One year ago, I hopped on a plane in Los Angeles, California and flew to Cambodia. I was flying halfway across the world to work as the communications manager for an artistic NGO in a town called Battambang. I had never heard of Battambang before this. My decision to move to Cambodia was based on only vague, happy memories of my time as a tourist there in 2014.
Naively, I thought my 2 weeks spent volunteering in Kampong Cham in 2014 had prepared me for a permanent move to Cambodia. I thought I knew what to expect, thought I knew what would happen in the coming year. I foolishly believed that after a year and a half in Korea, a year in Peru, and six months backpacking Asia, I would now be immune to culture shock. I expected my life in Cambodia to be easy, happy, and perfect.
Yeah, well, obviously I was wrong. Adapting to life in Cambodia proved to be quite the challenge. The language barrier was my first major obstacle. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on my Spanish while living in Peru. Suddenly, going to the markets to buy vegetables was a herculean task. Even communicating with my new landlord was tricky.
Then there was the job itself. I was thrown right into the thick of it, arriving at the NGO only 1 month prior to our largest event of the year: the Tini Tinou International Circus Festival. With no training and no overlap with my predecessor, I had to hit the ground running in a situation for which I was woefully underprepared.
The list goes on. I struggled to find a social group I liked, I found myself hanging out with Khmer and French people, my mind exhausted by the lack of English. Learning to communicate cross culturally in Cambodia was daunting and I shudder to think of all the culturally insensitive things I must have said and done in those early months.
But eventually, slowly, the dust settled. I found friends, both foreigner and Khmer, who I love. I bought a motorbike and took long drives out into the countryside. And over the last 12 months, Battambang has shifted from being an intimidating and noisy foreign city, to being my home.
And on that note, I want to go through some of my favorite things about Battambang.
The Battambang Circus
Okay, to be totally honest, this is where I work. And while all NGO’s have their issues, the programs that are run by Phare Ponleu Selpak are some of the coolest I have ever seen. Phare is an art school that began in the refugee camps during the war with the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s. In the 90s, the school opened in Battambang, offering art therapy through drawing. But it grew and grew, and today they have classes in circus, theatre, music, dance, fine art, graphic design, animation, and more. I know, pretty crazy, right?
Did I mention all those classes are free?
One of the ways the NGO funds these classes are through weekly circus performances. The shows are put on in a big top on campus, and performed by the top level students of the circus program. The energy and spirit during these shows is contagious. You can’t help but gasp and cheer along as they defy gravity in front of your eyes. It is some of the most inspiring performance art I’ve ever seen. It’s clear they absolutely love what they are doing.
The top students can go on to perform at the professional circus, Phare The Cambodian Circus, up in Siem Reap.
If you’re coming to Cambodia, I can’t emphasize enough what a cool experience this circus show is. You won’t find anything else like it.
Visiting the Countryside
Over the last year that I’ve lived here, I’ve slowly come to appreciate how stunningly beautiful the Cambodian countryside is. If you’re lucky enough to visit Cambodia in October or November, be prepared to be awed by the vivid green of fertile rice fields, and the deeper color of the lush jungle in the distance. Waking up to watch the sunrise across the rice fields is an especially beautiful treat.
Battambang is, in my humble opinion, one of the best cities in Cambodia for countryside views. Known as the rice bowl of Cambodia because of its especially fertile soil, the countryside is filled with rice fields, quaint villages, and beautiful temples.
To get this countryside experience, the best way is by renting a moto or bicycle and going out to explore. If you want an organized experience, the best people in town to go to are Soksabike. Their countryside tour will take you to visit families keeping traditional livelihoods alive, and will take you through some of the most beautiful hidden streets of Battambang’s countryside villages.
But if you’re in town for a few days, definitely rent a moto, Ke over at Choco l’art has a few, and take some time to just get lost.
Quietly Stunning Temples
Battambang has applied to be a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of the main reasons for that is its plethora of temples. Some sources claim there are over 1000 around the city, and if you take a day or two to explore, it really feels like that might be true. Turn down any side street, and pretty soon, you’ll see the ornate gateways and golden stupas rising up behind an Angkor Wat inspired gateway.
The town also has a few ancient temples, built around the time of Angkor Wat. The three easiest to find are Banon Temple, Ek Phnom Temple, and Baset Temple. Banon is easily my favorite and the most beautiful, situated on top of a mountain. Climb the 6000 stairs (I exaggerate) to visit its towers and get a nice view of the countryside. Before you leave, follow a path around the base of the mountain to find a sacred cave. There are usually a few locals around to give you a brief tour and bless you with the holy water that drips out of the hanging stalactites. Entrance to the temple and caves is $2.
Ek Phnom and Baset temple are much smaller. Ek Phnom is popular with tourists, located 10km down a winding road through tropical villages north of town. Entrance is only $1, and you can also see a giant Buddha statue. Baset temple is little known to most tourists, so you’ll probably be the only foreigner there. Entrance is free and it’s a nice place to chill out and people watch.
When it comes to modern temples, take your pick. Wat Sampov is the most popular with tourists, and includes the gruesome killing caves and bat cave extravaganza.
Coffee Shops, Art, and Architecture
The center of town is reason enough to visit Battambang. In Siem Reap you can’t walk around the city without being harassed by tuk tuk drivers and opportunistic shopkeepers. The opposite is true in Battambang. Locals know that you’re a tourist, but they figure if you need help, you’ll ask. You don’t get harassed, and you’re free to explore at your leisure. Tuk tuk drivers will call out to you, but just once.
All the buildings in the town center have a French Colonial aesthetic, and in the mornings or late afternoons, a stroll through the streets can be extremely pleasant. Don’t walk around at midday. Only crazy people do that. Midday is for hammocks.
The stroll can also include a tour of the many art galleries in town, including Romcheik 5, Maek Make Art Space, and Tep Kao Sol. The gentlemen at Bric a Brac have a handy map for taking a self tour, and they’ve got a great wine selection after 5pm, as a bonus.
Battambang also has a pretty great coffee scene, thank god. If you’re into Cambodian street coffee, well, take your pick. Khmer or Vietnamese coffee loaded up with condensed milk and sugar, it ends up tasting like a chocolate shake, in my opinion. But if you’re looking for hand roasted espresso, head to one of the Noi Cafe carts around the central market, or the considerably more expensive (but also more relaxing) Kinyei Cafe.
Runners Up: Bamboo Train, Swimming Pools, City Parks, Pailin
There are so many things I love about Battambang, honestly, it was difficult to write this post. The bamboo train is a fan favorite with tourists. The only reason it didn’t get a write up here is this: the government is rebuilding the train lines from Phnom Penh to Battambang, and dismantling the Bamboo Train. They’ll set it up again in a new location, but the local government will take over running it (and take all the proceeds). Currently, the local villagers run it and its a great way to support local livelihoods. In a few months, not so much.
Okay, my other highlights of my life here include spending weekends at gorgeous tropical swimming pools like the one at Battambang Resort ($5 for the day), walking around the city parks on the river after 5pm, where the locals have open air dance classes that I’ve never been courageous enough to join. I believe it costs 1500 riel (30 cents). And lastly, a road trip out to the mountainous region of Pailin, which deserves its own blog post.
Okay, that’s probably enough to be going on for now. If it isn’t clear, I’ve fallen completely in love with Battambang over the last year here. From the gorgeous countryside, ideal bicycling, incredible art scene, and the pretty chill expat vibe… I sometimes think Battambang is becoming my own hotel california.