Battambang – Cambodia’s Colonial Gem

Riverfront Colonial Buildings
Colonial meets country charm at a corner French-era villa along the Sangker riverfront

The road between Saigon and Siem Reap is an over-trodden route in the Banana Pancake Trail. So on our visit, we decided to look for a fresh destination along the way. Instead of heading straight to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh, we detoured to Battambang, west of the Tonlé Sap lake. Lonely Planet recommends it for its architectural heritage, and as a scenic jump-off point to Angkor aboard one of the ferryboats that traverse Southeast Asia’s largest lake. Aside from enjoying the incredible views of communities living around the enormous lake-river system en route, one can leisurely walk down the city’s riverfront amidst the best-preserved French colonial architecture in the country.

Facade Detail
Delicate architectural details of the riverfront shophouses

Despite being the country’s second largest city, Battambang is a far cry from the busy streets of Phnom Penh, retaining much of its small town appeal. For centuries, Battambang was nothing more than a rural riverside settlement of wooden houses, until the French protectorate (1863-1953) developed it into a busy marketplace and administrative stronghold.  “It is one of the most authentic place in the country, as they buildings have not been modified or destroyed so heavily like elsewhere,” explains Stephanie Irmer, Director of Khmer Architecture Tours, who I got to correspond with through email. “The shophouses – streets and streets of homogenously designed shophouses – makes the city special.” The city center has over 800 heritage buildings from the French protectorate up until the period right after the country’s independence. And along a few streets, contiguous rows of heritage buildings form a townscape found no where else in Cambodia. Elsewhere, colonial buildings have succumbed to industrialization, neglect and the communist Khmer Rouge.

Psar Nath Market
Psar Nath, Art Deco central market

Using DIY walking tours designed by Khmer Architecture Tours I found online, we spent our first morning exploring the city’s architectural highlights on foot. The main heritage landmark is Psar Nath, the central public market. Built in 1936, the Art Deco building was designed by the French engineers who built the central markets in Phnom Penh and Saigon. Walking through the market lined with vendors selling heaps of the freshest catch and harvests gives you an indication of the rich natural resources from Battambang’s countryside.

Past the central market, more well-preserved colonial shophouses line the street fronting the Sangker River. The lower levels have been converted to commercial establishments but the upper storeys retain the original architectural elements of pilastered arcades, louvered windows and cast-iron balconies. Along this stretch one can also find an inconspicuous 150-year-old Chinese temple, the oldest structure in the conservation area, and an exquisitely preserved corner French-style villa converted into a bank.

Sala Khaet
Sala Khaet (Lord Governor’s Residence), built
during the final years of the Thai occupation

Further south are a few more noteworthy structures. We stopped by the beautiful Post Office, built from 1907 to 1926, to drop some postcards, before continuing on to the Provincial Museum, inaugurated in 1968, which houses archaeological finds from across Battambang province including Phnom Banan temple. Artifacts on display in the small museum include large statuary and intricately carved lintels.

The last stop on our walk is one of the city’s colonial jewels: Sala Khaet, or the Lord Governor’s Palace, built within the fort during the final years of the Thai occupation (1795 to 1907), when Battambang was ruled by six generations of the Chavfea Baen family appointed by the Thai King. The last governor had a residence built within the fort, hiring Italian architects from Bangkok. The residence was never used, however, and was eventually sold to the French protectorate in 1907. In contrast to the European villa architecture of the main structure, the design of the new main gates, built in the 1990s, are of Angkorian style, inspired more particularly by the temple of Banteay Srei.

There’s more see and do in the outskirts of the city, such as riding the bamboo train (norry) and visiting the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau.

Battambang, Cambodia
View of central Battambang from Chhaya Hotel

HOW TO GET THERE: From Phnom Penh, we caught a midnight bus to Battambang (USD 7, 5 to 6 hours). One can also depart or arrive in Battambang from Siem Reap via the ferryboats (USD 16 to 20) that traverse the lake-river system of Tonlé Sap. Book in advance through a travel agent or your guesthouse. Travel time is 4 to 9 hours, depending on the season. 

For walking routes, check out the DIY walking guides by Khmer Architecture Tours.

Vegetarian Noodles
Eat cheap and healthy at Vegetarian Foods Restaurant

WHERE TO STAY: Chhaya Hotel along Street 3 is a backpacker’s favorite with a central location near Psar Nath, the central market, and the popular Gecko Café. Our triple A/C room with TV, ref, and hot water was only USD 12. Free pick-up at bus terminal, upon our arrival.

WHERE TO EAT: Cheap and healthy eats are to be had at Vegetarian Foods Restaurant, a small Chinese eatery frequented by locals, along La He Street near National Highway 5 (NH5). A bowl of noodles at USD 1.50.  Heartier (but pricier) Khmer meals can be found at Gecko Cafe, housed in a heritage building, across Chhaya Hotel. Mains at USD 4 to 5.

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