After spending a month in Siem Reap I took a local bus to see the up-and-coming tourist destination of Battambang, Cambodia. The sleepy place is actually Cambodia’s second largest city after Phnom Penh, the capital of the country. Battambang has a lot to offer for those who enjoy slow travel, authentic cultural experiences, and educational sightseeing. To really embrace slow travel catch the 8-hour riverboat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang and float past rural villages and memorable vistas of Cambodia’s nature. Once you arrive, this is how to spend a day in Battambang, Cambodia.
WHERE TO STAY IN BATTAMBANG
I loved my stay at the Royal Hotel in Battambang. The WiFi was questionable but the bed was incredible, I got some of the best sleep of my life! Apparently, there’s also a rooftop hot tub but I missed the memo on that and never enjoyed it.
Check availability and prices of accommodation options in Battambang.
WHAT TO DO IN BATTAMBANG
There are several group sightseeing tours for Battambang on GetYourGuide and Viator but I had limited time and knew which places I wanted to visit. I opted to do a self-organize Battambang countryside tour with a local tuk-tuk driver in order to put my money back into the community and have flexibility with my schedule. I spent the day visiting local temples, a killing field, and a preserved cultural house that were all in close proximity to each other.
EK PHNOM TEMPLE
I was eager to visit the Ek Phnom Temple (GoogleMaps) to see the massive white stone Buddha that stands beside a crumbling Angkorian Hindu structure from the 11th-century. The experience really lived up to my expectations. The temple grounds are also home to a monastery and beautiful lake filled with lotus followers and rice paddies. It was such a serene place that I was very surprised not to see any other tourists there.
WAT SAMRONG KNONG TEMPLE AND KILLING FIELD
Some consider it dark tourism and unethical but I find it to be our duties as travelers to learn about all aspects of a country’s history — even the events that make us upset. I wasn’t ready to visit the killing field in Siem Reap during my time there but I wanted to prepare myself before going in Phnom Penh which is why I decided to first visit the Samrong Knong Killing Field (GoogleMaps) in Battambang, Cambodia.
I was so grateful for my guide who spoke frankly with me about the Khmer Rouge regime during the genocide which started in 1975 — and the group’s current power over the country. He shared with me horrific details of his family members experiences during the Khmer Rouge and that he fears another cleansing will happen in the next 5 years due to the current political climate in Cambodia. He is well educated and proficient in English, he could likely get a job in a neighboring country, but he can’t stand the idea of leaving his family behind.
The temple compound of Wat Samrong Knong has two large Buddhist pagodas. There’s an ancient 300-year-old wooden structure and a shimmering modern temple. The juxtaposition is deeply representative of the painful history of the complex. The wooden temple was the most sacred place in Battambang — that is until the Khmer Rouge used it as a women’s prison. A method of control that the Khmer Rouge used over the public was the abolishment of Buddhism which is why they torture civilians in the very place they once worshipped Lord Buddha.
A few steps away is a large memorial stupa. Usually, these structures are erected to hold the ashes of Buddhists who’ve passed away. The Khmer Rouge killed around 3 million people with most of the victims being disposed of in mass graves. It was impossible to identify bodies and provide a proper burial so the Khmer people began to gather their bones to lay them to rest together in gigantic stupas. Hundreds, if not thousands, of skulls of the victims neatly line the glass windows of the structure — a haunting reminder of one of the most recent human rights atrocities on Earth. Many of the people were beheaded as only skulls were found in the nearby lily pond known as the Well of Shadows.
Carvings along the stupa seem to be depicting nightmares — humans being torn apart, babies being smashed, and more occurrences of torture that are too horrific to recount here. These aren’t warnings of hell. Their diagrams meant to tell visitors about the trauma the Khmer Rouge soldiers carried out on their own people — their neighbors, family, and friends.
DRAGON PEACE GARDEN
The Naga for Peace and Development (GoogleMaps) was created with guns collected from citizens of Battambang. The weapons were destroyed in a demonstration for peace about a decade ago. Artists then took the guns to create the naga or dragon for peace. The beautiful statue commemorates the Khmer people’s dedicated to breaking away for their violent past and hopes of a more peaceful future.
THE BAMBOO TRAIN
Many people head to Battambang for one experience — the bamboo train (GoogleMaps). I was down to do this myself until I got there and realized the whole thing had become quite commercialized and inauthentic. The ride just takes you a couple of hundred meters up and down the rail line making it laughable that Lonely Planet considers this to be one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys. You’ll be able to enjoy the Battambang countryside from your tuk-tuk, trust me!
If you have more than a day in Battambang, Cambodia pay a visit to the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus school which trains performers for the excellent Phare Circus in Siem Reap. Responsible travelers will want to join one of Backstreet Academy’s many community-based experiences in Battambang, Cambodia such as a Khmer cooking class or a sunrise tour to the bat caves.
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