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Cambodia: Backpacking through Battambang and its stunning surrounds

The temples of Angkor, the defining masterpieces of the Khmer Hindu and Buddhist kings who levelled the jungles to build their grandiose places of worship, make Siem Reap the destination of choice for travellers to Cambodia.

Those with a bit more time, however, might consider taking the boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, which is currently evolving from provincial town to fledgling backpacker destination. The trip provides a fascinating look at the people, flora and (occasionally) fauna that occupy Cambodia’s lakes and rivers.

Boat Trip
The waterways of Cambodia are home to about 25 percent of the country’s 14.5 million people. They live and work on or next to the great lake Tonle Sap and its many tributaries in the centre of the country. To the west lies the massive Mekong River.

Entire communities live in floating villages, whose accommodation ranges from rudimentary houseboats to floating houses complete with satellite TV and decorative exteriors. Men fish, women mend nets and babies swing in hammocks, while entrepreneurial types in shop-boats ply the river from village to village, their craft laden with tinned and dried goods. A prosperous looking church, topped with a Catholic cross, bobs at the centre of one river hamlet.

 

The journey follows narrow waterways, apart from a brief interlude across the western tip of Tonle Sap, and passes rice paddies and wetland marshes thick with tropical foliage. It took around eight and a half hours to complete, and considering the cramped conditions of the narrow fibreglass boat, might best be avoided by those who have young children with them, or who need their creature comforts.

Battambang: Eat and Sleep
Battambang may well become the next stop on the backpacker “banana pancake trail”, but it is still very much a provincial Southeast Asian town. The centre is dusty and crumbling, though the area around the central market does have a buzz about it.

There are some jewels to be found, though, as the steady drip-drip of the tourist dollar has seen some great little places spring up. The pearl among these is La Villa (lavilla-battambang.com), a restored 1920s French colonial villa that retains much of its original charm. La Villa is roundly recommended as the place to stay in town. The restaurant is a popular hangout for Francophone expatriates and locals and the menu reflects this with a mixture of French and Cambodian dishes. There isn’t a massive selection, but what they do is excellent, be it pâté and toast, Khmer curry or possibly the best steak frites in Asia, and at a reasonable price too.

Cheaper places to eat include White Rose, serving satisfying fare such as big, comforting bowls of noodle soup. The nearby Gecko Café rents out bikes and motorbikes, while its upper level has a nice big corner balcony, perfect for people-watching. It serves burgers, burritos and curries, plus some fantastic fruit juices and shakes.

Outside of Town
The main attraction of Battambang is the surrounding countryside. It is National Geographic, picture-postcard stunning. Rent a motorbike or bicycle from Gecko Café (US$2-3 for a bike, US$15 for a motorbike) and explore on your own. To the south there is the bamboo train, an ingenious local invention – flat homemade bamboo rail cars powered by an outboard engine that ferry goods, and increasingly tourists, along the rail lines in and out of Battambang.

Around 12 kilometres to the north of town is the 11th-century temple Wat Ek Phnom.It is possible to hire a tuk-tuk to get there, though the bicycle ride is easy enough on flat roads that follow the river through relatively prosperous villages. The ride is punctuated by cheery “hellos” from beaming and furiously waving children; racks of rice paper, the white ovals drying in the sun; and gaudy temples and monasteries that have been rebuilt and repopulated by saffron-robed and shaven-headed monks after the depredations of the Khmer Rouge.

The first sight of Wat Ek Phnom is a massive statue of the Buddha that rears above the trees. The original temple is largely in ruins, although a few details remain of Sanskrit script etched into the walls and an odd example of the Hindu-inspired art of the Angkorian Empire’s stonemasons. Nearby is the newer temple; step inside to see its ceilings, painted with garishly colourful scenes of the Buddha’s life.

 

Moving on from Battambang, either to Siem Reap or Phenom Penh, is possible either by boat, bus or taxi. Boats are slow, but the roads are recently improved and comfortable.

If you’re stuck for ideas or need directions, Battambang’s tourist office, on the road south out of town, is excellent. Friendly, genuinely eager-to-help staff will happily provide suggestions, draw up an itinerary, and mark out places of interest on their photocopied maps.

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