ‘Prahoc Factory’ located 7.5 kilometers north of Battambang.
14. Battambang Circus
Support student artists by joining the audience at Phare Ponleu Selpak, Battambang’s lively circus. Unlike other circuses who get bad reputations for exploiting people and animals, this circus is exactly the opposite. In fact, Phare Ponleu Selpak is run by a Cambodian NGO that aims takes street kids and youth from rough backgrounds, and gives them a chance to learn new forms of art to express themselves and make a living.
The circus performance is full of excitement. There are Angkorian-era dances, acrobatic artists, mind-blowing jugglers, and more. Just two nights a week, make sure to schedule this incredible evening ahead of time.