Monday, March 21, 2011

Battambang weekend

Travelfish, Mar 21, 2011

It may be Cambodia's second-largest city, but Battambang, a sleepy burg connected to the Tonle Sap by the Sangkor River, retains a unique small-town charm and makes for a great weekend getaway from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Battambang province is steeped in dramatic history, with ownership going back and forth between Siam, Cambodia and the French. In the 90s, the areas around the city were one of the last holdouts of the Khmer Rouge. Despite its turbulent past, Battambang has an allure that's all its own, from the early 20th century French colonial buildings and 1960s Khmer architecture to Cambodian cuisine with a distinct Thai influence.

Dinner at La Villa

Located on the banks of the Sangkor River in a beautifully restored French colonial building from the 1930s, La Villa restaurant offers French, Khmer and Italian dishes in lovely surroundings. Sit by candlelight in the garden, or inside under the gorgeous glass and steel conservatory rooftop where the walls are adorned with photographs and artifacts from French Indochina. You'll delight in some of the best service you'll find in Cambodia and enjoy the specialities of the house including pork with caramel sauce ($6.50) or fillet of fish with a lemon sauce and a side of dauphinoise potatoes ($8.50). The beef lasagna with a garden salad ($6.50) is excellent, and perhaps the highest compliment is that you'll momentarily forget you're in Cambodia while eating it.

La Villa
N 185 Pom Romchek 5 Kom, Rattanak Srok.
T: (053) 730 151

Drinks at Bus Stop

Battambang isn't known for its nightlife, but if you're looking for a few pints to wind down after dinner, stop by Bus Stop. The new owners, Gary, an Australian, and his Khmer wife, pride themselves on having the coldest beers in town, and perhaps the country. Pints of Angkor draft are just $1 and it's a good place to meet other travellers for a chat.

Bus Stop
149 Street 2
T: (053) 730 544, (017) 531 365

Khmer Photo Studio

If you've ever wondered what life would be like as a Khmer princess, start your day at any of the dozens of photo studios in town and spend an hour with the locals getting makeup shellacked on and ridiculously coiffed and ringletted hair. Once the makeover is complete, dress in Khmer formal wear or traditional apsara dance costume for your photo shoot. Pictures cost around $2 each and include airbrushing and the addition of comical backgrounds, many of them distinctly Khmer.

Sangker Photo Studio
74-76 Street 2, South of Psar Nath
T: (053) 690 7003; (053) 952 511
Open daily, 7:00-19:00.

Lunch at White Rose

The White Rose has become something of a lunchtime institution in Battambang, serving up cheap Cambodian grub to tourists and Khmers alike in a restaurant bedecked with plastic vines and fruits. Locals claim that they give menus with higher prices to the tourists, but even if they do, the prices are still low and you'll have a good meal for $2-3. Sit inside to avoid the beggars and be patient, the staff are remarkably apathetic.

The White Rose
On the corner of 2nd street, two blocks south of Psar Nath
T: (012) 964 091

Wine Tasting

Hire a tuk tuk for $10-15 to take you to the countryside outside of Battambang city. Your first stop should be at Prasat Phnom Banan Winery, Cambodia's only winery. Tastings cost $1 and include a red wine that is a mix of cabernet and shiraz, brandy and grape juice. Although you may not be seriously tempted to bring any of of their creations home, it's still worth a visit if only to see the vineyards flanked by palm trees.

Prasat Phnom Banan Winery
Bat Sala Village, outside of Battambang city
T: (012) 665 238. Open daily, 8:00-18:00.

Wat Banan

A smaller more dilapidated version of Angkor Wat located 25km outside of Battambang, Wat Banan is a hilltop temple accessible by 350-odd steps and surrounded by picturesque paddy fields. Many of the carvings have been looted or are housed in the Battambang museum but it's an impressive structure nonetheless, with five carved towers of increasingly dubious stability. Dotted with frangipani plants and brightly-coloured flowers, the temple, which was built in the 11th century, is popular with local teenagers and picnicking Khmer families. Bring a bottle of water for the climb up the stairs. Admission is $2 (if you plan to go to Wat Phnom Sampeau, get a receipt as it's good for admittance there as well).

Bamboo Train

Despite rumours that it would be closed down at the end of 2010, the fabled bamboo railroad is still going strong, although it's now said to be set to be closed at some point in April. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen, but get a ride while you can on the improvised train line where the cars are constructed of axles with recycled wheels and a bamboo frame and powered by a small motor. Traditionally used by locals to move goods on train tracks that were only visited by a train erratically, you're now more likely to see nice German couples taking in the countryside. This doesn't diminish from the pleasure of rushing along the tracks at 15 km that feel like 40. Time it right to take in the sunset and make it back to Battambang by dark. Prices are generally $5 per person — if you're quoted a higher price, firmly negotiate downwards.

Dinner at Riverside Balcony

Popular with local expats, Riverside balcony is a great place to relax and enjoy the evening calm of Battambang. The veranda is adorned with soft lighting and the menu — Western burgers and pizzas — is slightly expensive but very good. It's also a comfortable place to linger over a bottle or two of Angkor on a comfy couch and take in the tropical nighttime atmosphere. Check your change when you leave as some of the staff don't always return the full amount.

Riverside Balcony Bar
Street 1, on the west bank of the river south of town.
T: (012) 437 421; (053) 730 313. Open 16:00-late.

Breakfast at the Battambang Vegetarian Restaurant

Start your Sunday morning off right with the special at Battambang Vegetarian Restaurant. This Chi-mai (Chinese Khmer) eatery serves a variety of vegetarian dishes featuring faux-meats but it's their Sunday morning breakfast that stands out. Curry served with Khmer rice noodles or bread costs just 3,500 riel, less than a dollar. The rice with vegetarian meats for 3,000 riel is also delicious. Wash it down with homemade soy milk, sweetened or not at your request.

Battambang Vegetarian Restaurant
T: (012) 642 234; (012) 501 438
Open daily, 7:00-11:00.

Cooking Class

There are three cooking classes in town, but the oldest and most popular is at the Smokin' Pot restaurant — although all have a similar format and price of $8-10. Spend the morning touring Psar Nat for ingredients and then come back and cook three dishes off the menu. By the time you're done you'll have earned the resulting enormous Khmer lunch. You'll also get a recipe booklet to take home so you can get a taste of Battambang anytime you'd like.

Smokin' Pot
229, Group 8, 20 Ousephea Village, Battambang. (Near Angkor Hotel)
T: 012 821 400. Email: Book at least one day in advance for a class.

Nary Kitchen
650, Group 32, Prekmohatep, Svaypor, Battambang.
T: (012) 763 950.

Ch'Ngainh Ch'Ngainh
Meet at Royal Hotel, Just west of Psar Nath Market
T: (012) 639 350

Where to stay:
Royal Hotel, is the backpacker pitstop in Battambang. Cheap, clean and easy.
Banon Hotel, an excellent mid-range hotel with spotless rooms and lovely staff.
La Villa, a gorgeous French colonial building that was lovingly restored makes for the poshest option in town.

Get there:
Capitol Tours run buses on the hour from Phnom Penh to Battambang for 19,000 riel. The return ticket costs 18,000 riel.