They say that Battambang is the real Cambodia. I heard this phrase so many times during my travels but it only really made sense when I experienced Cambodia's second largest city first-hand. I hadn't even heard of Battambang before I started planning my trip and though the majority of backpackers had heard of it, only a few that I met had even been. This is precisely why it represents the real Cambodia; it's still off the well-trodden route between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, a real city rather than a tourist trap. I only intended to stay for one night but I fell for Battambang's endearing charms, pretty French colonial architecture and laid back lazy days so I had to stay a little longer to soak it all up.
When I stepped off the boat, relieved and disorientated after the long boat journey from Siem Reap, I was jolted awake by a familiar chorus of harmonious voices shouting "hey lady, want a tuk tuk?" at me. I shrugged them off wearily and assumed there would be tuk tuks all over the city. This was actually the first and last time I experienced this in my two day stay in Battambang; tourism is so minimal that tuk tuks are quite rare, you can't just hail one down in the street so it's better to organise transport in advance. I found this blissful after Siem Reap, escaping the tourist-driven hubbub to observe real Cambodian life.
As Battambang was off the beaten path, I stayed at a hotel rather than a guesthouse. Cambodia is incredibly safe but I just felt that I would be more comfortable in a hotel as I was travelling solo. I stayed at the beautiful Bambu hotel - full review in a later post - and was fortunate enough to bump into Pat, the general manager. Pat is from the UK but has been in Battambang for years, he has the best local tips, including the best places to eat in the city.
Taking Pat's tips for my first day, I wandered through the old town taking in the architecture and getting my bearings. In a lot of ways, Battambang is a city without polish. It hasn't been well maintained so buildings and walls are in a bit of disrepair and parts of the city are a little crumpled around the edges. Only the main streets are fortunate enough to have street lights at night, the rest are bathed in darkness. There are rats and they're New York sized, I thought the first one I saw was a cat. Oh and it's only fair to warn you about the cockroaches.
The lack of polish was precisely what made me fall for Battambang, its beauty was in its raw, rough around the edges nature. It didn't try to be cutting edge or cater to tourists, and that was the appeal. With the lack of street lights, the night sky twinkles with so many stars that it looks alive. There are parks with children learning taekwondo and women going for afternoon walks. The markets are all for locals, no tourist tat here. And the 'roaches and rats are more scared of you than you are of them. Maybe. It's the only place in Cambodia that I enjoyed people watching, I felt like I was peeking into real life here.
While I was wandering around, I strolled down 1 & 1/2 street - yes that's its actual name. Right at the end there was a little unassuming café called Kinyei which had scones on the menu. Sold. After ordering a pot of Earl Grey with a generously sized scone, I got chatting to a guy who was there having a coffee. He was from Norway and was curious about why I was there after hearing my accent - see what I mean by the lack of tourism.
He had been in Battambang for a couple of years and worked for an NGO. Due to 50 years of unrest including the civil war and Khmer Rouge regime, there are a ridiculous amount of NGOs in Cambodia – 3,500 at the last count; the only country in the world with a higher number of NGOs per capita is Rwanda. I asked about the lingering effects of the Khmer Rouge and the current economic situation, I mentioned the people who I saw living along the river, he told me they were among the poorest people in the country. Sadly, things like clean water and basic sanitation aren’t commonplace. Beyond the tourism bubble, this is the reality for a lot of Cambodians.
The NGO he worked for helped train and provide skills to Cambodian people, particularly children, to help them escape poverty. The Kinyei cafe was one of their projects and it focuses on enriching the local community. The café provides hospitality training and trainee jobs to local youths from disadvantaged backgrounds - trafficking, forced displacement and extreme poverty. It also hosts Open Space classrooms – ad-hoc peer learning events to encourage the sharing of skills and knowledge. The profits of Kinyei are invested into local, grassroots-led youth projects.
The next night, on Pat's recommendation, I visited Jaan Bai. This was undoubtedly the shining star in Battambang's emerging culinary scene. Another social enterprise project, celebrated Australian chef David Thompson has partnered with restauranteur John Fink and the Cambodian Children's Fund to provide hospitality training and jobs to children living in poverty. The kids working in the restaurant were incredibly sweet and attentive; it's both heartening and disheartening that the restaurant and the work of the CCF was their lifeline. Where would they be if neither existed? This is the bittersweet nature of Cambodia; the unbelievable beauty of the country and its people juxtaposes with the extreme poverty.
This is almost a side note, but the food at Jaan Bai is second to none. I opted for a Thai green curry and an elderflower martini, both of which were absolute perfection. The Thai green curry was by far the best I've had, unsurprising as David Thompson's speciality is Thai, his restaurant Nahm was the world’s first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star.
I experienced the other end of Battambang's culinary spectrum the night before, as I followed Pat's map to the local food market. Picking my way down dark, unlit streets anxiously scanning for anything that resembled a cockroach, I stopped outside a shop every so often to consult the map. I spotted the golden glow of the market from a distance and rushed towards my warm sanctuary and out of the darkness. The street market consisted of between 10-15 food stalls and hundreds of plastic tables and chairs and lots of bright lights. I'd heard rumours of deep fried tarantulas and tried to hunt them down here but the food was all above board so I settled down with vegetable egg noodles and a bottle of water for the princely sum of $2.
Ramshackle, tumble down charm and budding culinary scene aside, Battambang is developing quite an art scene. There is a beautifully colourful mural by local artists on the side of Jaan Bai and a sprinkling of galleries Many restaurants including Jaan Bai and Choco L’art café feature art by local artists on the wall. Choco L’art café, a cute little dessert joint, features pieces by one of the co-owners. Battambang is a thriving, industrious city which feels like a very exciting place to be. It feels progressive and full of change, the arts and the culinary scene are proof of that. But it feels like it's still at the beginning of its journey, making it the perfect time to discover this pocket of real Cambodia before it joins the ranks of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville as a must visit destination.